Jesus, the Radical Economist

If the teachings of Jesus were really taken seriously, the Christian Right wouldn’t be devoting so much time to protecting the wealth of the wealthiest. True Christians would be demanding redistribution of the world’s riches in ways far more radical than modern politicians would dare propose, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

Jesus made his reputation as a Jewish economist, one with very strong opinions about wealth and property, about the relationship between the rich and the poor.

He also was intensely religious and loved nothing more than debating the meaning of the law of God or Torah. For instance, he is presented in the Gospel of Luke as being a precocious 12-year-old boy absorbed in debating religious leaders about the meaning of Torah.

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, in stained-glass depiction by Alfred Handel. (Photo credit: Toby Hudson)

From early childhood he must have understood that he was seen as a brash, pushy kid from a small town in Northern Palestine, an area without religious leadership and an unemployment rate well over 50 percent.

Whether by divine wisdom or genius insight, Jesus figured out what wealthy and powerful people were doing to the poor, illiterate people with whom he lived. Primarily through his teaching and storytelling, he became identified as a populist teacher with a good deal of influence. He was good news to the poor and bad news for those who clung to their riches.

Clearly Jesus was fascinated by Torah and its application to everyday life. Luke’s gospel reports that a lettered leader of the religious community approached Jesus and asked how to attain eternal life. Jesus responded with two questions of his own: What does Torah say? How do you read it? The first question is easy to answer. The second question is the real test.

Jesus knew what Torah said, and he had strong opinions about how Torah should be read. Jesus had come to his own understanding of the property codes in the book of Leviticus. These codes are credited to Moses, but more probably come from the massive rewrite of Israelite traditions during the years of Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE.

Torah is very straightforward. Land and ultimately all wealth belong to God, who places property in the control of human beings, not as owners but as stewards who must share it and return it to God every 49 years for redistribution.

For Israelites, time was divided into blocks of seven years. Land was not tilled in the seventh year. After a series of seven, seven-year blocks of time, a Year of Jubilee was declared. During the Year of Jubilee, all land was to be returned to the control of the priests, who, in the name of God, were to make a new and fresh distribution of all land.

In other words, the wealthy were supposed to surrender their stewardship and the poorest of the poor were given land with the encouragement to be productive for God and their fellow Israelites. All slaves were set free and all debts were canceled.

At the time when the Israelite system of Sabbaths and a Jubilee was codified, the economic and political structures may have accommodated such radical economic and social changes in a one-year observance of Jubilee.

Hundreds of years later, however, when Jesus lived and taught, the combination of Roman rule, compliant fat-cats and religious elites made the observance of Jubilee impossible. So, almost every Israelite knew what Torah said, but the prescription had not been followed in anyone’s memory. The poor had given up on the idea of a Year of Jubilee, but apparently not Jesus.

According to Luke’s gospel, early in the public ministry of Jesus, he went to a synagogue gathering and read a passage from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. God has sent me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release of captives and liberty to the oppressed. This is the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Everyone in his hearing understood what he was saying. Israelites had gone too long without a Year of Jubilee. It was time for the wealthy to turn loose what they had accumulated. It was time for the poor to receive their full stewardship.

But most poor people had taken on the understanding of life that their oppressors presented and taught. It was true then; it is still true today. So, the Year of Jubilee code was regarded as impractical. However, the principles of the ownership of God, the end of slavery, and economic justice still were possible.

The Israelites who held wealth and power knew what was in Torah, but they were not interested in reading it with new eyes of compassion and justice. (When Jesus finally took his message to Jerusalem riding in on a donkey to mock the rich who favored horses and turning over the money tables at the Temple to protest religious corruption he was deemed an insurrectionist and was executed.)

Jesus died almost 2,000 years ago, but the laws of Sabbaths and Jubilees are still on the books today. Torah still has a powerful message, especially since the evils of greed and mindless ownership are with us in ever growing magnitude. Resulting inequities and injustices surround us.

We Americans live in a secular society, but Christians have a responsibility to influence and to train the conscience of our fellow citizens. Here in election season, Jesus appears on the scene and asks the same two questions: “What does Torah say? How do you read it?”

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]

11 comments for “Jesus, the Radical Economist

  1. Morton Kurzweil
    June 15, 2012 at 09:40

    There are three levels of authority in every religion, ideology or belief system.
    The first is a delusion, a belief in the existence of a divine authority, always an
    expression of the extension of human abilities in the invention of a Human as God.
    The second authority is the lawgiver, the prophet, the oracle, the seer who interprets
    the law as a unique dispensation of Divine will for the sole purpose of behavior control.
    The third level of authority is the priest, the religious authority, the lawyer who maintains
    the authority of the religious organization through fear and coercion by making rituals
    and rites, wealth and ownership the prerogative of the orthodoxy to continue to control
    the masses. Whatever the ‘economics’ of the prophet, the economics of the religious
    institution is bureaucratic survival. The result is conservatism to a degree of paranoia.
    Every bureaucracy, secular or religious degenerates into self serving institution that must
    grow and feed off its followers in order to survive.

  2. Doc Savage
    June 14, 2012 at 17:59

    The Reverend has in interesting take on this, I find it somewhat compelling, though I think of Jesus more as a socialist, than an economist.

