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The Social Principles Of Jesus by Walter Rauschenbusch

Chapter VIII. Private Property And The Common Good

Private Property Must Serve Social Welfare

A glance across history or a simple acquaintance with human life in any community will show us that private property is at the same time a necessary expression of personality and stimulator of character, and, on the other hand, a chief outlet and fortification of selfishness. Every reformatory effort must aim to conserve and spread the blessings of property, and every step toward a better social order will be pugnaciously blocked by its selfish beneficiaries.

What were Jesus' convictions about private property?


First Day: The Rival Interest

And he spake to them many things in parables, saying, Behold, the sower went forth to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the birds came and devoured them: and others fell upon the rocky places, where they had not much earth: and straightway they sprang up, because they had no deepness of earth: and when the sun was risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. And others fell upon the thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked them: and others fell upon the good ground, and yielded fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.... When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the evil one, and snatcheth away that which hath been sown in his heart. This is he that was sown by the way side. And he that was sown upon the rocky places, this is he that heareth the word, and straight-way with joy receiveth it; yet hath he not root in himself, but endureth for a while; and when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, straightway he stumbleth. And he that was sown among the thorns, this is he that heareth the word; and the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful. And he that was sown upon the good ground, this is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; who verily beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. -- Matt.13:3-8; 19-23.

This parable was intended to explain to the disciples why the Kingdom was not coming with a rush, as they expected. The story embodies the practical experiences of Jesus in his propaganda. He saw his work as a duplication of the sower's work on a higher level. The success of both depends on the receptiveness of the soil. The sower encounters hard trodden ground, rocky patches, and spots where hardy thorns or thistles drain the soil and where his work produces only empty ears and futile beginnings. So Jesus met the stolid conservative and also the emotional type. But the climax of his difficulties was a mind preoccupied by property worries, or lured by the illusions of wealth. He early found, then, that devotion to property is likely to be a rival to the higher interests and the common good.

How do modern social groups line up when measured by spiritual receptiveness?

Second Day: The Accumulator

And one out of the multitude said unto him, Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me. But he said unto him, Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you? And he said unto them, Take heed, and keep yourselves from all covetousness: for a man's life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth. And he spoke a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully; and he reasoned within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have not where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry. But God said unto him, Thou foolish one, this night is thy soul required of thee; and the things which thou hast prepared, whose shall they be? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. -- Luke 12:13-21.

Most men today would have no fault to find with this man. He was only doing what the modern world is unanimously trying to do. Having made a pile, he proposed to make a bigger pile. Meanwhile he slapped his soul on the back and smacked his lips in anticipation. To Jesus the fat farmer was a tragic comedy. In the first place, an unseen hand was waiting to snuff out his candle. To plan life as if it consisted in an abundance of material wealth is something of a miscalculation in a world where death is part of the scheme of things. In the second place, Jesus saw no higher purpose in the man's aim and outlook to redeem his acquisitiveness. The man was a sublimated chipmunk, gloating over bushels of pignuts. If wealth is saved to raise and educate children, or achieve some social good, it deserves moral respect or admiration. But if the acquisitive instinct is without social feeling or vision, and centered on self, it gets no respect, at least from Jesus.

Unlimited acquisition used to be considered immoral and dishonorable. How and when did public opinion change on this?

Third Day: Quit Grafting

And the multitudes asked him, saying, What then must we do? And he answered and said unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise. And there came also publicans to be baptized, and they said unto him, Teacher, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort no more than that which is appointed you. And soldiers also asked him, saying, And we, what must we do? And he said unto them, Extort from no man by violence, neither accuse any one wrongfully; and be content with your wages. -- Luke 3:10-14.

The social teachings of John the Baptist were so close to those of Jesus that we can safely draw on them in this passage.

John told the people that a new era was coming and they would have to get a new mind and manner of life as an outfit for it. The people asked for specifications. John's suggestions ran along two lines. He encouraged the plain working people to be neighborly and friendly, and share with a man who was hard up. With powerful individuals, like hired soldiers and Roman tax-farmers, he insisted that they must quit using their physical force and legal power as a cinch to extort money. In other words, they must quit grafting. In the Kingdom of God the |big, black book of graft| will be closed, and men will no longer eat their protesting fellow-men. The more we realize that some form of graft is at the bottom of most easy incomes, the more good sense will we see in this kind of evangelism.

Have we ever been a victim of extortion? How did it feel? Did it sour the milk of human kindness in us?

