The following is an excerpt from the book The Virtues of Capitalism: A Moral Case for Free Markets, by Scott Rae and Austin Hill:
Though the New Testament is not a textbook on economics, it was immersed in a particular economic environment and much of the New Testament teaching had implications for economic life. In the New Testament, Jesus takes up right where the Old Testament prophets left off. Care for the poor was just as important to Jesus as it was to the prophets. When the followers of John the Baptist (who was in prison at the time) asked Jesus if He was indeed the Messiah who was to come, He answered in terms that could have been taken right out of the prophets. He put it like this, “Go back to John (the Baptist) and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised to life and the good news is being preached to the poor” (Matt. 11:4-5). The evidence that Jesus was who He claimed to be was not only that He did miracles, but who were the beneficiaries of those miracles were: the poor, marginalized and vulnerable. Similarly, when He spoke of final judgment and what would separate His true followers from the pretenders, He made it clear that how someone treats the poor is a critical indication of a person’s spiritual maturity. This is likely what Jesus meant when He said that, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to the least of these my brothers, you were doing it to me” (referring to feeding the hungry and taking in the needy, Matt. 25:40).
Jesus didn’t just talk about how important it was to take care of the poor, He modeled it too. Other than the disciples, Jesus spent the majority of His time with the outcasts of society: lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes and the poor. He spent little time with those who were highly esteemed by the culture, such as the religious leaders and the rich. He valued the poor for who they were, and he told the people that they should esteem them highly too. For example, He said, “when you put on a banquet, don’t invite your friends, brothers, relatives and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will repay you for inviting those who could not repay you” (Luke 12: 12-14). It’s precisely because they cannot repay you in any way that serving the poor has great value. This is because it models something very important about our relationship to God—His unconditional, no strings attached, love for each of us—regardless of what we could repay back to Him (obviously nothing!).
Consistent with the message of the wisdom literature, many of Jesus’ parables were drawn from the everyday world of work and economic life. The use of these parables also affirms the other main emphasis of the Old Testament when it comes to economics: the notion of personal responsibility for one’s own material support. For example, the parable of the sower compared a person’s reception of the Kingdom of God to scattering seed among different types of soils (Matt. 13:1-23), and the parable of the wheat and tares is about a field that produces mixed results despite the best efforts of the owner (Matt. 13:24-30). Other parables compare God’s Kingdom to fishing (Matt. 13:47-52), tending sheep (Luke 15:1-7) and shrewd business management (Luke 16:1-9). Jesus also compares the Kingdom to business, in which resources are effectively put to use in order to generate a profit. This well-known parable of the talents assumes that it’s legitimate to seek a profit and to work hard to deploy a person’s financial resources to make that happen (Matt. 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-26), again emphasizing the notion of personal responsibility in continuity with the Old Testament wisdom literature. It would also seem to assume that accumulating wealth is not intrinsically a problem, though a person should be careful to avoid the predicament of the rich fool, who put his trust in his accumulated wealth (Luke 12:13-21).
The early church carried on Jesus’ pattern of caring for the poor and marginalized. They cared for the poor mainly through their extraordinary generosity, following Jesus’ mandate to share freely with those who had needs (Luke 10:25-37, 12:33). They could not rely on the state to care for their poor since the church was a persecuted minority in the Roman empire, and since there were not many mechanisms of the state to take care of the poor. And a lot of the early followers of Jesus were quite poor themselves. We see this extraordinary generosity in action in Acts 2: 42-47. The early church is described as “sharing everything they had. . .” They even sold their personal possessions and property in order to meet the needs of the church. This was a purely voluntary sharing of their material goods and not a pattern for any forced redistribution of goods characteristic of socialism. That’s not to say that all redistribution of wealth is necessarily wrong, only that Acts 2 does not provide a basis for an economic arrangement like socialism. One major difference between socialist systems and the early church is that the state owns most of the means of production. Further, there was no forced renunciation of your property to be in the early church. But there was unprecedented openhandedness with their goods, to meet needs that arose. It may be that part of the reason for this was their belief that Jesus was returning soon, to consummate His Kingdom. In addition, after the day of Pentecost, in which 3,000 new believers were added to the church, many of them stayed in Jerusalem to learn more about Jesus, putting an extraordinary burden of hospitality on the church, which they met with amazing and Spirit-generated open-handedness. But the main reason for their generosity was that they had been personally transformed by the message of Jesus. Acts 2 provides a model for this kind of personal liberality but has little to say about economic systems themselves.[i]
As in the Old Testament, self-support and personal responsibility were assumed in the early church. Self-interest was not condemned, but affirmed, and balanced by concern for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). The responsibility for providing for your own needs and needs of your family was taken very seriously. The apostle Paul encouraged a life of diligence in order to provide for self and family (I Thess. 4:11-12), and cautioned those who were not willing to work, when he said, “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat” (II Thess. 3:13). What he meant by this is that if someone is not willing to work, he or she does not have any claim on the generosity of others. Paul modeled such a life of self-support, even while he was planting churches, so that he would not be a financial burden on the community. He strongly commands idle people to “settle down and earn their own living” (II Thess. 3:11-12). He states this even more strongly when he counsels Timothy that “those who won’t care for their relatives, especially those in their own household, have denied the true faith” (I Tim. 5:8). This kind of personal responsibility for self-support is consistent throughout the Bible, while making room for generosity and provision for those who cannot care for themselves.
[i] To read more on the sharing of resources in the early church, see Justo L. Gonzales, Faith and Wealth, (New York: Harper Collins, 1990): 79-86.