Note: This article is an excerpt reprinted with permission of the publisher from Simple Living in History: Pioneers of the Deep Future, a collection of essays profiling key historical figures whose lives served as examples of living simply. Bible references are to the New International Version (NIV) — Ed.
A clear theme throughout Jesus’ ministry was the conflict between seeking God and seeking money (personified as Mammon in some Gospel translations).
The Gospels contain a glaring lack of discussion pertaining to sexual orientation, gender roles, church organization, or other items of dogma, but return again and again to the subject of money and materialism. As we read in the Gospels: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt 16:26).
Similarly, in the parable of the sower, Jesus discusses with his disciples those things that may render a life “unfruitful.” Likening them to the various fates of seed sown by a farmer, he describes seed that “fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants so that they did not bear grain.” He goes on to explain to his disciples that this seed represents those whose lives are rendered unfruitful by “the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:3-20).
On another occasion Jesus was approached by a wealthy young man, asking “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus responded by exhorting the young man to follow the commandments: “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
“All these I have kept since I was a boy,” responded the young man.
“One thing you lack,” Jesus responded. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”
The young man left Jesus, saddened by his response and the dilemma he now faced. We do not have record of what the young man subsequently decided, but his reaction prompted Jesus to declare to his followers: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:17-25).
Perhaps this theme was at its most symbolic when Jesus entered Jerusalem and proceeded to the temple. Incensed by what he found, what follows is one of the most emotional scenes recorded in the gospels.
Jesus physically drives out the money changers and those other traders selling sheep, cattle and doves, telling them they had reduced the temple from a “house of prayer” to a “den of robbers” (Matt 21:12-13).
Notably, this is the only Gospel record of Jesus ever using violence, albeit mild, in that he made a whip of cords and physically overturned the traders’ tables – an exercise of force he did not show before or since. By contrast ,when he was arrested prior to his crucifixion he restrained his followers from violence, instead healing one of the arresting soldiers.
The understanding of the early Church
The first century church is often looked to for a sense of authenticity, given their chronological proximity to Christ. These early Christians clearly understood the inherent economic implications of the Gospel, putting their possessions to the service of their fellows and practicing a measure of communal ownership.
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need (Acts 4:32-35).
While not prescriptive or absolute, these practices revealed an attitude toward possessions that clearly valued the humane over the material; an ethos of stewardship rather than ownership. This ethos of stewardship was inseparable from life as a Christian, and the concept of a purely spiritual response to the Gospel was nonsensical. As New Testament scholar Peter Oakes notes: “In studying the first few centuries of the Christian movement, any attempt to isolate economics from other social factors such as politics would be doomed.”
In the epistle of James, written sometime in the first or second centuries, we again read of the centrality of an economic response to the Gospel. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Many of these writings of the early Christians later became canonical, and thus informed all later expressions of Christianity.
At the dawn of the third millennium since the birth of Jesus, over a third of humanity claim to follow Jesus, albeit to varying degrees. And yet, within this population of over 2.2 billion, mammon still carries great influence.
Since the 1950s, there has been the spread of “prosperity theology,” a message advocating the godly life as a means to material success. The utter antithesis of the Gospel, it is nonetheless popular and spreading.
An added challenge, many of the world’s wealthiest and highest-consuming citizens are counted among the Christians. As the interconnectedness of our economic and environmental actions are understood to an ever greater degree, we can hope that the understanding of how one ought to “love thy neighbor” expands accordingly.
And indeed there is hope. In 2008, echoing the original Seven Deadly Sins, the Vatican issued the Seven Social Sins, including environmental pollution, contributing to wealth divides, accumulating excessive wealth and creating poverty.
Christianity in the twenty-first century is diverse in tradition and understanding of the Gospel, but the centrality of Jesus is uncontested, and his words leave no doubt as to the obstacle that the love of wealth presents.
In the closing paragraphs of his work The Gospel According To The Son, Norman Mailer writes, in the voice of Jesus: “God and Mammon still grapple for the hearts of all men and all women.”
Indeed, the messages of consumerism contest for more than just our brand loyalty, and the noble lives of those practicing voluntary simplicity stand in opposition, as ever, doing the Lord’s work and living Jesus’s message two thousand years hence.
— Simon Ussher, Transition Voice