We are all tempted to appropriate Jesus for our political positions. This isn’t new. Occupy protesters carry signs that say “Jesus was a Socialist” while Herman Cain described Jesus as the “perfect conservative”. Squint hard enough and you can make Jesus into anything you want him to be. We’ve had it proven again this week, in an essay that CNN ran on its Belief Blog, written by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. With a title like “Jesus was a free marketer, not an occupier”, you know what you’re getting into when you read the essay. Perkins uses the Parable of the Ten Minas (found in Luke 19) to explain that Jesus supported an unregulated market economy, unlike those dirty hippies occupying Wall Street. Or something like that.
This bothers me tremendously. It’s not that Perkins glomming onto Jesus for his own political ends is unique. As I said, I know it’s not. In fact, I think some of the people who argue the politics of Jesus are using him solely as a prop; they have no personal faith commitment to him at all. But Tony Perkins says he’s a Christian. His bio. page at the FRC website says that “Tony has a tremendous burden to reclaim the culture for Christ and believes that this revival will begin in the churches across America” (That stuff about “burden” and “revival” – it’s Christianese, and it’s code to let all the fellow believers out there know that Tony is on our team).
But if Tony Perkins is a Christian, then I’m all the more disturbed that he would do violence to the gospel to serve his political ends. Listen to some of what he says in his essay:
The primary purpose of the parable, which appears in the Gospel of Luke, was to make clear to his disciples that the kingdom of God would not be physically established on the earth for some time and that, until then, they were being entrusted with certain responsibilities…..
From a spiritual perspective, the mina in this parable represents the opportunity of life; each of us is given the same opportunity to build our lives, and each of us shares the same responsibility to invest our lives for the purpose of bringing a return and leaving a legacy. Jesus gave equal responsibility and opportunity to each of his 10 servants.
The fact that Jesus chose the free market system as the basis for this parable should not be overlooked. When the nobleman returns, after being established as king – a stand-in for Jesus – he calls all his servants together to see what they had accomplished in his absence…..
Jesus rejected collectivism and the mentality that has occupied America for the last few decades: that everyone gets a trophy – equal outcomes for inequitable performance. There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual.
Some would argue that such an approach encourages abuses, the likes of which we have seen on Wall Street. While some egregious abuses have taken place, they are not inevitable or intrinsic to free enterprise.
The parable of the king and the servants endorses the principles of business and the free market when properly employed.
Remember, these servants were not working for themselves, but under the constraints of their lord and for his benefit. Likewise our free market system works when bridled by morality. Not arbitrary morality that changes with political parties, but transcendent moral principles.
Yes, we are to “occupy,” not by railing against a free market system that rewards diligence, even though it is occasionally abused. Rather we are to occupy by using that system ethically as a means to advance the interests of the one we serve.
I encourage you to read the whole post, since I can’t do it justice here. The parable Perkins chose to use is a difficult passage, one of the “stern master” parables of which there are several. I don’t claim that they are easy to understand, but most Christians agree that they are telling us something about the Kingdom of God. They are not instructions on what political or economic system receives Jesus’s seal of approval. To woodenly interpret this parable as endorsing “the principles of business and the free market when properly employed” is to undermine the gospel. The good news of the Kingdom shifts from being liberation, redemption, and reconciliation to…what? That with “due diligence and determination” you can be a winner and not a loser?
If this is Jesus endorsing the free market and rejecting “equal outcomes”, what do we make of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20 – in which, everyone receives the same pay regardless of how many hours they’ve worked? If Jesus is coming down against collectivism, we might ask what he’s doing redistributing loaves and fish. Did that rabble do anything to earn the food he gave them?
My point – and let me be very clear in making it – is not that Perkins has chosen the wrong economic model for Jesus. I’m not joining the fray to say, “You’re wrong – Jesus is not a free marketer, he’s a socialist!” It’s also not to say that our earthy concerns about wealth and poverty and debt and justice and daily bread do not matter to Jesus. I believe they do. But when we take his teachings and reduce them down to nothing but a party line, we diminish the scope of what God is doing in the world. We stop praying, working and looking for the redemption and reconciliation of the world, and instead we huddle over our tiny pile of minas – or demand them from someone else. In either case, we have impoverished ourselves and the message we carry.
“Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus prayed. But he also knew “that man does not live by bread alone,” and that the true bread that gives life had come down from heaven, had been made incarnate (as we remember each Advent season) and was ultimately broken for you and I, and free marketers and socialists, and the whole world.
That’s the gospel. That’s the “treasure” that Jesus left with his servants, and which we are responsible for investing in the world. To take such a breathtaking message and turn it into this – “There are winners and yes, there are losers. And wins and losses are determined by the diligence and determination of the individual” – goes beyond poor biblical scholarship. I’d say it borders on blasphemy.