See Part 2
In my last post I had to respond to a red-herring attack concerning the meaning of the term Communism, Marxism, Socialism and their relationship to the Russian state. In this post I will tackle Matthew 19:21 and Luke 14:33 as proof texts that the early Christians were Communists. These two verses were offered by the same guy who I responded to in the previous post. After quoting Matthew 19:21 and Luke 14:33 he went on to say:
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not proposing Communism, although I can certainly see the social benefits in it… Benefits clearly also seen by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. That part is clear. In fact, it’s beyond clear. It’s there in black and white. What I find utterly fascinating is the lengths you people are going to to navigate around what is written in the bible. Truly fascinating.
While our atheist friend assert that these verses are clearly Communistic, I think an interpretation of these two verses that is in harmony with the immediate context and the context of the book of Matthew and Luke as a whole will not yield support for “Communism.”
Remember our friend’s working definition of Communism hinges on “common property:”
Communism is, at its most basic, a socioeconomic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth.
Let’s take a closer look at Matthew 19:21 and Luke 14:33 and their respective context to see if “Communism” can be extrapolated from these verses.
Matthew 19:21 states:
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”
In this passage did Jesus implemented “a socioeconomic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth”? I would say that if we read this verse in context the answer is no.
First off, a closer look at Matthew 19:21 even apart from further context reveal that the verse does not support “a socioeconomic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth.” Note the words “go and sell your possessions and give to the poor.” When you “sell your possessions” these things are no longer yours, but now they have become someone else’s private property; that is, it is no longer something you possess in common with another. Also, can we really say that one has given to the poor when that same individual still own what he has given? A better verb for that would be “share,” but that does not appear in verse 21. If Matthew 19:21 really implemented “Communism” as our friend has defined it, we expect the verse to say the following:
Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and SHARE your possessions as COMMON PROPETY and SHARE OWNERSHIP with the poor, and you will have COMMON treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.“
Of course, the verse doesn’t say that.
Secondly, we must dig deeper into the context: Who was Jesus addressing? We need to know who the referent is that Jesus said these words to in order to answer the question, “Is this a norm that Jesus prescribe for all believers for all time?” I would say it is not for everybody for all time; rather it is addressed specifically towards one individual in a unique situation. In the context, Jesus was addressing the rich young ruler who has a problem of self-righteousness (more on that below). Exegetically, the imperative “give” in the Greek is δος and is in the aorist tense. I would argue that it is functioning as an ingressive aorist with the idea of a momentary or single act in view. I think this verb ought to be taken this way in light of the fact that the verb is second person singular in form. This is significant in that Jesus was only telling this one individual to do this even though there were other disciples around to hear Jesus (cf. vv.23-28) and he didn’t used the second person plural form of the verb. Even after the rich young ruler left, Jesus never commanded the rest of the hearers to do the same. If this command is really for all people in order to go to heaven which is the subject of the matter at hand, one should expect Jesus to re-issue this command for all to obey. An interlocuter might reply by saying Peter himself confessed in verse 27 that “Behold, we have left everything and followed You,” which is an indication that Jesus has already implemented “Communism” among His disciples and this should be normative for all dispensations. But towards the end of Jesus’ ministry He revealed that the reason why He commanded them to minister by leaving everything behind is to demonstrate that God is faithful and does provide:
35 And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” (Luke 22:35)
This is just for a season and not something normative for all time because in the next verse Jesus reinstated the disciples’ right to bring along their private possession in ministry when He said the following:
36 And He said to them,“But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, andwhoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.
Note that verse 36 indicate that Jesus never made the disciples give away everything since his words above indicate they still have it, although they did not have it with them when they went about ministering during those early years of ministry. Temporarily not carrying one’ possession around for a season is not the same thing as Communism!
Thirdly, what was Jesus trying to accomplish when he said these words to the young man? I don’t have the time to do a full exposition but if you want to see what the passage is about you can see my outline of the Marcan parallel to this periscope in Mark 10:17-31 to get an idea.
