Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Property (2)

PROPERTY.—Under this title two questions arise: (1) Is the possession of private property right according to the principles of the teaching and example of Jesus? (2) In what ways is a follower of Jesus to acquire and to use his property? These questions touch one another when it is suggested that a Christian should give away all his property and not seek to gain any more. They may, however, be kept distinct, and the second discussed on the assumption that the possession of private property is justifiable.

1. A very large section of a man’s interest is connected with his possessions. Therefore, inevitably, the teaching and example of Jesus have an important bearing upon the question of property. And further, inasmuch as He gave to men a very different ideal of character and conduct from that of the world, it is to be expected that in regard to property His teaching will show marked divergence from the prevailing worldly view. But it is not therefore to be assumed that the authority of Jesus can be claimed for the socialistic view of property, which may be called the direct negative of the ordinary view which men hold. The question to be settled is—May we infer from the teaching and example of Jesus that the private ownership of property is unjustifiable? The relation of the teaching and example of Jesus to modern Socialism opens up a wide field for discussion, and this is seriously complicated by the difficulty of defining Socialism and disentangling it, as a clear economic theory, from the general revolt against the hardships of poverty and the tyranny of riches, from which it springs, and which is reflected in the generous literature and thought of all ages and countries.

The first point to make clear is that this revolt was certainly present among the Jews, and has left distinct traces in the OT (Isaiah 5:8) and also in the extra-canonical Jewish literature. ‘There came to exist among them what has been called a “genius for hatred” of the rich’ (Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question, p. 206). The popular view among the Jews was that godliness invariably resulted in prosperity; and one of their problems was the prosperity of the ungodly and the adversity of the pious. This problem was exceptionally acute in our Lord’s day, through the dominance of the Romans, and the wealth of the publicans acquired by their faithlessness to the national cause. Thus precisely the condition from which modern Socialism springs was present. And not only so, but a well-defined socialistic experiment was being made by the Essenes, among whom ‘the strongest tie by which the members were united was absolute community of goods’ (Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] , ii. ii. 195). It has been maintained that the teaching of Jesus was greatly influenced by that of the Essenes. But as Essenism was ‘in the first place merely Pharisaism in the superlative degree’ (Schürer, l.c. p. 210), whatever other elements entered into it, this view must be given up (Lightfoot, Col. 397 ff.). However, from the popular feeling about the rich, and the existence of the Essenes as a socialistic community, we may gather that the way was quite open for Jesus to adopt the doctrines of Communism; and the argument that in His teaching we find the seed of Socialism, which only required conditions of thought and life such as are found in modern times to become fully matured, is not justified.

This is the view of the matter which representative Socialists take. As a general rule, Socialists are opposed to the Christian faith, and recognize in it a basis for the present organization of society and a hindrance to the change they desire to see brought about (for citations, see Peabody, op. cit. p. 15). They quote with approval the sayings of Jesus about the blessedness of the poor and the woes of the rich, but they realize distinctly that the basis of His thought is fundamentally different from theirs. The special ground of objection on the part of Socialists to the Christian religion is its teaching as to the future, which they regard as having diverted the moral enthusiasm of religious people from the present to the ‘other’ world. Some, no doubt, hold that this emphasis on the future is due to the corruption of the pure teaching of Jesus, and so are ready to claim His authority for their views. But even if the contrast between present and future in the teaching of Jesus could be adjusted to the satisfaction of the Socialists, it leaves the contrast between outward circumstance and inward character, in regard to which there is a vital and all-embracing distinction between the principles of Jesus and Socialism. The phenomenon, however, of what is known as Christian Socialism has to be noted. The fierce competition of modern industrial and commercial life, with the cruelties it produces, cannot be accepted as desirable by any man of sensitive Christian convictions. And, moreover, the great hold which Socialism has taken of multitudes, and the fact that it becomes to them the only religion they feel any need of, have led Christians to desire that its influence should be exerted on the side of the Church. The Christian Socialists in England (Maurice and Kingsley) were influenced mainly by the first consideration, and were enthusiastic supporters of the Co-operative movement. The second consideration, as might be expected, appealed more especially to Roman Catholics, who are represented by Abbé Lamennais; Baron von Ketteler, Archb. of Mayence; and Count de Nurn. In Germany, among Protestants, Christian Socialism has been represented by Victor Huber and Pastor Stöcker. The views of those who may be regarded as entitled to the name Christian Socialists cannot be thought of as an isolated fact. They have been partly the result and partly the cause of a general shifting of the centre of interest from the sphere of doctrinal theology to that of practical teaching. The theological literature of the last 50 years has been largely occupied with the application of the teaching of Jesus to the practical problems of life, and many have held that there is nothing in the Christian faith which is antagonistic to Socialism as an economic theory. But with some exceptions it is agreed that Jesus did not lay down any economic theory of the State, and indeed deliberately refused to take advantage of openings in this direction which He received (Matthew 22:15-22; Matthew 17:24-27, Luke 12:13-21). ‘To speak of the economics of the New Testament is in my opinion as impossible as to speak of its dietetics (Acts 15:20-29), its hermeneutics (1 Corinthians 9:4-10), its astronomy (Matthew 2:9; Matthew 24:29), or its meteorology (Matthew 16:23, Luke 12:24-25)’—(H. Holtzmann, Die ersten Christen und die soziale Frage).

