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I’m not accustomed to writing about religious matters, but I must say that I’ve never been persuaded that Jesus himself approved or advocated for socialism and state-enforced redistribution of wealth. Instead, I believe that Jesus would have endorsed the message above: charity inheres to individuals, and it lives in their hearts. It is not a concern that individuals can ever satisfy by promoting public tax and transfer policies, pressing claims on the resources of others.

This week, an essay on this topic caught my eye. It appeared in Lawrence Reed’s “Cliches of Progressivism“, at the Foundation for Economic Education: “#42 – ‘Jesus Was a Progressive Because He Advocated Income Redistribution  to Help the Poor’“. It covers a number of Biblical scriptures sometimes quoted in support of this notion, and Reed’s considered refutation of each. I provide just a few of Reed’s examples below, but read the whole thing, as they say:

Make my brother share the wealth“:

In Luke 12: 13-15, Christ is confronted with a redistribution request. A man with a grievance approaches him and demands, ‘Master, speak to my brother and make him divide the inheritance with me.’ The Son of God, the same man who wrought miraculous healings and calmed the waves, replies thusly: ‘Man, who made me a judge or divider over you? Take heed and beware of covetousness, for a man’s wealth does not consist of the material abundance he possesses.’ Wow! He could have equalized the wealth between two men with a wave of His hand but he chose to denounce envy instead.

Sell all your goods and share“:

What about the reference, in the Book of Acts, to the early Christians selling their worldly goods and sharing communally in the proceeds? … In his contributing chapter to the 2014 book, ‘For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty,’ Art Lindsley of the Institute for Faith, Work and Economics writes,

‘Again, in this passage from Acts, there is no mention of the state at all. These early believers contributed their goods freely, without coercion, voluntarily. Elsewhere in Scripture we see that Christians are even instructed to give in just this manner, freely, for “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). There is plenty of indication that private property rights were still in effect….’

Render Unto Caesar…“:

‘Wait a minute,’ you say. ‘Didn’t He answer, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s’ when the Pharisees tried to trick Him into denouncing a Roman-imposed tax?” … It’s found first in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22, verses 15-22 and later in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 12, verses 13-17. But notice that everything depends on just what did truly belong to Caesar and what didn’t, which is actually a rather powerful endorsement of property rights. Christ said nothing like ‘It belongs to Caesar if Caesar simply says it does, no matter how much he wants, how he gets it, or how he chooses to spend it.’

The fact is, one can scour the Scriptures with a fine-tooth comb and find nary a word from Christ that endorses the forcible redistribution of wealth by political authorities. None, period.

While I generally agree with Reed’s analysis of this last point, I believe he missed the real message regarding any legitimate claims Caesar might have possessed. It is a statement about the value of material goods relative to faith and acts in the name of God. Obviously, as Reed says, it is not an endorsement of a power to tax and transfer.

The teachings of charity in the Bible have to do with the goodness of voluntary, self-motivated generosity. There are no lessons advocating compulsory taxes and transfer payments. If you say that Jesus would have supported such programs as deeds of a caring society, I would question your logic on several grounds. First, there are always political motives at play in crafting such policies, which usually include vote-buying and scapegoating. In that respect, those policies fall short of the standard for “good works”. Second, as already noted, the power to tax is backed by the police power of government, not quite the sort of “giving” about which Jesus preached. And, by extracting resources from those in a position to give unto others, tax and transfer policies reduce the capacity for private generosity. Granted, a charitable tax deduction might establish an incentive strong enough to encourage a level of continued giving. But then, the “noble” social deed becomes the hostage of tax policy, administrative definitions, rulings relative to recipient organizations, and the whims of self-interested politicians. A presumption is that individuals will not perform good works in sufficient amounts. Therefore, the state must step in, along with an army of bureaucrats and lobbyists who can be counted upon to feed off the taxpayers’ largess. The individual acts of charity encouraged in Jesus’s teachings could hardly be subject to greater convolution.