    But more to my point, the proof that any “-ISM” is philosophically sound and that it “WORKS” is whether or not it is self-sustaining. The rise and fall of empires has proven that the attrition needed to maintain the unfettered growth of any empire, economic or political, is the factor that leads to its demise. This holds true even for religious empires. Scientifically, no philosophy is ever sustainable, since all the presumptions indicated within the dogma of that philosophy are usually the very aspects of its breaking points.

    If a methodology is broken in anyway, then the theories behind it are also broken as are the resulting summations. For empire building, this means that the only truth about these empires is that they will inevitably fail and the consequences can be quite chaotic.

    World economic imperialism is failing, world political imperialism has failed in so many ways. Corporate imperialism is nearing the apex of its destruction, religious imperialism requires no real physical factors, it sustains itself through forced ignorance or self-imposed ignorance, therefore it recycles itself to meet the needs of the moment.

    Religious philosophers are the worst lot, they can all look at the same words on a page of scripture and come to nonsensical conclusions that are light years seperated from the other’s interpretations.

    Religion sucks, economy sucks, politics sucks, they are all imperialistic in their nature and require the population to remain ignorant of the facts in order to hold fast to the beliefs that sustain them.

  3. exomike
    June 14, 2012 at 16:33

    Here are the economics and politics of Jesus explained by another great American around the time of the last Great Depression _and_ the last fight against Fascism.

    Woody Guthrie)

    Jesus Christ was a man who traveled through the land
    Hard working man and brave
    He said to the rich, “Give your goods to the poor.”
    So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

    Jesus was a man, a carpenter by hand
    His followers true and brave
    But the street corner Prayers didn’t want competition,
    So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave

    He went to the sick, he went to the poor,
    And he went to the hungry and the lame;
    Said that the poor would one day win this world,
    And so they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

    He went to the preacher, he went to the sheriff,
    Told them all the same;
    Sell all of your jewelry and give it to the Poor,
    But they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

    When Jesus came to town, the working folks around,
    Believed what he did say;
    The bankers and the preachers they nailed him on a cross,
    And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

    Poor working people, they follered him around,
    Sung and shouted gay;
    Cops and the soldiers, they nailed him in the air,
    And they nailed Jesus Christ in his grave.

    Well the people held their breath when they heard about his death,
    And everybody wondered why;
    It was the landlord and the soldiers that he hired.
    That nailed Jesus Christ in the sky.

    When the love of the poor shall one day turn to hate.
    When the patience of the workers gives away
    “Would be better for you rich if you never had been born”
    So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

    This song was written in New York City
    Of rich men, preachers and slaves
    Yes, if Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galillee,
    They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave.

  4. Frances in California
    June 13, 2012 at 20:21

    Hey, Rehmat and Mohsen: While you both make ‘some’ good points, why don’t you two take this outside?

  5. June 13, 2012 at 17:47

    I am reading Kraybill’s Upside Kingdom, and I am intrigued with the philosophy of God’s stewardship. The problem has always been how to get people who love to make money not be in love with money, and how to get privileged people to see everyone else as equals. I love Bill Swanson’s Waiter Rule in his Unwritten Rules of Management. “A person who is nice to you but rude to the waiter, or to others, is not a nice person.” A person who treats those with less money than themselves as less than equal is not a worthy steward.

  6. June 13, 2012 at 13:11

    We can think and grow by ridding ourselves from the prejucice and the holier than thou attitude that we already know it all. Disregard the comments that are defensive and are about the stuff of someone else, not even about your article. You have given us something to ponder and to be seeking truth and seeking wisdom in regard to the way this world is caught in the grip of money being everytnig and war is always the answer, or the way to distract people from truth. Thanks Rev. Bess

  7. Karlin
    June 12, 2012 at 23:23

    What a wonderfull idea!!

    We could avoid the wars and revolutions that cause so much death and so much more suffering by rescinding wealth.

    Thank you Rev. Bess

  8. Hillary
    June 12, 2012 at 17:48

    We Americans live in a secular society, but Christians have a responsibility to influence and to train the conscience of our fellow citizens. Here in election season, Jesus appears on the scene and asks the same two questions: “What does Torah say? How do you read it?”

    Wow ! more gobldy gook spin from the Rev.Howard Bess ?

    So the Christians make the decision to include the Torah into their “package” but still claim to represent the teachings of their God/man Jesus as in the ” famous ” Sermon of the mount.

    A Torah’s vindictive cruel tribal God promising rewards for his chosen people ( Jews) if they carry out all sorts of dreadful atrocities on their eternal enemies (Gentiles) versus a forgiving universal message for all mankind from the God/man Jesus ?

    Another fictional “Hollywood” portrayal of a God/man of 2,000 years ago.

    Christianity,Islam & Judaism are all wacko religions based on fairy tales and myths which are marching humanity to war and pestilence and destruction.

  9. June 12, 2012 at 08:26

    Wrong Rehmat as always.

    • exomike
      June 12, 2012 at 18:09

      Uh, who used the word, “Hasbara”? The Hasbara Birds have been showing up on all kind of Economics websites lately such as Naked Capatilism. Usually they get baked in a pie with twenty three of their kind. Hasbara, Hasbara, the cry of the Hasbara bird of Occupied Palestine?

  10. db
    June 11, 2012 at 22:49


    Don’t try to put words in Rev. Bess’ mouth. He makes a compelling argument on his own.

    You’re the first “adoptionist” I’ve heard of in 1800 years. Are you also the possessor of Gnostic wisdom?

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