Before the actual teaching and example of Jesus on the subject are analyzed, it is desirable to consider how far the glimpses we receive in the Acts of the Apostles of the social life of the first Christians at Jerusalem form an authoritative commentary upon them. We read that ‘all that believed were together, and had all things common’ (Acts 2:44). And again, ‘neither said any of them that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common’ (Acts 4:32, cf. also Acts 2:45, Acts 4:34; Acts 4:37). It is worthy of remark that these statements are from the pen of the author of the Third Gospel, in which the sayings of Jesus about the rich and the poor are given in their most uncompromising form (cf. Luke 6:20, Matthew 5:3). We may therefore suppose that the communistic aspect of the life of the church at Jerusalem has received full attention in the Book of Acts, and that no inference which goes in the least beyond the statements of that book is justified.* [Note: For discussions on the relation of St. Luke to Ebionism, see Keim, iii. 284; H. Holtzmann, op. cit.; Colin Campbell, Critical Studies in Luke’s Gospel; B. Weiss, Life of Christ, vol. i. bks. iv., v.; cf. Peabody, op. cit. p. 192.]

A careful scrutiny of the relevant passages of the Book of Acts shows that: (1) the condition which prevailed in Jerusalem did not continue; (2) the churches organized by St. Paul (whose companion St. Luke was) show no trace of the community of goods, nor is any condemnation expressed because of this; (3) those who had houses and lands sold them; (4) Peter in what he said to Ananias (Acts 5:4) clearly indicated that the right to private property was not questioned (‘Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?’). No theory, therefore, can be established on the basis of what we find prevailing among the first Christians in Jerusalem. We must rather suppose that in the special circumstances of that church an exceptional condition in relation to property was produced.

An analysis of the teaching and example of Jesus brings out quite clearly that the denial of a right to the possession of private property cannot be extracted from them. It is true that many strong statements are found in the Gospels as to the disadvantages of riches, and that the poor are represented as having a special interest in the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:19, Luke 18:22, Mark 10:23, Luke 6:20-24; Luke 12:15, Matthew 6:24; Matthew 19:24; Matthew 11:5). Far-reaching deductions have been drawn from these in condemnation of the prevailing industrial order. And their spirit is manifestly very different from that which the modern industrial and commercial struggle tends to produce. But their full force can be realized in connexion with the common effect of riches upon character, and they do not involve any condemnation of the possession of private property. It is to be remembered, too, in connexion with this, that no single statement of our Lord can be wisely taken by itself and pressed to the extreme conclusion logically possible. This is to forget His method of teaching, which aimed ‘at the greatest clearness in the briefest compass’ (Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, i. p. 130). ‘One who proposes to follow literally the specific commands of Jesus finds himself immediately plunged into contradictions and absurdities. He accepts the teaching of Jesus concerning non-resistance, “to him that smiteth thee on one cheek offer also the other,” but soon he hears this same counsellor of peace bid His friends sell their garments “and buy a sword” ’ (Peabody, ch. i.).

