Money (Part 3)
A warning from the past
We come into the world naked and with nothing. We leave this world naked and with nothing. In between we are taught to regard money as essential to life itself.
Isn’t it though? How could our society, our civilisation, our people survive without it? Money may be an illusion, but surely it is an essential illusion?
Jesus Christ did not believe that money is essential, far from it. At least that is how he comes across in the gospel accounts of his life and teachings. I have commented before on the limitations of these accounts as historical sources. Such evidence as there is indicates that none of the writers actually knew Jesus personally. But even if they had been close confidantes of his, biblical scholars agree that the purpose of the gospels “was primarily didactic, not historical”.1 This is problematic, but there is potential bias and distortion in many sources used by historians.
For example, few if any medieval heretics or early modern witches left authentic records of their beliefs and activities. So a researcher who wants to understand these matters has to rely primarily on the evidence left behind by their enemies in the church or the civil authorities. These could be legal transcripts written by court officials. As such they are unlikely to contain objective information about the defendants.
Nevertheless, out of such incomplete or biased sources historians manage to reconstruct the past for the modern reader. They do this by applying sound judgment, common sense, and even imagination, to argue for their interpretation of what happened. Analysing the gospels is no different. With all their limitations, they are the only source of information about Jesus. By approaching them with an open mind, not constrained by prejudice or religious dogma, I believe it is possible to learn what Jesus thought about our relationship with money.
Many of Jesus’ teachings, and even some of his actions, suggest that he wanted to break (or at least loosen) the grip money has over our lives. This was not just a minor aspect of his main mission, which the gospels say was to “save his people from their sins”; I am convinced it was central to that mission.2 St. Paul reflected this when he wrote in one of his letters that “The love of money is the root of all evil”.3 There is abundant evidence in the gospels that Jesus never lost an opportunity to express his antipathy towards our “love of money”, especially when it encroached on our relationship with God.
Although Jesus mostly expressed himself through words, occasionally he resorted to direct action in order to convey the strength of his feelings. Perhaps the best-known example is the incident in which he physically drove the money-changers from the temple in Jerusalem. This event is one of the few recorded in all four gospels so it must have made a great impression on those who witnessed it. What seems to have especially angered Jesus was the sight of bankers and hawkers carrying out their financial transactions inside such a sacred place.4
As I said, that moment of outrage was not typical. Jesus preferred to persuade and enlighten through the parables he told his followers or the exchanges he had with people he met along the way. Another example illustrates this.
Shortly after the fracas in the temple Jesus was asked by some city officials whether or not he supported the taxes imposed by Rome. Instead of responding with a political statement as his interlocutors expected, Jesus took the opportunity to make a point about money itself. Taking in his hand a coin bearing the likeness of the emperor, Jesus said,
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.5
As I described here, the Roman emperor was a disposable servant of “the ruler of this world”, Satan. This self-appointed overlord had already tried and failed to tempt Jesus into a subordinate position to himself. Had he accepted, Jesus might have ended up as a superior to Tiberius, but he would still have been Satan’s lackey. That was probably on Jesus’ mind when he considered the question about taxes.
So in his reply, I do not believe that Jesus was commenting on the legitimacy of the Roman occupation of Palestine. Nor do I think he was defining for evermore the separation of powers between church and state. Whether or not his fellow countrymen should pay their taxes to Rome did not concern Jesus either.
I believe he was using the example of a Roman coin to point out a more fundamental truth to his listeners. Money was a symbol of Satan’s hold over their lives. If they were prepared to place their trust in money, then of course they, and it, belonged to the authority behind it, in this case the Roman empire. However by returning the coin to the emperor whose image it bore, the people would be free of the illusion it represented and could give their attention to “the things that are God’s”, i.e. everything! In short, by rejecting money they would be rejecting “the ruler of this world”.
It is fair to say that Jesus tolerated the use of money as long as it did not lure its owner away from God. But he would have preferred if everyone could do without it completely. When he met one wealthy man who genuinely wanted to serve God, Jesus suggested that he “sell what you possess and give to the poor”. But this was a step too far for the man and we are told that “he went away sorrowful”. This encounter prompted Jesus to declare to his disciples that
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.6
Yet Jesus would have welcomed that rich man into his company, even if he held on to his money. After all one of his disciples was another rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, who provided his own tomb to house Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.7 Jesus did not reject the rich, but maybe it was difficult for some to stay too long in his presence.
Jesus could rightly proclaim that Satan had no power over him. That was in part because he, Jesus, was not in love with money. He was well-educated and probably came from a reasonably affluent background, but I can find no evidence that Jesus himself was ever anxious or concerned about his own daily needs. Yet he knew enough about money to include financial details in his parables, details that he must have hoped would resonate with his audience. There are several examples, but perhaps the best-known is the Parable of the Pounds (or Mina).8
The story concerns a nobleman or lord who allocated a pound each (about 3 months’ wages for a labourer) to ten of his servants just before he departed to “a far country to receive kingly power”. He told the servants that he wanted them to trade the money while he was abroad. On his return he found that, while two servants had multiplied his investment several times over, one had kept it in a napkin and therefore could not even offer his master the interest the money would have gained in a bank account. The nobleman was furious and ordered that the pound be handed over to the servant who had achieved the best return. There is a sub-plot to this parable involving the nobleman’s tenants, whom he has killed because they expressed great dissatisfaction with his stewardship.
On the face of it, this story represents everything Jesus opposed. The nobleman was not only a servant of his nemesis, “the ruler of this world”, he was also advancing further up that ruler’s chain of command. Secondly the protagonist was encouraging his staff to play the market in order to increase their wealth. Finally he slaughtered his unfortunate vassals when they dared to oppose his tyranny.
Jesus’ parables were his favourite way of presenting a moral viewpoint in a form intelligible to his audience.9 The Parable of the Pounds is commonly understood to be a lesson from Jesus about the need for those seeking the kingdom of God not to be afraid to take risks.10 But assuming that the parable is not a spurious addition made later by some unknown editor, surely there is a much more likely interpretation?
Jesus was well aware of the human weaknesses and failings of his listeners. He wanted to free them from their enslavement to evil but, like a good physician, he could help only those who accepted his diagnosis. And that diagnosis was sometimes stark, presumably shocking to those who heard it.
You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.11
Could there be a more accurate representation of the nobleman in Jesus’ parable? What if, instead of giving his listeners a lesson in divine risk-taking, Jesus was actually warning them of the dangers of running down the devil’s money trail? If they continued they would find themselves at the mercy of a pitiless despot who would think nothing of chewing them up and spitting them out. It would not be God’s punishment that destroyed them, but the devil’s vengeance directed against those who displeased him.
Had he lived longer Jesus might have shown his followers how to wean themselves off their addiction to money. But he was killed at the age of 33 and so we are left with an incomplete picture. It is clear that Jesus believed we should give up our dependence on money and turn to God instead. But how?
Two thousand years after Jesus’ death we are much deeper in the money trap than those first-century Palestinians. All around us are signs that “the ruler of this world” is bent on tightening his hold over humanity, using money as one of his chief weapons, whether in the form of bribes to ensure compliance with his decrees, or financial penalties to banish dissent.
So how do we get off the treadmill before it’s too late?
Giza Vermes, The authentic gospel of Jesus (London 2004), pp. x-xiii.
1 Timothy, 6:9-10. (My emphasis)
Peter Calvocoressi, Who’s who in the Bible (2nd ed., London 1990), pp. 105-7.
Vermes, The authentic gospel, p. 139.