Fourth Day: God versus Mammon

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal: but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: for where thy treasure is there will thy heart be also. The lamp of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is the darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. -- Matt.6:19-24.

Acquisition may operate on different planes. A man may accumulate material stuff, or he may acquire spiritual faculties, memories, and relations. In a balanced life the two work side by side in peace, and each may aid the other. But the experience of all spiritual teachers shows that practically the acquisition of property often becomes a passion which absorbs the man and leaves little energy for the higher pursuits. Most men who have used up their life to acquire wealth look back with homesickness to some idealistic aspiration of their youth as to a lost Edenland. Jesus felt the antagonism of private wealth and the Kingdom of God so keenly that he set God and Mammon over against each other, and warned us that we must choose between them. Placed in this connection, the saying about the darkening of the inner light seems to refer to the influence of money-getting on the higher vision of the soul. This entire passage is fundamental and will explain other sayings which follow.

Do God and money come into flat collision in college life?

Fifth Day: The Divisive Influence of Riches

Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day: and a certain beggar named Lazarus was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table; yea, even the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels into Abraham's bosom: and the rich man also died, and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things: but now here he is comforted, and thou art in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us. And he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house; for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. But Abraham saith, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one go to them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead. -- Luke 16:19-31.

Why does Jesus send the rich man to hell as if it were a matter of course? No crimes or vices are alleged. It must be that a life given over to sumptuous living and indifferent to the want and misery of a fellow-man at the doorstep seemed to Jesus a deeply immoral and sinful life. Jesus exerted all his energies to bring men close together in love. But wealth divides. It creates semi-human relations between social classes, so that a small dole seems to be a full discharge of obligations toward the poor, and manly independence and virtue may be resented as offensive. The sting of this parable is in the reference to the five brothers who were still living as Dives had lived, and whom he was vainly trying to reach by wireless. See verse 14 in explanation.

Is it fair to call the relations between the selfish rich and the dependent poor |semi-human relations|?

Sixth Day: Get a Plank for the Deluge

And he said also unto the disciples, There was a certain rich man, who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he was wasting his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, What is this that I hear of thee? render the account of thy stewardship; for thou canst be no longer steward. And the steward said within himself, What shall I do, seeing that my lord taketh away the stewardship from me? I have not strength to dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. And calling to him each one of his lord's debtors, he said to the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, A hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bond, and sit down quickly and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, A hundred measures of wheat. He saith unto him, Take thy bond, and write fourscore. And his lord commended the unrighteous steward because he had done wisely: for the sons of this world are for their own generation wiser than the sons of the light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles. -- Luke 16:1-9.

This is one of the wittiest stories in the Bible and must be read with some sense of humor. The tenant farmers of a great estate paid their rent in shares of the produce. This elastic system offered the steward a chance to make something on the side. He was found out and discharged, but while he was closing up his accounts he still had a short spell of authority. Things looked dark. He did not care to blister his white hands with a hoe-handle, nor his social pride by begging. So he grafted one last graft, but on so large a scale that the tenants would be under lasting obligations to him. The scamp was a crook, but at least he was long-headed. Jesus wished the children of light were as clever in taking a long look ahead as the children of this world. In that case men would get ready for the new age, in which mammon loses its buying power, by making friends with it now, and their friends would take them in as guests after the great reversal.

How do you like the humorous independence of Jesus?

Seventh Day: Stranded on His Wealth

And a certain ruler asked him, saying, Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, even God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor thy father and mother. And he said, All these things have I observed from my youth up. And when Jesus heard it, he said unto him, One thing thou lackest yet: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. But when he heard these things, he became exceeding sorrowful; for he was very rich. And Jesus seeing him said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. -- Luke 18:18-25.

A fine young man, of clean and conscientious life, but with unsatisfied aspirations in his soul. Jesus invites him to a more heroic type of excellence, cutting loose from his wealth and devoting himself to the apostolate of the Kingdom of God. It was a great chance for a great life. He might have stood for God before kings and mobs, and ranked with Peter, John, and Paul as a household name. He did not rise to his chance. What held him? Jesus felt it was his wealth. A poor man would have had less to leave, and might have left it cheerfully. So Jesus sums up the psychological situation in the saddened exclamation that it is exceedingly hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom where men live in justice, fraternity, and idealism.

Have you noticed that in recent years an increasing number of this man's grandsons are trying to cut loose and find the real life, eternal life? Can you name any?