We must therefore set over against the words of Jesus in which He seems to condemn the possession of riches, facts and sayings which forbid any communistic conclusion being drawn from them. Thus Jesus and His disciples had a fund for their common necessities (John 13:14). Moreover, the disciples owned boats and nets, to which they returned after the crucifixion (John 21:3 ff.). Peter’s house appears to have been the headquarters of Jesus at Capernaum (Mark 1:29; Mark 2:1). There is no condemnation of the settled life which Martha, Mary, and Lazarus lived at Bethany (Luke 10:38 ff., John 12:1 ff.). Zacchaeus, who was a rich man, was not asked to give away all that he had, but rather commended for giving a portion (Luke 19:1-9). Mary’s action in ‘wasting’ the costly cruse of ointment (Matthew 26:12) was justified and praised. The centurion who had built a synagogue for the Jews in Capernaum (Luke 7:1; Luke 7:10) received the highest praise, but nothing was said about his wealth, evidently considerable. Nicodemus must have been a man of substance, but no question of his relation to his property was raised (John 3:1-21). Again, some force must be allowed to the fact that in several of the parables (Luke 19:12, Matthew 21:33) Jesus used the rights which men have over their property to illustrate the duty which all owe to God. This argument cannot be pressed too far, but still such illustrations would be practically impossible to one who held that the possession of private property, with the power it gives over others, is wrong.

2. On the assumption, then, that Jesus does not condemn the possession of private property, it remains to discuss the place which property is to hold in the life of a Christian, and the use which he is to make of what he owns. The ruling consideration in this discussion is that Jesus in His teaching looks not so much to the circumstances of men’s lives as to the kind of men they are and may become. His teaching, therefore, about property must be considered in relation to the effects of its acquisition and use upon character. In regard to the acquisition of property, the teaching of Jesus is directed against that greedy temper of mind in which worldly advantage is regarded as of supreme importance, and a man’s wealth as the sole criterion of his worth. He also condemns dishonesty and oppression in the acquisition of wealth, which spring from this temper (Matthew 23:14, Mark 12:40, Luke 20:47). He warns men against covetousness on the ground that ‘a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth’ (Luke 12:15). He calls the man a fool who had much goods laid up for many years, and was not rich towards God (Luke 12:16-21). He condemns over-care about making provision for the necessities of this life (Luke 12:22-34, Matthew 6:19-34). And He declares that ‘whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it’ (Mark 8:35, Matthew 10:39; Matthew 16:25, Luke 9:24). Thus it is clear that Jesus expects His followers to cultivate a spirit of aloofness and independence in relation to the world and its wealth.

The duty of work and of making provision for worldly needs by work may be clearly inferred from the teaching and example of Jesus, though it is not specifically inculcated. He laboured as a carpenter in Nazareth (Mark 6:3, cf. Matthew 13:55). In the miracle of the miraculous draught of fishes (Luke 5:1; Luke 5:6, John 21:6) He set His seal of approval upon the industry of the disciples. In some of the parables the duty of faithfulness in secular pursuits is plainly taught (e.g. Luke 16:1-11). This may also be inferred from the words of Matthew 6:20-34. If the fowls of the air are provided for and the lilies of the field are arrayed in glory in the way of their nature through the providence of God, so also will men be provided for in the way of their nature, which is declared in the words, ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread’ (Genesis 3:19). Again, the necessity of providing for those dependent upon us is no remote inference from Luke 11:13, Matthew 15:5 and Mark 7:11. For the willingness of a father to give bread to his son is taken as an illustration of the willingness of God to hear and answer the prayers of His people. And the method adopted by the Pharisees to escape the practical force of the Fifth Commandment is sternly rebuked (Matthew 15:3-6 || Mark 7:6-13).

About the use of property the teaching of Jesus is very full. In the first place, men are to realize that they are stewards of what they possess rather than its owners (Matthew 24:45-51; Matthew 25:14-20, Luke 19:11-27). They are to use their property, therefore, for the glory of God and the good of men, themselves and others. In relation to the true good of the owners, the danger of riches is very clearly and constantly insisted upon (Mark 10:23-27, Matthew 6:19; Matthew 6:24; Matthew 13:22, Luke 18:24; Luke 6:20-24; Luke 16:19-31; Luke 12:15; Luke 18:14-25; Luke 12:21; Luke 16:11). From these passages it is clear that the tendency of riches is to hinder spiritual wellbeing. To avoid this, the renunciation of wealth is required (Luke 14:33, Matthew 19:29, Luke 5:11, Matthew 18:19-22, Luke 6:18-22). This renunciation of wealth is a general command holding for all who would be followers of Jesus, but it receives special emphasis in regard to the rich from the way in which the young ruler who had great possessions was dealt with. That the alienation of wealth is involved of necessity in its renunciation cannot be maintained in view of considerations formerly advanced, but, on the other hand, these considerations by no means preclude it in special circumstances (Luke 9:58-62). The way in which renunciation is to be given effect to depends upon the circumstances of each case, and is a matter for the conscience of each individual.

