Jesus on Redistribution

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Wednesday, April 5, 2017 0 comments

by David Odegard

One day Jesus was ministering in his usual fashion and a man approached him with a demand: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). Modern people insist that Jesus is revolted by income inequality. What a perfect occasion for Jesus to preach a sermon against this very thing. Here, an opportunity to redistribute someone’s wealth had fallen into his lap, and even if the other brother wouldn’t have agreed, Jesus could at least make a statement on what was right in this situation. He could have called for a sword and divided the inheritance right down the middle, giving an equal share to each brother—but Jesus didn’t do that. What he did do was surprising, however.

“But he said to him, ‘Man, who appointed Me a judge or arbitrator over you?’” (Luke 12:14). Shiver me timbers! What was Jesus doing? He refuses the opportunity to equalize the brothers, preferring to sermonize against envy instead! Jesus warns of the inherent evil in the envious brother’s request, but it isn’t an endorsement of the other brother’s position either. We can only surmise that Jesus was unwilling to use a position of power to divide the inheritance.

Yet, I know a thousand pastors who would gladly divide it, some through the power of the church, some through the power of government. But that wasn’t Jesus’ way, and therefore it cannot be our way either.

In the verses that follow this account in Luke, Jesus talks about a rich man who had so much that he needed to make new barns and storage for everything, but the rich man was going to die that very night and someone else was going to get everything. Jesus showed the short-sightedness of greed when viewed from the vantage of eternity. This is how Jesus dealt with wrong attitudes of the heart—he taught people what was really real and how to change their own actions and attitudes to reflect that reality. More and more money becomes less important when one realizes that not only will he or she die and leave the material behind, but then God is going to evaluate each person. “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

I point this out to say that envy of the rich is just as detrimental to the human soul as greed and self-reliance. Furthermore, in any case, Jesus teaches but does not coerce. How many medieval estates do you suppose were settled by churchmen? How many lords then gave generously to ensure a certain outcome? The centralization of power always corrupts, even the church. Jesus’ kingdom was not going to operate in the same coercive way as the rest of the world (Matthew 20:25-28).

So what should we do? God does care what we do with our substance. He is evaluating our decisions and actions. As Middleton and Walsh said in their book, Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, God “has a radical sensitivity to suffering that pervades the biblical narrative from the exodus to the cross.” But the manner in which this suffering is addressed is one of personal responsibility. Jesus said, "You give them something to eat" (Luke 9:13), speaking to all his disciples. Jesus laid personal responsibility upon those following him.

Christian duty is first of all to Jesus Christ because he redeemed us from our empty way of life, saving us from destruction. We are alive because of his mercy and sacrifice. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He is the “author and pioneer of our faith,” (Hebrews 12:2) showing us how we ought also to live. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11).

Our Christian duty is not the outworking of how good we are or what makes us feel like Christians. Our social duty is centered only in God and we must please him first in our service, just like Jesus did. Jesus did not give humankind what they wanted (sins overlooked, security, and affluence); rather, he gave them what they needed (justification, redemption, invitation to follow him). In the same way, we do not give people what they may want, but what God has said they truly need. That does include “felt needs” sometimes, but it does not begin there. Lastly, the rubric of whether or not we have been successful lies with God’s “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” not in how people respond to us.

Therefore, Christian social duties are impositions that Jesus Christ levies on his disciples first as individuals, and secondarily through their voluntary associations with one another in the church. The church, then, is the corporate distributor of these duties when those individual Christ-followers voluntarily band together to achieve Jesus’ mandates. For this reason, there could never be coercion applied, nor could there be collusion with a strongman of governmental power. We are called to voluntarily redistribute only our own resources—never someone else’s.

One cannot convert by the sword. Coercive power brings compliance, but not conversion. Jesus wanted to win both brothers, he spoke against greed and envy and allowed them to draw their conclusions and make up their own minds whether they would follow him or not. They either did or did not settle up, and in the great judgment God will judge them for their decision. Jesus is rich in merit toward God. He has perfectly fulfilled the law and all righteousness. He redistributes his merit to us. He earned salvation for anyone who believes on his name by virtue of his sinless life and perfect obedience to God. He gives us his merit when we come to him in repentance for our sins. He does this freely out of love. And when the Father looks down on us, he sees the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ. This is the greatest gift of all, and it is better than some stinky old inheritance, because we could die tonight. Eternity, on the other hand, can never be taken from those who are in Christ.

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