Was Jesus a Socialist?
Steven D. Bennett
Copyright © 2016 by Steven D. Bennett
In these politicized times, many are eager to enlist the great minds of the past in a séance-like-support of their agenda. This, they hope, will give their ideas a validity they do not naturally have. Since most of the great minds had no dealings with today’s issues, this is usually done by supposition: i.e., “Aristotle would have been enraged by off-shore drilling!” This has no practical application except to shame and silence the opposition. After all, if Aristotle was against offshore drilling, my opinion is worthless. Alas, it is almost impossible to glean what his or any historical figure’s opinion on contemporary issue would be.
Almost impossible. When specifics have been recorded, a more accurate assessment of one’s views are possible.
An argument introduced every election year is that Jesus was a Socialist. The most common group of people who raise this idea are, socialists. They believe the role of government is to control as much of the private lives of citizens as possible. But a deeper attempt at definition is in order to see if socialism has any scriptural support.
Socialism is the idea that the resources of the planet are owned communally and should be distributed equally among the people of the world. This distribution would require a governing group or groups to be in charge of said resources and to discern the priority of need; in essence, who gets what when. A point often overlooked with socialism is production. Socialists want to share in the created wealth, but only after the work in producing that wealth has been done. When the work is done exclusively by socialist workers and methods, redistribution becomes easier as wealth and productivity are greatly reduced.
Socialists are generally atheists, a point not to be overlooked when discussing scripture. Ironically, many atheists claim their ‘Objectivity of Unbelief’ gives them a more enlightened and discerning view of scripture. This is tantamount to the auto mechanic who doesn’t believe in the manual or that car manufacturers exist. Yet they do not see this contradiction as an impediment to their biblical expertise. In that light, we will see if socialism has more biblical backing as atheism, which has none. And as the subject is Jesus as Socialist, we will stick to the New Testament.
Socialists, when convenient, like to portray Jesus as one of them: a man of great compassion who fed the poor and healed the sick. In this way he was demonstrating not only that he was a socialist, but that we should follow his example and also provide free food and healthcare to everyone. Are they correct?
Free Food and Healthcare
Jesus healed the sick many times, too numerous to list here. Yet the atheist experts who claim Jesus did this because of socialistic tendencies inexplicably miss the bigger picture: that people were being healed! No one else was healing the sick. How was Jesus able to accomplish this?
As the crowds grew larger the Pharisees, the Jewish religious leaders (and actual scriptural experts), grew angrier, because as more people followed Jesus they realized they could lose their religious and political influence. (Interesting how the two groups, today’s socialists and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, focus so much on their political agenda they are blind to what God was doing.)
The sick had no agenda but health and did not question how Jesus was healing them. They would follow anyone who did. (People today are little different, as many will follow, and support, anyone who promises they will.) None of these groups questioned how Jesus did it, or why.
The bible says he had great compassion on them, but it went further. He stated his mission in Luke 4:18 when, at the synagogue, he opened to Isaiah 61 and read the prophecy of the coming Messiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind.
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
His healing of the sick was proof that he was the Messiah, and as such that he had dominion over all sickness.
Twice did Jesus feed huge groups of people (not all of whom were poor, merely present); the five thousand in Matthew 14:13-21, and the four thousand in Matthew 15:32-39. Knowing the people were hungry, the disciples asked Jesus to send them away to get food from the surrounding towns. Jesus tells the disciples to feed them. But all they found was a boy who had five barley loaves and two small fish. He sat the crowd down in small groups, prayed, broke the bread into pieces and gave them to the disciples to disperse. Immediately both fish and bread multiplied and it says all had eaten until they were full, and there were 12 baskets leftover at the feeding of the five thousand, seven at the feeding of the four thousand.
The socialist proclaims this is socialism at its finest; Jesus feeding the poor freely. Again, the bigger picture is missed: the miracle of the multiplication of food. Jesus was showing them that it was God who was the provider, and to look to Him for their provision.
In Matthew 6:25-38 Jesus teaches the people how God will care for them. In verse 26 he says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap, nor gather in barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them.” And in verse 28: “So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the fields, which today is and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?”
Again, it is God who will provide their food and clothing, and he does it from his provision, not taking it from others. Nowhere did Jesus instruct the people to look to the government for help. Neither did He “take” a meeting with Pontius Pilate to outline a new government program for providing free food and healthcare, to be paid with higher taxes. He tapped into something much greater than government, if such blasphemy can be uttered. He used the Power of God.
Some argue that He was demonstrating socialism by taking the fish and loaves from the small boy and redistributing it to people who had none. They miss three points, the first very condemning. In saying Jesus took the bread and fish, they make the unwitting admission that stealing is at the core of socialism. The second point they miss is that Jesus was without sin, and stealing is a sin, therefore the boy must have given them the bread and fish willingly. The third point is that God never requires we give unwillingly. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or out of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Jesus was showing them that God would multiply the smallest of offerings. All that was required was faith, not thievery.