Apart from the general use which a follower of Jesus is to make of all his property, which is to be determined in relation to his own spiritual welfare and that of others, he is called upon also to give (alienate) a portion of his possessions to the poor and to the support of religion. These two directions for giving were fully recognized among the Jews. And so we find that although specific injunctions as to the duty of giving are not wanting in the teaching of Jesus, it is more with the spirit in which this duty is discharged that His sayings are concerned. He definitely commands the duty of giving to the poor (Matthew 5:42, Luke 6:38, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22). We see that He and His disciples were accustomed to give alms (John 13:29). The parable of the Good Samaritan, again, is the charter of the Church for all the benevolent work of hospitals, infirmaries, etc. (Luke 10:30-36). Such giving, however, is never to be formal and impersonal, an easy way of satisfying a fugitive emotion of pity. It is the service done rather than the gift made, which is emphasized in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Again, almsgiving is not to be ostentatious (Matthew 6:1-4), nor are gifts to be made in the expectation of a return (Luke 14:12-14). The measure of giving is to be generous (Matthew 10:8), and response to a claim is to be ready and ungrudging (Luke 11:5-8), and is to be regulated by no consideration but that of need (Luke 10:30-36, Matthew 5:42-48).

In regard to giving to the support of religion, the teaching of Jesus must be considered in relation to the ordinance of the law which required a tithe. He does not commend any definite portion of a man’s possessions as that which he should devote to religious objects. His teaching in this matter, as in all others, deals with the spirit in which gifts are made rather than the law which regulates their amount. He condemns the ostentation of the Pharisees in their gifts (Mark 12:42, Luke 21:2), and also their idea that a gift to the Temple is acceptable to God from those who are neglecting the weightier matters of the Law (Matthew 23:23-26; Matthew 6:23-24, Luke 18:9-14). But He is very far from condemning the giving of a tithe (Matthew 23:23), and suggests rather that this is not sufficient (Luke 21:2). He distinctly commands giving to God (Matthew 22:21), and by the way in which Mary’s devotion (Matthew 26:12) was received we are warned against any narrow utilitarian view of the objects covered by this phrase. See also artt. Socialism and Wealth.

Literature.—Wendt, Teaching of Jesus, vol. i.; EBr [Note: Br Encyclopaedia Britannica.] 9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] xxii. 205 ff., xxxii. 664 ff.; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] , passim; Robert E. Speer, The Principles of Jesus; Rae, Contemporary Socialism; Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question, and also The Message of Christ to Society; Kaufmann, Christian Socialism; Kirkup, An Inquiry into Socialism; F. Naumann, Das soziale Programm der evangel. Kirche; Flint, Socialism, ch. ix.; Martensen, Chr. Ethics, iii. 126 ff.; H. Holtzmann, Die ersten Christen und die soziale Frage; Nitti, Catholic Socialism; Newman Smyth, Chr. Ethics, 448 ff.; Schaefle, Quintessence of Socialism; Dale, Laws of Christ, ch. ii.; J. F. Maurice, Life of Frederick Denison Maurice; A. Stöcker, Christlich-soziale Reden und Aufsätze; Herron, The Larger Christianity, and Between Cœsar and Jesus; Gore, The Sermon on the Mount; Westcott, Social Aspects of Christianity; Lyman Abbott, Christianity and Social Problems; S. Mathews, Social Teaching of Jesus; Keim, Jesus of Nazara, vols. iii. and iv.; Lightfoot, Colossians, p. 397 ff.; Renan, Life of Jesus, passim; Colin Campbell, Crit. Studies in Luke’s Gospel; Dykes, Manifesto of the King, 449 ff.; Gladden, Tools and the Man, 55, 86.

Andrew N. Bogle.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Property (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/p/property-2.html. 1906-1918.

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