Reza Aslan is a self-described biblical expert and the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Liberal theologians love his exegesis in the same way that liberal economists love Thomas Piketty’s 700-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century—written in honor of Karl Marx’s Das Capital. These books are rarely read. They are mostly used as rhetorical props or ideological clubs substituting for sound argumentation. All a critic has to do is say, “Well, Thomas Piketty destroyed the very idea of capitalism in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”
The skeptic then asks, “Have you read it and do you understand it?”
To which the smug critic says, “I don’t have to read and understand it. Piketty is an ‘expert.’”
The same is true with Reza Aslan and his book about Jesus.
In his speech at the 2014 Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, Aslan said that Jesus advocated an “absolute reversal of the social order, in which those on the top and those on the bottom will switch places,” using Luke 6:20-26 (see 1:53) for support. It’s most likely that Jesus is describing Israel’s religious and political oppressors.
Dr. Gary North writes in Treasure and Dominion, his economic commentary on the Gospel of Luke:
Where covenant-breakers are in authority, this kind of persecution can and does exist, but rulers are not always equally self-conscious and consistent in their opposition to Christ’s kingdom. This prophecy applied to the period prior to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Jesus comforted the poor with a promise of better times to come, and He warned the rich of bad times to come. As in the case of the persecutions, the assumption here is that the political hierarchy is run by covenant-breakers.
Jesus spoke to oppressed people. Rome’s political rule was oppressive, and so was the rule of Israel’s religious leaders. Jesus warned, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:2-4).
The political system rewarded corruption. So, those who were rich would soon face negative sanctions if they had achieved their success by milking the political system. Jesus assumed that, in general, this is how they had achieved their success. In His day, the political system that established the terms of trade was oppressive. But the end of the Old Covenant order was at hand. Those who had prospered from it would find themselves in dire straits.
People like Aslan misread the Bible in ways similar to the people they criticize. Their interpretive conclusions are equally unsound and can lead to disastrous results. “The setting,” North points out, “was political tyranny. This is not a universal standard of private ownership. If it were, this economic principle would subsidize thieves. It is a command for dealing with people who possess political power.”
In a video of his speech, Reza Aslan looks rich compared to the poor he says we should be switching places with. How much does he think the microphone he’s wearing cost and the sound system it goes with and the electrical power grid that makes it possible, and the building where he’s speaking, and the air conditioning, etc? Did he walk to Vancouver? Did he spend the night in a hut? Did he have to hunt for his food? How much did he get paid for his talk? How much did he make on his Zealot book? Did he give all the profit to the poor?
If Jesus hated the rich so much, why didn’t he condemn Joseph of Arimathea who Matthew describes as a “rich Man” (Matt. 27:57; Isa. 53:9)? Why did God enrich Abraham (Gen. 13:2) and Job (Job 42:12)?
A cure for Ebola and other diseases does not come from poor countries. It comes from countries with means.
Aslan’s superficial reading of the New Testament is a way for him to critique the prosperity gospel message. This can be done without rewriting the entire Bible and descending into theological stupidity.
Jesus said that He did not come to “abolish the law and the prophets” (Matt. 5:17). One of those laws is “You shall not steal” (Ex. 20:15), even if a majority of people vote for stealing. Socialism is the transfer of wealth from some people to other people by force. Neither Jesus in particular nor the Bible generally advocates for such a system.
Gleaning in the Old Testament was a way to help the poor. Even the poorest members of society had to work (Lev. 19:9-10; 23:22; Deut. 24:20-22). Jesus and his disciples practiced a form of gleaning as they walked through grain fields breaking off heads of wheat to eat (Mark 2:23). Gleaning was hard work, and it was not a government program. If people of means didn’t own fields for gleaning, there wouldn’t be any gleaning
It’s true that Jesus did say that we should care for “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). Who are the “these”? The context makes it clear that Jesus’ scope is limited to “these brothers of Mine.” As we’ll see, Jesus expands on those we are to help.
Note that there is no mention of government programs, legislation, or mandates. The directive is aimed at individuals, not faceless and nameless bureaucrats. Certainly Rome had the power to tax (Luke 2:1; Matt. 22:15–22), and yet Jesus never petitions the Empire to force people to pay their “fair share” in the development of a welfare State. Jesus believed in limited government.
The Good Samaritan is an example of how aid should be handled. The Samaritan took care of the “half dead” man out of his own pocket. He “bandaged up his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them; and he put him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn. . . .” And “the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper and said, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I return I will repay you’” (Luke 10:30–37).
Even the story of the Rich Young Ruler is not about socialism and the poor and rich switching places (Mark 10:17–27). Jesus didn’t use the example of the rich man strangled by his wealth to appeal to Rome to tax the rich so the poor could benefit. If this “switch” were ever to take place, what then?
Appeal cannot be made to Acts 2:44–45 and 4:32–37. These early Christians voluntarily sold their property and used the proceeds to help those in need. Neither the Empire nor the Church had any coercive role in the sale of the property.
John R. Richardson writes:
No one was forced into giving up his goods and possessions. It was not socialism legislated either by church or state. It does not resemble modern communism in any respect. . . . Ananais was free to keep or sell his property. When he sold it, he had the right to determine whether he would give all of it, or part of it, or none of it, into the treasury of the church for the alleviation of the needs of poor Christians. J. W. Lipscomb is certainly correct when he says, ‘The program was a voluntary expression of Christian concern for the needs of fellow Christians, and was not a program for compulsory collectivism such as we hear advocated all too often today.’”1
Paul takes up a collection for the Jerusalem church “from the saints” (1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15; Rom 15:14–32). They gave “according to their ability, and beyond their ability, of their own accord” (2 Cor. 8:3).
Attempts at a socialistic economic system have been repeatedly tried with no results but abject failure.
The Pilgrims were initially organized as a Collectivist society as mandated by contract by their sponsoring investors. No matter how much a person worked, everybody would get the same amount. It didn’t take long for the less industrious to realize that their diminished labor would net them the same result of the most industrious.
William Bradford, the acting governor of Plymouth Colony, wrote the following in his first-hand history of events:
The experience that we had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years . . . that by taking away property, and bringing community into a common wealth, would make them happy and flourishing—as if they were wiser than God.
For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent, and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For young men that were most able and fit for labor and service did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without [being paid] that was thought injustice.
This [free enterprise] had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been.
Not only is Socialism immoral; it doesn’t work.
- Christian Economics: The Christian Message to the Market Place (Houston: St. Thomas Press, 1966), 60.(↩)