“Jesus Christ regarded money as ‘filthy lucre’ and the root of all evil!” pronounced a student at one of my campus lectures a few months ago. That’s not an uncommon view but it’s also manifestly erroneous—completely and utterly false.
The student was responding to my lecture titled “Was Jesus a Socialist?”, based on a short essay I wrote in 2015.
The book examines a larger question of which money-related issues are a small part. Daniel Hannan of Great Britain wrote a terrific foreword. Editor/publisher Steve Forbes calls it “a learned and well-argued masterpiece.” Historian Burton Folsom says, “Thanks to this book, progressives will never again be able to claim with any credibility that Jesus would stoop to be a socialist.”
I hope you’ll order a copy for yourself and one for your pastor or priest or other interested party because, on this important topic, there’s nothing on the market as convincing and comprehensive. (Thanks to readers for indulging my advertising).
Money in Jesus’s day and what he said about it are interesting subjects, worthy of attention regardless of one’s faith, denomination or lack of either. Let’s take a look.
Jesus himself never used the phrase, “filthy lucre.” It appears only four times in the entire Bible. In each case, it’s employed by someone else and always in reference to theft or dishonesty, as in “loot” or “ill-gotten gain.”
Theft and dishonesty are targeted for unqualified condemnation throughout both Old and New Testaments, and from numerous prophets and sages. For example: “Don’t take money from anyone by force or accuse anyone falsely,” advised John the Baptist when questioned by a group of soldiers (in Luke 3:14). In Proverbs 11:1, we are told that “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord but a just weight is his delight.”
Jesus never suggested, even remotely, that money per se was an evil. He praised the earning of it through productive work and investment, as in the famous Parable of the Talents. He advised careful stewardship of it in business, as in Luke 14:28-30. He encouraged the private, voluntary giving of it to worthy purposes and charities, as in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He praised those who supported ministries, missions and the temple by their tithes and offerings, as in the story of the widow’s mites in Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4.
On many occasions, he urged people to help each other—including by way of donating money—to meet legitimate needs and improve conditions. You and I have done the same, perhaps on a daily basis at work or at home. Encouraging someone to help a person is one thing but compelling someone to give to help someone is quite another. Jesus called for personal, individual and free will-based generosity, not coercive, state-run redistribution programs.
Why do so many people think that because Jesus endorsed charitable giving, he would also embrace a compulsory welfare state? There’s a world of difference between the two. If I recommend that you read a book, would you assume I would support the state forcing you to read it? When your mother told you to eat your broccoli, did you think she was endorsing a federal Department of Vegetables?
More than once, Jesus cautioned against letting one’s character succumb to the harmful temptations and excesses that often accompany money. Similarly, he favored eating but not gluttony, sleep but not sloth, fasting but not starving, drinking but not inebriation.
And Paul, Jesus’s most famous and prolific apostle of the 1st Century, warned against the love of money but not money itself. In fact, to argue that a medium of exchange is somehow inherently evil would be one of the dumbest things for anybody to claim. Any economist will tell you that money—especially honest money that isn’t adulterated by fiat, fraud or false weights—facilitates a level of trade and standards of living that neither a primitive barter system nor a state-run allocation scheme could ever hope to produce. Biblical censure of dishonest money issued by inflating governments is at least as old as Isaiah’s excoriation of the Israelites, “Thy silver has become dross, thy wine mixed with water.”
Paper money made its first appearance a thousand years after Jesus’s time. Money in his day consisted exclusively of metallic coin. Judea being a Roman province when Jesus lived, its money was officially that of the regime of imperial Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who ruled from 30 BC to 14 AD and that of his successor Tiberius, in power from 14 AD to 37 AD They issued a gold aureus and a silver denarius in a bimetallic regime whereby 1 aureus was equal to 25 denarii. When Jesus asked the Pharisees whose image was on the denarius (Mark 12:15), the reply was “Caesar’s.” It was probably that of Augustus.
Jerusalem was a center of international commerce at the time, so citizens of the area likely saw coins from many places and composed of other metals as well, giving rise to a thriving business of money changing. Jesus famously drove some of those money changers from the main temple (and never from a bank or a market) because it was not an appropriate activity for such a holy place. Certainly there was no reason to tolerate any disruption of services or harassment of worshippers. Ancient coinage expert David Hendin tells us:
Money changers and animal merchants were ubiquitous around the temple, even in the outer Court of the Gentiles. The money changers and sellers of livestock were forced to operate outside of the temple. Indeed, archaeological excavations along the Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem have revealed a street and a row of small shops that likely housed money changers, sellers of small animals, and souvenir merchants.
Theirs was a good business, especially during the pilgrimage holidays. It’s easy to imagine how money changers and other merchants could become rowdy while competing for business (“Change here! Our commissions are lower!”). This competition must have reached a point of offensiveness when Jesus upended their tables...
Once, a man approached Jesus and asked him to use his power and influence to redistribute the wealth from an inheritance (Luke 12:13-15). The man claimed his brother received more than he should have, so Jesus should see to it that some of his brother’s money be taken away and given to him. Jesus’s response was to rebuke the man for his envy. “Who made me a judge or divider over you?” Jesus asked. Clearly, Jesus didn’t see money as a convenient instrument by which we can rob one to pay another to achieve wealth redistribution.
Frequently misunderstood is this important admonition from Matthew 6:24, repeated in Luke 16:13. Jesus said:
No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.
Some readers interpret these words as a blanket repudiation of money. If the choice is starkly defined as God or money, one or the other and no in-between, then of course a believer should opt for the former. But note the context: Jesus was not talking here about a consumer in a physical marketplace. You wouldn’t get very far if you said to the clerk in a department store, “Instead of cash for that shirt, let me give you a sermon.” When Jesus made this statement, he was speaking to a group of Pharisees, who were notable for their love of money above everything.
The key words are “serve” and “masters.” Jesus was referring to a reverential relationship. What do you worship? Which “master” do you listen to when their directives contradict one another? In other words, prioritize properly. Money has its place in economic life but should never be one’s most important focus. Don’t allow it or its associated temptations to rule you.
Bottom line: Whatever your faith may be (or even if you presently possess none), don’t make claims about Jesus and money that can’t be supported by his words and historical context. He never turned up his nose at the concept of a medium of exchange, or honestly earning it in productive commerce. He never suggested there was some magical limit to the material wealth a person should earn through peaceful trade. He did, however, advise against allowing money to run your life and rule your relationships.