According to verse 16 a man came up to Jesus with the question, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” Jesus’ response is recorded in verse 17-19. When Jesus brought out the laws of God (v.18-19) the man foolishly responded, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (v.20). Of course, no one is perfect and sinless in keeping the law. Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler really unmasks the self-righteousness of this man by going after his sin of being attached to his worldly possessions. Verse 22 makes it very clear why the man left Jesus grieving: “for he was one who owned much property.” We must not neglect the original intent of Jesus’ command for this specific situation. Jesus is not telling everyone to go sell their possessions!
Fourthly, just because Jesus told someone in a certain specific context to forfeit every material possession does not necessarily make Jesus a Communist. Think of a judge in a non-Communist state who fines a criminal that essentially require the state or the victim to possess everything he owns before he goes off to jail. Does that necessarily make the judge a Communist just because in some instances the judge ordered someone to give up their property? Of course not, because the rationale for the judge’s decision does not rest on any assumption of “a socio-economic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth.” We can’t force the text to say that Jesus is a Communist in the same way we can’t say a judge is a Communist when he execute the task of taking away someone’s private property. In both instances, the reason for the command to give away one’s possession has nothing to do with any socio-economic theory for the goal of achieving “common property.”
Exegetically, communism cannot be extrapolated from Matthew 19:21.
Luke 14:33 states
So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.
Again the question before us is this: Did Jesus in this verse implemented “a socioeconomic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth”? I would say no for the following reasons:
First off, in order for this verse to teach communism we would expect the verse to say something about “common property.” But the verse says nothing about that.
Secondly, note the phrase in this verse “give up all his own possessions.” Can we really say that one has given “up all his own possessions” when he possesses it still as shared wealth? Given that the verse does not teach shared community wealth and that shared wealth is a part of the definition of communism, I would say this verse does not teach Communism.
Thirdly, while this verse does teach that a prerequisite for being a disciples of Jesus is that one “give up all his own possessions,” it is important to ask whether Jesus here tells us to give all one’s possession into “a socioeconomic system whereby a group practices common property and common wealth.” If it does, then the passage would be practicing Communism; if it doesn’t, then obviously we cannot use Luke 14:33 as a proof text for Communism. Again looking at Luke 14:33 there is an absence of any discussion of a group sharing common wealth. This absence is also in the rest of the periscope (Luke 14:25-33).
Fourthly, the context strongly suggests that Luke 14:33 require a disciple to “give up all his own possessions” to JESUS and not to a community that shares common property. Giving everything to Jesus is not Communism! Note the context of Luke 14:25-33 is about counting the cost of the hard requirement in becoming a disciple of Jesus (“hating one’s own life,” “carrying his own cross,” etc). All this suffering of course is for Jesus’ sake, which the context suggests very strongly given the repetition of the phrase “come after Me” twice in this passage (v.25, 27) and the repetition of “be my disciple” three times in this passage (v.26, 27, 33). It’s in this contextual flow that when Jesus teaches a disciple “give up all his own possessions” it is to Jesus Himself and not to a communist group.
Fifthly, it does not logically follow that giving everything to Jesus means that Jesus is a Communist. In Christian theology, it means that He is Lord over all area of one’s life! Practically, what belongings that a Christian think he or she has in reality belongs to the Lord and we are stewards of it until we are judged for our stewardship when we appear before Him.
Sixthly, it also does not logically follow that giving everything to Jesus means that Jesus is against private property per se in order to support group common property. In the same chapter of Luke 14 Jesus presupposes the right of private property and make no claims that private property ought to be communal. For instance Jesus said to the Pharisees in verse 5, “Which one of you will have a son or an ox fall into a well, and will not immediately pull him out on a Sabbath day?” Note he didn’t say ” a son or an ox that you think is yours but isn’t since it belongs to the group.” Anyone who thinks Jesus is a Communist and against private property ought to go the Greek text of Luke 14 and count how many singular genitive of possessions that appear in the Parable of the Guests (Luke 14:7-15) and the Parable of the Dinner (Luke 14:16-24).
Exegetically, communism cannot be extrapolated from Matthew 19:21.
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