Socialism in Scripture
But are there examples of socialism in the New Testament? Indeed.
The story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume in Matthew 26:6-13 and John 12:5 is a perfect illustration. John’s gospel tells us it was Mary, sister of Martha and the recently resurrected Lazarus, who broke open a bottle of alabaster filled with very expensive perfume. She anointed Jesus’ head and feet. Judas, watching, said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” as it was worth a year’s wages. John tells us Judas said that, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was in charge of the money and would help himself to it. Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Leave her alone. She has kept it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me with you.”
So we see Judas pretending to care about the poor, yet helping himself to the money set aside for them. In his greed he felt so entitled to Mary’s property he thought he should be able to tell her what to do with it.
Jesus says the exact opposite. Instead of rebuking her for “wasting” it, he commends her, saying that “wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, this story will be told as a memorial to her.” And the statement he makes about the poor is very revealing. The poor will always be with us. No matter how much money you give them or take from others for government programs, they will always exist; as a result of natural consequences, bad choices and bad governments.
Subsequently, there will always be people who pretend to care about the poor. They promise to take the money from the rich and give it to them, in essence “buying” their loyalty, while taking most of the money for themselves and giving the poor the leftover crumbs.
Using this example, it seems clear Jesus was not a socialist. Judas was.
But, the socialist will insist, shouldn’t we take the money from the rich and give to the poor? Not if we remember that God wants us to give freely. That taken by force is not blessed. Taxes were to be paid, as it says in Matthew 22:21, the only blessing being following the law of the established government. Saying, “Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s,” Jesus makes the clear distinction. Caesar wants the tax money. Give it to him. God wants your heart. Give that to Him. But they are not the same; indeed, they are the difference between the flesh and the spirit.
An example of this contrast is in Matthew 19:16 and the rich young ruler. He has followed the law to the fullest but still asks how he may acquire the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds. “Give all you have to the poor and follow me.” The man goes away saddened because he had great wealth and was not willing to do so.
To the socialist, this makes the point. The rich should sell all their possessions and the money should be redistributed and given to the poor. But should they? Did Jesus say what he did as an example all should follow? Or was he seeing the man’s heart and recognizing what obstacle (god) was keeping him from God?
The answer can be found in two ways. One, in the simple realization that there is not a scripture to support the first argument. Quite the opposite. The aforementioned story of the perfume is a good example. If the rich young ruler was following the law to the letter, as he said he was and Jesus said nothing to contradict that, then we have to assume he was tithing; giving ten percent of his income to the church, as well as paying taxes. So it was not in his charitable or lawful giving that was the issue. In that respect, it is interesting that he asked Jesus the question at all. Following the law would give one access to the kingdom of God. But he sensed that even while being “perfect” under the law, he was lacking something. Jesus saw right away that money had replaced God in his heart, and to get right with God he needed to remove that obstacle. He left very saddened, for he had great wealth and was not willing to give it up. Jesus then remarks how difficult it is for the rich to enter heaven, as it easily becomes a man’s sole focus and “god.”
This is further proof, says the socialist, and another reason Christians should welcome the wealth of the rich being taken and redistributed.
(Note: When a socialist is supposedly looking out for the church, take caution. There has never been a nation that became more Christian after becoming socialist. Quite the opposite. Socialist nations are always atheistic and secular.)
Property and Money
Let’s use one last example of property ownership, money, and how money is viewed in the New Testament.
After the Holy Spirit had come upon the disciples in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, the church began to flourish, with new converts added daily. In Acts 4:32 it says that “they were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” In verse 34: “Nor was there anyone among them who lacked, for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles feet, and they distributed to each as anyone had need.”
To the socialist, that ends the argument. The early church set the example of Christian socialism, the greed of men corrupted the purity of it through the years. But the proof is there, in scripture, that the early church lived communally, owning nothing, sharing all.
And if we stop there, we might have to agree. Alas, the scriptures continue.
In Acts 5 we find a married couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who see another side of giving. They see it as a way to gain influence, prestige and notoriety. They have some land they can sell, but they decide beforehand they will keep some of the money, yet still present the gift as the full amount they received. They will be praised for their generosity and none will be the wiser. So they sell the land and Ananias presents the money to the apostles, laying it at their feet. Peter, through the Holy Spirit, knows he is lying about the amount, proclaims as much, and Ananias dies on the spot.
About three hours later Sapphira enters, ignorant as to the events, and is asked by Peter, “Is this the price you got for the land?” “Yes, it is,” she says. Peter responds, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out, as well!” And she falls dead, and a great fear went through the church.
The Socialist and/or collectivist will say, Aha! That proves you should give all your money to the poor! (Reading the scripture literally would lead them to conclude they should give all their money to the church, but the line of agenda has to be drawn somewhere.) And at this juncture the scripture does seem to prove both views; that we should live in communes and share our belongings. That is how God wanted it, and is angry when not followed.
