Chapter 3 – In God We Trust: Jesus and Money, A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis

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This is not for a traditional review, but represents internal dialogue that I am having with this book. You can follow along with the series by using the tags at the bottom of this post.

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BW3 finally gets to the point of bringing us into the time of Christ, and what he was facing. I note the similarities between that time and this, given the fact that fewer and fewer are having a part of the rights and benefits of an ownership society.

The author begins by warning us not to impose upon the text our view points, creating an anachronism. After all, money wasn’t what it is now then. It had other uses, which the author gets to later. This could be well said about other issues as well, such as race, class, and eschatology, but that is not what this book is about. It does, again, and let me stress it many times, as a good and solid warning so as to refrain from reading the biblical text as a 21st century American.

He states, “The basis of all ancient economics was agriculture.” (43) This is true and it is equally true that the economic systems were global in nature. I mean, there were Romans who knew of no other world but Roman. Trading partners were in Rome and were Roman. Money was something, as he states later, used only by the elite. I’ll go ahead and get to it now: propaganda was a huge piece of the coinage pie. Coins has significant political and religious meanings such as the coins minted by Rome which included broken palm leaves to signify their conquering of Israel. Or perhaps various gods or even the demi-god of Caesar. Money was dedicated to gods and political leaders. Now, granted, his is difficult for us to imagine today, what with our own coins and bills excluding superstitious mottoes and dedication to dead, and almost deified, heroes. Money was also used for tolls and taxes, something we should be aware of from reading the New Testament. But, real wealth was measured not in coinage, but in land and agriculture, which is why there was a push to take the means of production away from the poor. The elites may never actually have money, but they were wealthy because of their holdings. Because they owned the means of production, it was difficult to attain wealth. And what were the means of production? Well, land of course. Land and other things, such as the minting of money, had come under the control of the elites.

BW3 notes that money had first started coming into economic play in the years before Jesus, and was used to sponsor the further centralization of the means of production. Think about it. Taxes were imposed. If you couldn’t pay taxes, not because you didn’t own fruitful land or because you weren’t wealthy, but because you couldn’t come by a coin, then you lost your land. Not everyone could just get a coin, which was made out of precious metal.

There is also, briefly, discussed the concept of “limited good” (46), which allowed for a more predestination type of economic model. You had what you had, and you couldn’t really increase it. He notes that land, during that time, could only produce what it was allowed too. I mean, no fertilizers and the such so your ‘production’ was determined by factors you couldn’t control.

He mentions as well the shame which accompanied poverty in the Ancient world. Granted, there was legislation in the Torah which prevented such things, which set apart the Jews, but over all, poverty was seen as shameful.

So, we return to the idea that with the Land as the central means of production, those who could control the land were wealthy. With the added concept of money used for taxes, those without access to coins lost their lands. The means of production was centralized into “absentee landords” (47). There was no social upward movement, either. And, given that larger estates were becoming the norm, smaller farmers eventually became tenant farming. No money, no way to buy things. No means of production. People were virtually slaves to economic masters. When taxes were levied, people lost their lands. BW3 notes that the process of devaluation – small farmer, to tenant farmer, to day laboror to begging. (49) But, the wealthy consolidated their land.

And something which struck me – Hillel created the prosbul. This relaxing of the Law allowed for Jewish economic leaders to take advantage of their poorer kinsmen.

So no wonder that “wealth and extensive property more often than not were associated with graft, corruption, and extortion rather than God’s blessing.” (52). I think, looking as social commentaries, it is getting that way again – I mean guilt by association, not that wealth is produced by those things above. When the mindset takes old, however, it is difficult to wrestle that away.

He ends this chapter with five points:

  1. The ancient economy was not a money economy
  2. There was no free market capitalism in Jesus’ world
  3. Money had explicit religious connotations in antiquity
  4. Religious values affected how one viewed property, money and prosperity.
  5. By Jesus’ day, there had been a long history of Jews not ruling their own country

This last point, fits into the previous paragraph, because wealthy Jews were seen as acting together with the Romans.

He cautions us, then, to note that the statements made by Jesus, regarding wealth, etc…, are to be understood “in the context of an adversarial situation.”

Next, we are to discover what Jesus actually meant.

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2 Replies to “Chapter 3 – In God We Trust: Jesus and Money, A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis”

  1. I know I’ve written before, but I really enjoy your meticulous chapter-by-chapter reviews.

    I downloaded a sample of this on my Kindle — still uncertain if it worth the purchase price.

    Have you read *Convenant Economics* by Richard Horsley? I am presently rereading along with *Debt: The First 5,00 Years* by Richard Graeber, a remarkable look at money & economics from an anthropologist and shatters much of the historical myth and ethos we blindly accept, but not based on any history or truth.

    On those 5 points, was thinking of Horsley text (not far enough along in Graeber book yet) and he mostly concurs, especially on point of grafting our notion of globalized economics or even “markets” as we envision them onto 1st century Palestinian world. But, it always a “money” economy, as centralized government codifies money and swirling systems to support armies, nobles, king & court, etc…. …also, the squeezing/tightening of no “upward” direction are detailed…

    And Horsley frames the Biblical economic perspective in terms of a convenant — in both Old Testament (I cannot not see this now, after he pointed out) and in New Testament, signified particularly by Jesus SotM / SotP, a “new” covenant of human “economic” relations, on how we do each other as brother and sister, children of God.

    1. Thanks, Naum. I haven’t read those books, but they look extremely interesting, especially the 5000 Years one.

      And, write anytime. Always welcomed.

      If I can, I’m going to try to get Horsley’s book before my class in the Fall. I am teaching one at Church on Jesus and Economics

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