Study for the Week

Evidently the dangers connected with property were much in the mind of Jesus. He seems to have emphasized them more fully and frequently than the evils of licentiousness or drunkenness. The modern Church has reversed the relative emphasis. Why?

Of course we must not look for the methods or viewpoints of political economy in his teachings. His concern was for the spiritual vitality and soundness of the individual, and for the human relations existing among men. He was interested in property only in so far as it corrupted the higher nature or made fraternity difficult. But let no one underestimate the importance of these considerations. These things are the real end of life. All the rest is scaffolding. We should be farther along if the economic and social sciences had kept these fundamental questions more sternly in sight.


Plainly Jesus felt that the acquisitive instinct, like the sex instinct, easily breaks bounds and becomes ravenous; there is even less natural limit to it. It absorbs the energies of intellect and will. As with the rich fool, the horizon of life is filled with chances to make the pile grow bigger. Life seems to consist of money, and the problems of money.

People are valued according to that standard. Marriages are arranged for it. Politics is run for it. Wars are begun for it. Creative artistic and intellectual impulses are shouldered aside, fall asleep, or die of inanition. Property is intended to secure freedom of action and self-development; in fact, it often chains men and clips their wings. This is what Jesus calls |the deceitfulness of riches| and |the darkening of the inner eye.|(2)

In addition to the blight of character, wealth exerts a desocializing and divisive influence. It wedges apart groups that belong together. Dives and Lazarus may live in the front and rear of the same block, but with no sense of solidarity. Dives would have been deeply moved, perhaps, if one of his own class had punctured a tire in the Philistian desert and gone for two days without any food except crumbs. The separation of humanity into classes on the lines of wealth is so universal and so orthodox that few of us ever realize that it flouts all the principles of Christianity and humanity.

In the case of the young ruler Jesus encountered the fact that wealth bars men out of the world of their ideals. The question was not whether the young man could get to heaven, but whether he could have a share in the real life, in the kingdom of right relations. It is hard to acquire great wealth without doing injustice to others; it is hard to possess it and yet deal with others on the basis of equal humanity; it is hard to give it away even without doing mischief.

We have seen that Jesus believed profoundly in the value and dignity of human life; that he sought to create solidarity; that he was chiefly concerned for the saving of the lowly; and that he demanded an heroic life in the service of the Kingdom of God. But wealth, as he saw it, flouted the value of life, dissolved the spiritual solidarity of whole classes, and kept the lowly low; the wealthy had lost the capacity for an heroic life.

This is radical teaching. What shall we say to it? Jesus is backed by the Old Testament prophets and the most spiritual teaching of the Hebrew people, which condemned injustice and extortionate money-making even more energetically than did Jesus. Medieval Christianity sincerely assented to the principle that private property is a danger to the soul and a neutralizer of love. Every monastic community tried to cut under sex dangers by celibacy, and property dangers by communism. This was an enormous misinterpretation of Christianity, but it shows that men took the teachings on the dangers of private property seriously. The modern Christian world does not. It has quietly set aside the ideas of Jesus on this subject, lives its life without much influence from them, and contents itself with emphasizing other aspects.

Has the teaching of Jesus on private property been superseded by a better understanding of the social value of property? Or has his teaching been suppressed and swamped by the universal covetousness of modern life? |Our moral pace-setters strike at bad personal habits, but act as if there was something sacred about money-getting; and, seeing that the master iniquities of our time are connected with money-making, they do not get into the fight at all. The child-drivers, monopoly-builders, and crooked financiers have no fear of men whose thought is run in the moulds of their grandfathers. Go to the tainted-money colleges, and you will learn that Drink, not Graft, is the nation's bane| (Edward A. Ross, |Sin and Society, an Analysis of Latter-day Iniquity,| p.97 -- the italics are his).


The machinery for making money which Jesus knew, was simple, crude, and puny compared with the complicated and pervasive system which the magnates of modern industry have built up. There was probably not a millionaire in all Palestine. What would he have said to our great cities?

We need a Christian ethics of property, more perhaps than anything else. The wrongs connected with wealth are the most vulnerable point of our civilization. Unless we can make that crooked place straight, all our charities and religion are involved in hypocrisy.

We have to harmonize the two facts, that wealth is good and necessary, and that wealth is a danger to its possessor and to society. On the one hand property is indispensable to personal freedom, to all higher individuality, and to self-realization; the right to property is a corollary of the right to life; without property men are at the mercy of nature and in bondage to those who have property. On the other hand property is used as a means of collecting tribute and private taxes, as a club with which to extort unearned gain from laborers and consumers, and as the fundamental tool of oppression.