But there are two things we have left out, and they are important for they disprove both points of view.
The first is what Peter said to Ananias when he presented the money to the church.
“Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
This is devastating to the socialist, for it shows clearly that Ananias and Sapphira were not killed for withholding the money. The land belonged to them before it was sold and the money belonged to them after it was sold. No one else. They could do with it whatever they wished. It was lying to the Holy Spirit that caused their deaths.
So alongside Ananias and Sapphira, socialism is also laid to rest, once and for all, as a biblical principle. But what about communal living? That’s how the early church lived. Should we not follow the example?
We should note that nowhere in scripture is this idea given as a command. There are no teachings from Jesus or in any epistle stating that communal living is what the church should adopt.
This lack of evidence gives one to conclude that simply because it is recorded in the bible, that’s how it should be. The beginning of Acts 6 seems to solidify their opinion. Many miracles are being performed, the church is thriving, the gospel is preached. God seems to be blessing their communal living.
But if that’s the case, that God is blessing their communal lifestyle, the proof being church growth and overall blessing, then how is the coming persecution explained?
By Acts 8, after the dead of Stephen, Saul (soon to be Paul) is bringing great persecution on the church, and the disciples are scattered through Judea and Samaria. So we have a problem. If living communally was God’s intention for the church, why did He then allow persecution to scatter the church? Must we now conclude that God was so angered by the church living communally He brought persecution to stop it?
No. He brought persecution to scatter the church so the gospel would be preached. Communal living was stifling ultimate growth, which would consist on moving out into the world. As with the Tower of Babel, when people are comfortable they see no reason to move. When they are made uncomfortable they are forced to do so.
The Worker’s Wage
One last example that the socialist will use to push the agenda is in using the parable of the workers wages in Matthew 20. In it, the owner of a vineyard goes out to hire laborers for the day. He finds some at (for our purposes) 6am, some at 9am, some at noon, some at 3pm, some at 6pm. To each he says he will pay a denarius for their days’ work. Come 7pm and time to pay the workers, those hired earlier believe they will receive more as they worked more hours. But to their surprise, even the men who only worked for an hour receive the same as those who work for 12. Those who worked longer complain to the owner about the unfairness. He responds by reminding them they agreed to work for a denarius, and that is what he will pay.
There is it again, says the socialist. The bible promoting socialism, in that all workers should be paid the same as all are equal. And again, they miss two points.
The first negates the whole premise of their argument. Instead of supporting the idea that all workers should be paid the same wage, the story actually supports the idea that the employer can decide what is fair and what isn’t. If we are to take this as an argument in terms of hourly wage, using $100 instead of a denarius, then the workers, beginning with the last hired, earned this:
$100/hr., $33.33/hr., $16.66/hr., $11.11/hr., $8.33/hr.
Seemingly unfair, but supported by scripture. How can this be?
Because the story is not about money. The first seven words state as much. “For the kingdom of heaven is like…”
This story is about salvation, and those who will enter into the kingdom of heaven. Some are “hired” or saved at an early age, and they will receive the same as those saved later in life. There is no hierarchy in heaven. All are equal when they are saved. They receive the same reward for God determines what that reward is. So what is the advantage of being saved at a young age? Why not—as many unbelievers have suggested—sin your whole life and then repent on your deathbed?
First, no one knows when they will die. Eternity can begin at any moment. But a better reason can be found in the parable of the prodigal.
Perhaps the best known parable, found in Luke 11, it is the story of two brothers. One wants to see the world and demands his inheritance, which is given him. As his father is seemingly wealthy it is a substantial sum, but in a short time he squanders it and has to take a job feeding pigs on a farm to survive. Coming to his senses, he reasons that his father’s hired servants are better off than he, and he heads for home determined to apologize to his father and beg for a job as his servant.
His father sees him coming and rejoices. He brings the son a robe and a ring, both symbols of acceptance, and prepares a great feast to celebrate his return. His brother, working in the field, learns of this and is incensed. He goes to his father and says, “These many years I have served you. I have never transgressed your commandment at any time. Yet you never gave me a young goat that I may make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
The father answers the son, “Son, you are always with me, and all I have is yours. It is right to make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and is found.”
The son’s reward was being with his father his whole life and enjoying all the benefits that came with it. He didn’t experience the “joy” of harlots, neither did he suffer from homelessness or starvation, or lasting diseases that might have come with the harlots. His reward was experienced every day of his life. So it is with the person who accepts Jesus at a young age. They have access to all God promises throughout their life, and never have to worry about eternity, provision, or the repercussions of sin.
In every election year political groups are eager to enlist the Great Minds of the past into their agenda in the hopes of giving their ideas an added validity, or perhaps a validity they did not normally have. They do this at great risk, for as they seek out the Great Minds of the past for support, they also find the infamous and nefarious among their midst. One common argument is that Jesus was a Socialist. But was he? In this article, we will ignore supposition and examine his words and the scriptures to find the answer. The truth may surprise you.