In this article, we have a great reminder by Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart of just how alien first Century Christianity was to our contemporary culture. What is and is not taken literally, or seriously, in the New Testament; or what is, or is not, read back into early Christianity often depends on the cultural and ideological framework of the reader. As Hart points out this is obviously apparent when it comes to the issue of wealth.
Modern liberal/capitalist ideology insists that property, wealth, and the maximization of profit are simply eternal laws of nature, period. The laws of the market are prior to all other law, even moral law; so when someone steeped in that ideology encounters the New Testament text, there is somewhat a dilemma. Hart puts it this way:
He [Christ] not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matthew 5:42), and to do so with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matthew 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth—not merely storing it up too obsessively—and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matthew 6:19–20). It is truly amazing how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).
What is most important to recognize is that all these pronouncements on wealth and poverty belong to a moral sensibility that saturates the pages of the New Testament. It is there, for instance, in Paul’s condemnations of pleonektia (often translated as “greed,” but really meaning all acquisitive desire), or in the Pastoral Epistles’ condemnation of aischrokerdes (often translated as “greed for base gain,” but really referring to the sordidness of seeking financial profit for oneself).
So what is a modern market liberal to do? Surely, Jesus could not have actually meant what he said. Surely, there must have been some words left out in the text, surely, Jesus was speaking relatively or just hyperbolically; or perhaps he was just speaking of an attitude, not an activity. Paul cannot really mean to condemn the seeking of profit; he must certainly mean the obsession with profit, or the pathological seeking of profit. When James speaks of the rich, surely, he does not mean “the rich”, surely he means the “wicked rich”.
The modern market/liberal ideology simply cannot allow for a literal reading of those passages; how could it? A literal and straightforward reading would undermine all the assumptions of the market ideology. The fact is; the text of the New Testament does not add in all the qualifications in its condemnation of wealth and its acquisition that modern market liberals want to read into it. The fact of the matter is; the text means what it says.
No promises are made that the moral framework of the New Testament would fit with any ruling ideology, no promises are made that it would be easy, and no promises are made that it would be practical in all situations. Hart points out:
The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?” To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared.
And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above, which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad—any more than Christ did.
Wealth, and its acquisition, is wicked in the New Testament; there is no. two ways about it. What if Jesus actually meant what he said to the Rich Ruler? Could is really be the case that it was a commandment that he should give up his wealth in order to get into the Kingdom? How could that be? Is it not HIS choice what HE does with HIS wealth? Must not all charity be voluntary, how could this rich ruler be compelled to give it up? Surely, this verse cannot mean what it says. It does.
The fact of the matter is that, as Hart points out, modern Capitalist culture IS secularist culture. Once you’ve taken revealed moral law outside of the realm of actual social relationships, of actual material and economic consequence, and just reduced it to personal emotions and sexual ethics (a realm where revealed moral law is also slowly being purged)—you’ve basically taken it outside of culture, outside of the realm of social life. What is left is not morality, just restrictions on directly stopping people from doing whatever they want; “morality” becomes nothing more than a pragmatic protection of the atomization of human beings so that the market ideology can function, so that everyone can be compelled to seek their own profit.
Hart puts it this way:
My basic argument was that a capitalist culture is, of necessity, a secularist culture, no matter how long the quaint customs and intuitions of folk piety may persist among some of its citizens; that secularism simply is capitalism in its full cultural manifestation; that late capitalist “consumerism”—with its attendant ethos of voluntarism, exuberant and interminable acquisitiveness, self-absorption, “lust of the eyes,” and moral relativism—is not an accidental accretion upon an essentially benign economic system, but the inevitable result of the most fundamental capitalist values.
If you tell people “no one can tell you what to do with what’s yours” how much of a leap is it to say, “no one can tell you what to do”. If the phrase “it’s just business” or “they should have worked harder” justifies putting people out of their homes, withholding the necessities of life because it would be more profitable and so on; how far of a stretch is it to say “it’s just sex”, “it’s just divorce”, “it’s just a lie”.
If you tell people they have full autonomy over their property, and that comes before any obligation; if you tell people anything that is profitable is self-justifying; do not complain when they believe you, and start to actually apply it.
The New Testament was more radical in regards to wealth than almost any modern day radical ideology; but it says what it says. The modern Liberal/Capitalist culture is so secular it simply cannot allow for an honest reading of the New Testament, its text is almost blasphemy in the modern culture. However, we have to be honest with the text.