Of the thirty-one parables in the Synoptic Gospels, over half reflect directly on economic inequality.
The matter of economics is a crucial topic in our exploration of religion and justice: Of the 31 parables in the Synoptic Gospels, more than half (19) reflect directly on class, inequality, worker pay, indebted-ness, the misuse of wealth, and the distribution of wealth.
Differentials between the rich and the poor are still growing today, despite continued hopes that a rising tide would eventually lift all boats. In the United States today, 43 percent of all children live below or near the poverty line, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, and many of them are what the government calls “food insecure,” which means that they sometimes go to bed hungry.
If the divine judgment is tied to how the rest of us do or do not relate to the least of these, as Jesus says in Matthew 25:40 and 25:45, we are not dealing merely with a social problem here but with a deeply theological and spiritual issue.
The tensions between the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar get under our skin when they include not only politics, but also economics.
While there is concern that religion and politics have entered into relationships that are too close, we should be even more concerned about the relation between religion and economics.
Fortunately, many Americans still have a fairly healthy suspicion of politics, yet maintain a relatively low level of suspicion when it comes to economics. As much as we question political structures, we also tend to go softer on economic ones.
So what can Jesus’ model of concern for the poor teach us in advocating for economic justice today? Here are three questions to consider:
1. How are poor people related to the rest of the community and to society?
Reflecting on relationships is a first step: poor people do not exist in isolation from the wealthy—although this is often assumed, leading people to blame the poor for their misfortune.
In Jesus’s time, these connections were more openly visible: in the wider Roman Empire, wealth was derived from the collection of taxes and interest from the population, which was often pushed into poverty by this very system. Even today, poverty still tends to be produced in relation to wealth: debt continues to be a problem, but exorbitant taxes have been replaced by low wages and income.
When we talk about poverty, therefore, we also need to talk about wealth—talk about poverty without talking about wealth is profoundly misleading. In this sense, it would be better to talk about impoverished people rather than poor people.
2. How did the early church support and advocate for economic justice?
Wealth in Jesus’s time was also derived from the patronage system, which established relationships between the wealthiest and the rest of society. Caesar was at the top of this patronage system, embodying both supreme power and supreme wealth. Jesus, as we will see, did not have the luxury of operating outside of this system: he had to establish his own stand within it and against it, and move from there.
Today, although there is no officially sanctioned patronage system, networks of patronage continue to exist. Campaign funding and the practice of lobbying are examples of how patronage functions in politics—even if these are only the tips of the iceberg—and the business community has its own networks and associated perks. What is less openly discussed is that many well-to-do churches and religious communities function in the same way. Like Jesus, pastors and churches do not have the luxury of operating outside of this system. Where do we take our stand and how will we move?
3. What does it say that many Christians can imagine the end of the world but not the end of capitalism?
in the United States, there is the stated principle of the separation of church and state, there is no comparable principle of the separation of church and economy. As a result, dominant religion and dominant economics are entangled even more than dominant religion and dominant politics.
Not surprisingly, American Christianity has become one of the pillars of neoliberal capitalism where power is increasingly in the hands of the few, which has been promoted in the United States since the 1980s. The good news is that, despite these entanglements, many faith communities share concerns for poverty and the poor, embodying a core concern of Jesus.
Adapted from Jesus vs. Caesar, by Joerg Rieger. Copyright © 2018 by Abingdon Press