Alabama’s Republican Governor, Bob Riley, recently led an unsuccessful effort to reform the state’s regressive tax structure and raise needed funds for state services. He cast the struggle in moral terms arguing that Alabama’s present tax arrangement unfairly burdens the poor. Many leaders from within the faith community joined in the effort.
Interestingly, some opponents of the tax reform measure accused faith leaders of being Marxists. The charge was leveled when faith leaders quoted Jesus, who said, “To whom much is given, much is required.” Anyone who would link these words of Jesus to Marxism obviously doesn’t know much about either Marx or Jesus.
Marx believed that economic resources belonged to everybody. It was wrong, therefore, in his view for money and property to be concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few. He believed that “the spirit of history” would eventually inspire the working class to rise up in revolution, seize the means of production from the hands of the wealthy class and redistribute it equally to everyone in the social order.
It goes without saying that Marx was wrong. There is hardly a social theory in the history of the world more discredited than Marx’s vision.
Jesus also had a vision of what a just social order should look like, but in his vision economic resources do not belong to everybody—they belong to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and fullness thereof” is the basis for Jesus’ theology. His statement that “to whom much is given,” is rooted in the belief that God is the one who “gives.”
The image Jesus used over and over again to illustrate this belief is the ancient idea of “stewardship.” A steward was someone who managed property belonging to another. A steward was expected to care for the possessions of the owner in a manner consistent with the owner’s values and beliefs. A failure to manage the owner’s possessions properly was a terrible disgrace. Poor stewards lived in fear of angry owners.
God is glad for us to share in the bounty of the earth, which is more than sufficient to sustain human life. When God said, “be fruitful and multiply” he was expressing the exuberant confidence that there is enough for everyone to have what they need.
Unfortunately, there are those in our world who are not satisfied to have only what God has given them. They want their part and your part too. This type of selfishness is not limited just to individuals. It can also become institutionalized in economic systems. When that happens it wreaks havoc on the poor and the vulnerable.
That’s where the prophets come in. They criticized the political and economic systems of their day for neglecting “the widow and the orphan.” This was not a demand for a Marxist-styled redistribution of the wealth. On the contrary, they were calling on political leaders to act on proper principles of stewardship. The earth is the Lord’s, remember?
Ironically, in Alabama, stewardship was used by opponents to defeat the governor’s tax-reform proposal. During the debate the claim was made that since state leaders have wasted “our” money, “we” are not willing to pay any more until they clean up their act.
We can play that game if we want to. We just need to remember that it is not Marx’s “spirit of history” we need to worry about. Biblical prophets made it clear that an economic system that organizes itself against the poor and the needy will not survive for long. You see, to whom much is given, much is required.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.