Yesterday, I came across an interesting video of Lawrence O’Donnell claiming that Jesus Christ supported our current tax system, if not a more socialist-style one where the rich pay a significantly higher rate. He was attempting to refute a segment of Rush Limbaugh discussing the use of Jesus as a prop for liberals.
I’m not here to attack Lawrence O’Donnell or defend Rush Limbaugh. On the contrary, I’m much more interested in defending Christ from both the left and the right. Limbaugh’s argument was based around asking the question “What would Jesus take?”
O’Donnell gets one thing right when he answers Limbaugh’s question by saying that Jesus would take “everything.” And while Christ would take “everything,” he requires much more than money. But O’Donnell quickly turns his digital on-screen Bible to the book of Mark, chapter 10. The specific section he refers to is the story of the rich young man who asks Jesus what he must do to have eternal life. Christ replies that the man must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. Saddened, the rich young man turns and walks away, refusing to obey Christ’s command.
One important thing to note concerning this passage is that Christ isn’t demanding that the rich young man sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the federal government. He doesn’t ask the man to put those proceeds on his tax return either. Christ is asking the rich man to separate himself from what is keeping him attached to the present world.
In C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce, he speaks of the dead who willfully fail to enter Heaven because they are clinging to the things they had in their lives on Earth. A painter can’t get over the fact that his art is unnecessary in Heaven. A woman who dearly loves her dead son cannot bear to part with his memory. Jesus often preached of leaving the things of Earth behind in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 8:19-22, a man wants to follow Christ but insists that he must bury his father first. Christ tells him, “follow Me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Christ was speaking of denying self and seeking to follow Him, no matter the cost.
But back to the concept of Jesus in the political realm. O’Donnell also proceeds to take Mark 12:41-44 wildly out of context. He frames the passage by saying that Jesus was an early advocate of a “progressive tax system.” Well, upon examining the passage O’Donnell references, the context is that of a poor widow who gives her two copper coins, which were all she had, to the “treasury.” Christ noted that this widow gave more than any rich person had done because she gave everything she had while the rich gave out of their own abundance.
Now, I think when O’Donnell hastily read this passage and came across the word “treasury,” he concluded that this was the same as the United States Department of the Treasury. But upon further examination, the passage is clearly referring to the practice of making an offering to the Jewish Temple, not to the Roman government. In modern Christian context, this would be similar to a penniless individual giving their entire paycheck to the church, not to Uncle Sam.
So what was Jesus? A socialist? A Marxist? A capitalist? The answer is none of the above. I suppose making Jesus a political leader isn’t all that unusual. After all, many Jews saw the Messiah as being a military or political leader that would them to triumph over the Roman government. But as Christ told Pilate in John 18:36, His “kingdom is not of this world.”
But didn’t Jesus talk about taxes? Yes He did. In Matthew 17:24-27 and 22:15-22, Christ clearly supported paying taxes and did so accordingly. But did he support higher taxes or lower taxes? Tax brackets? Tax cuts? Tax hikes? The Bible leaves such questions unanswered. The bottom line is that Christ believed in paying taxes and thus being a good citizen. Anything beyond that is pure conjecture.
Those who would make Jesus Christ a socialist, communist, or Marxist by using the scriptures find themselves in an ironic predicament. For to conclude that an offering to the temple is the same as paying taxes to a federal government, they would make the receiving entity a theocracy, thus eliminating the separation of church and state.
Now some may conclude that the federal government supplies aid to those who are sick and poor. But the New Testament never insinuates that the government is a valid intermediary for charity. Instead, Acts 22:44-45 speaks of the church redistributing wealth. Furthermore, this wealth had been voluntarily given to the church. None of this sounds anything like paying higher taxes to the federal government for the purpose of charity.
However, this doesn’t necessarily validate capitalism from a biblical perspective either. What the Bible does do is place the responsibility on the individual Christian to be charitable and considerate of the sick and poor. Passing the buck to the federal government seems a stark contrast to the biblical concept of each Christian loving and serving those around them.
To make Christ a political football is to demean the Man and His purpose. Matters of civil government were relatively trivial in comparison to His mission to save the world from its sin. Inserting Him into a political context is shameful for any side, left or right.