A poor man's biblical view of economics

By  Michael J. Iafrate, Catholic Register Special
  • April 1, 2010

{mosimage}Jesus and Money: A guide for Times of Financial Crisis by Ben Witherington III (Brazos Press, soft cover, 192 pages, $21.99)

Ben Witherington knows Scripture and he might know money, but when he brings the two together he falls short of talking sense.

Witherington brings biblical teaching on money to bear on the current economic crisis in Jesus and Money. Witherington is a well-published Evangelical biblical scholar whose works cover a wide range of scholarly debates, presenting them in accessible ways for lay Christian audiences. In this book, however, Witherington presents an incomplete view of biblical texts on wealth and oversteps the bounds of his expertise as he applies these texts to today’s economy.

This incompleteness is ironic, as Witherington explicitly stakes out his position as a “canonical” approach to the Scriptures. That is, he insists Christians may not pick and choose parts of Scripture that appeal to them while ignoring others. This is precisely the problem with his primary target throughout the book: advocates of the “health and wealth” or “prosperity” Gospel who focus on texts which seem to suggest that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing.

Against this painfully obvious abuse of Scripture, Witherington insists Christians must not ignore other biblical texts about wealth. In his first eight chapters, he surveys a variety of texts from both Testaments. Along the way he draws out insights to develop a “Christian theology of money,” presented in chapter nine, and suggestions for the life of discipleship in chapter 10.

The chapters contain useful background for the biblical texts he chooses. Especially helpful are his descriptions of the economies of the ancient world and how they differ from our own. But his insistence on a canonical approach obscures the choices Witherington himself makes in presenting the biblical view on money. For example, Witherington’s survey features only one paragraph on the Hebrew prophets, an obvious source for a biblical view of wealth.

The prophets are indeed essential for understanding the words and ministry of Jesus. Also, despite his consciousness of the limited role money actually played in the ancient world, Witherington tends to zero in only on passages that explicitly refer to money, overlooking, for example, the more general and pervasive biblical theme of God’s option for the poor and powerless.His neglect of the option for the poor is unfortunate, and he seems to downplay or even reject this idea in favour of stressing God’s “impartiality.”

In both his analysis of Scripture and his attempt to apply it to our contemporary world, Witherington sees things from the perspective of middle- and upper-class assumptions. These prevent him from subjecting biblical texts to any form of serious critique, particularly a class conscious critique. Texts that would not offend middle- and upper-class sensibilities, such as passages from the book of Proverbs, are left unscrutinized, while more challenging passages, such as Jesus’ command to His disciples to sell all they have are explained away because, after all, how are we supposed to be good, generous Christians if we don’t have anything to give?
Witherington does not view today’s economic system from the perspective of people who are poor.

Combine this with his near exclusive focus on the prosperity Gospel phenomenon, and he allows the deeper, hidden assumptions of global capitalism to escape scrutiny. For Witherington, “we are all responsible” for the economic crisis. Poverty and hardship are seen as occasional “emergencies” and “crises” rather than the ever-present underside of the global money system. The emergencies that “occasionally” befall “our” economic system, and solutions for “fixing” them, look very different depending on where one stands.

Likewise, for Witherington, the problem with wealth is the spiritual effect it has on believers, not the material effects that capitalist values and structures have on the poor and marginalized. Wealth is “a potential spiritual stumbling block” while generosity brings “spiritual rewards” and so Christians should resist consumerism lest they experience “spiritual death.” Systemic injustice is noted on few occasions, but “The bottom line of Jesus’s teaching about wealth and prosperity is that wealth is a danger to one’s spiritual life and well-being.”

From this perspective, all Witherington is able to do by the book’s end is make a few recommendations for how we might spiritually deprogram ourselves from consumer culture. Missing is the idea that Christians might work toward a different kind of economics — which is what Pope Benedict XVI argues in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

Witherington suggests Christians spend time with holy rollers rather than high rollers, but the thought that middle- and upper-class Christians might spend time with and learn from those who are poor is glaringly absent.

Sadly, I find little reason to recommend this book. The few worthwhile portions contain information easily found in other more complete reflections on faith and economics. There are many worthwhile recent biblical and theological reflections available, such as Richard Horsley’s Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All and Joerg Rieger’s No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics and the Future.

(Iafrate is a doctoral student in theology at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology.)

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