Where do we draw the line? Is it true that property created by productive labor is a great moralizer, and that property acquired without productive labor is the great demoralizer? Is it correct that property for use is on the whole good, and property for power is a menace?

What is the relation between property and self-development? At what point does property become excessive? At what point does food become excessive and poisonous? At what point does fertilizer begin to kill a plant? Would any real social values be lost if incomes averaged [USD]2,000 and none exceeded [USD]10,000?

To what extent does a moral purpose take the dangers out of acquisition?

Is any life moral in which the natural capacities are not sincerely taxed to do productive work? If a man's wealth is destined to cut his descendants off from productive labor, is it a blessing? What is the moral difference between strenuous occupation and labor? How large a proportion of our time and energy can be devoted to play and leisure without softening our moral fiber?

At what points does private property come to be anti-social? If we could eliminate the monopoly elements and the capacity to levy tribute, would there be much danger in the remainder?

Does private property, in the enormous aggregations of today and in control of the essential outfit of society, still correspond to the essential theoretical conception of private property, or have public properties and public functions fallen under private control? |Much that we are accustomed to hear called legitimate insistence upon the rights of property, the Old Testament would seem to call the robbery of God, and grinding the faces of the poor| (The Bishop of Oxford).


The religious spirit will always have to call the individual farther than the law can compel him to go. After all unjust and tainted portions have been eliminated from our property, religion lays its hands on the rest and says, |You are only a steward over this.| In the parables of the talents, the pounds, and the unjust steward, Jesus argues on the assumption that our resources are a trust, and not absolute property. We manage and control them, but always under responsibility. We hold them from God, and his will has eminent domain. But the will of God is identical with the good of mankind. When we hold property in trust for God, we hold it for humanity, of which we are part. We misuse the trust if by it we deprive others of health, freedom, joy, hope, or efficiency, for instance, by overworking others and underworking our own children.

Suggestions for Thought and Discussion

I. The Love of Money

1. Define graft. What is wrong in it? Where do we see it? Where are we myopic about it?

2. Why did Jesus have so much to say about money and so little about drink? Why does Paul call the love of money |the root of all evil|?

II. Jesus' Fear of Riches

1. On what ground does Jesus fear the influence of riches and of their accumulation?

2. Summarize Jesus' teachings regarding wealth.

3. In what respects is his attitude different from the ordinary viewpoint of the modern world?

4. Was Jesus opposed to the owning of farming tools or fishing smacks? Where would he draw the line between honest earnings and dangerous wealth?

5. Was his teaching on wealth ascetic? Was it socialistic?

6. To what extent should we recognize his insight on this question as authority for us?

III. The Problem of Wealth in the Modern World

I. Are the |master iniquities| of our age located in sex life, politics, or business?

2. Distinguish between |property for use| and |property for power.|

3. What are the moral evils created by mass poverty? By aggregations of wealthy families?

4. Why has the modern world set aside Jesus' teachings about wealth? To what extent have we substituted a better understanding of the social value of property? How far should we be satisfied with our present adjustment of the property question?

5. What methods of money making are condemned by the common sentiment of the Church? Is there anything which ought to be included in this condemnation? If so, what?

IV. The Christian Attitude Toward Property and Wealth Under Modern Conditions

1. At what point does the amassing of private property become contrary to the principles of Jesus?

2. What legalized property rights are antagonistic to Jesus' principles?

3. How can society accumulate wealth without the injustice and social divisions which now accompany the amassing of private fortunes?

4. If a man has an invested income, has he the right to live a life of leisure? When is it right to be a non-producer?

5. How rich has a Christian a right to be? In a Christian society what is the minimum limit of income?

6. Would economic democracy eliminate or enforce the doctrine of stewardship?

7. How can we pluck the sting of sin out of private property?

V. For Special Discussion

1. Are millionaires a symptom of social disease or a triumph of civilization?

2. Should social science reckon with the influence of wealth on personal character?

3. What moral conviction is expressed in the condemnation of usurious interest and of rack-rent? Should excessive profit be included?

4. How could industry be financed if there were no wealthy investors with accumulations?

5. When is a college student a parasite?

6. If college communities had less money would they breed better men and women?

7. How have the successes of predatory finance affected the outlook and morality of college students?

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