Time Contributor Christakis: WWJD? Tax the Rich Anywhere from 50 to 100 Percent

August 15th, 2012 11:59 AM

Jesus Christ would favor a tax rate as little as 50 percent and as high as 100 percent. So really, President Obama's preferred tax rates are a bargain. That's one of the big "idea" of Erika Christakis's August 14 Time magazine Ideas blog post, "Is Paul Ryan's Budget 'Un-Christian'?"

Christakis has a master's in education but apparently hasn't a clue about exegeting Scripture, nor does she seem to care. Jesus is just a convenient figure to use to make a flawed political talking point:


Americans often tell pollsters they yearn for a return to the Christian principles on which the U.S. was founded. If so, they should take a closer look at the Mitt Romney–Paul Ryan ticket. Jesus’ teachings regarding wealth are nowhere to be found in Ryan’s budget proposal.

As near as we can tell, Jesus would advocate a tax rate somewhere between 50% (in the vein of “If you have two coats, give one to the man who has none”) and 100% (if you want to get into heaven, be poor). Mostly, he suggested giving all your money up for the benefit of others. And Jesus made no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; his love and generosity applied to all.

Christakis's errors are legion. We'll take them one at a time. The first reference Christakis makes is actually to a teaching of John the Baptist, the prophet who prepared the way for Christ by preaching repentance of sins and the coming of the Messiah.

Here's the relevant passage from the Gospel according to St. Luke (emphases mine):

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

(Luke 3:7-14 ESV)

The actual Greek verb (metadidomi) that John the Baptist uses is more akin to "to share" than "to give," but at any rate, as the context makes clear, this is an act of personal, repentant obedience that is directed toward God and neighbor, not the state. The repentant sinner is to "bear fruits in keeping with repentance" that reflect a love of neighbor. That is why the one with clothing and food should share with the one who lacks either. You'll notice the state is nowhere involved in this transaction.

What's more, if John the Baptist wanted to make pronouncements on tax policy, he most certainly could have, as he addressed tax collectors who came to be baptized. But what did John command tax collectors? Simply to follow the law and exact only that which was authorized by it.

There's no record that John urged the tax collectors to squeeze substantially more from the rich or substantially less from the poor based on a progressive taxation scale.

Christakis also insisted that Jesus taught that "if you want to get into heaven, be poor." This too is a gross distortion of Christ's teachings about wealth. Jesus did not teach that poverty in and of itself was morally virtuous or in any way earns one's way towards salvation.

Jesus did teach, however, that the love of riches can be an idolatrous devotion that keeps people from being right with God, but that it was not impossible for the rich to attain salvation (emphasis mine):

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

(Luke 18:18-30 ESV)

The rich young ruler was amassing treasure on earth, where moth and rust corrupt and destroy. Jesus wanted the young man to lay up his treasure in heaven and to not be enslaved to money:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

(Matthew 6:19-24 ESV)

But did Jesus expect every rich man he encountered to completely devoid himself of wealth? There's no scriptural evidence for that, and indeed Jesus's interaction with the repentant tax collector Zacchaeus seems to demonstrate that:

He entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich. And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. And when they saw it, they all grumbled, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
(Luke 19:1-10 ESV)

Remember John the Baptist's admonition to tax collectors: "Collect no more than you are authorized to do." Zacchaeus does that, plus voluntarily gives away half his wealth, and promises to give back four-fold to those he has defrauded (which accords to the Mosaic law that sheep thieves would pay back four-fold).

Jesus pronounces a blessing upon Zacchaeus, heralding him as a "son of Abraham" who was lost but has been found and saved. Jesus had ample opportunity to launch into a discourse on taxation or to call Zacchaeus to give up ALL that he had, but Jesus did not.

What's more, the evidence from the early church is NOT that giving up all one's wealth was the expectation. Yes, the church in Jerusalem initially practiced communal living, but that proved impractical in the long run and the selling of possessions and giving of money was always voluntary, at the discretion of the property holder, which is why St. Peter denounced Ananias and Sapphira for lying about the selling price of their property, not the fact that they wished to hold back some of the proceeds for themselves (emphasis mine):

But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:1-4 ESV)

Indeed, far from encouraging wealthy Christians to dispose all their material wealth to be poor, the evidence is that wealthy converts to Christianity gladly used their wealth to finance missionary work and their homes to be used as gathering places for worship on the Lord's Day. Take the case of Lydia of Thyatira, a wealthy merchant woman:

So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

(Acts 16:11-15 ESV)

Another wealthy woman, Phoebe, was commended by Paul in his epistle to the Romans. The English Standard Version (ESV) Study Bible notes that "Paul calls upon the church to assist Phoebe since she has helped so many. Phoebe served as a patron, probably with financial assistance and hospitality."

Indeed, here's St. Paul's admonition for rich Christians:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
(1 Timothy 6:17-19 ESV)

What about Christakis's claim that "Jesus made no distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor; his love and generosity applied to all"?

While that is true on its face, Jesus did complain that the crowds which followed him only did so because he miraculously fed them bread, caring not for the spiritual food of his teaching (emphasis mine):

On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

(John 6:22-40 ESV)

Jesus was keenly aware that most people in the crowds that followed him were seeking the meeting of their physical needs, when He was most concerned with addressing their more pressing spiritual ones.

And let's not forget the counsel of Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, that lazy folks who refuse to work should not eat (emphases mine):

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

(2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 ESV)

Those lazy Christians whom Paul was admonishing sure sound like the "undeserving poor" to me.

Liberals like Christakis seek to cherry-pick and grossly distort Jesus's teachings in order to make Christ a champion of their political programs.

But Jesus's kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and he absolutely refused to be dragged into the political questions of His day (Luke 20;25). That doesn't mean there cannot be reasonable debate about how to apply Christian teaching to modern political questions, but Christakis's half-baked attempt at doing so is hardly deserving of placement in an "Ideas" blog.