In the last section we looked at how the early church understood Jesus’ teachings on wealth…
How did the church change its mind on what Jesus was saying?
Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) took this a stage further, redefining the sin of avarice as not simply the desire for wealth, but as a desire for a level of wealth inappropriate to one’s station in life. This was essentially an Aristotelian concept. Thus if God had ordained it that you are born a Duke or a Prince then it was acceptable to maintain, or if necessary acquire, sufficient riches for your condition of life, but if you were born, by God’s will, a peasant, then to desire the same level of wealth would be a mortal sin. In this utterly unbiblical theology any desire to rise above one’s allotted position in life was similarly sinful.
John Calvin (1509 – 1564) strongly criticised the Thomistic view which had held sway in Europe for hundreds of years. In a 1545 letter to Claude de Sachin he criticised the hermeneutics of those who used largely OT texts to prohibit usury among the Christians of his day, arguing that they had been rendered irrelevant by the changed conditions. He also dismissed the Aristotelian argument that it is wrong to charge interest because money itself is barren. He analogised that the walls and roof of a house were also barren, but it was legitimate to earn money by charging someone to stay there. In the same way, he reasoned, money can be fruitful. In other writings he forbade laziness and wastefully using hard earned money, and identified the purchase of unnecessary luxuries as a sin. Furthermore, in reaction to the excesses of donations to the Catholic Church, such as for the purchase of indulgences, he recommended limits on the amount the Christian should give to the local congregation. Finally, he often seems to adopt a moral hazard argument in relation to the donation of money to the poor and needy, as it was seen as furthering beggary and dependence.
According to later sociologists these five factors (acceptable usury, valorisation of hard work, negative view of prodigality, limits on donations to church and scepticism regarding almsgiving), along with the renaissance attack on traditional the authority structures of feudalism and monarchism, created a worldview in which the religious thing to do was to pursue a secular vocation with as much zeal as possible. This was later characterised as the “protestant work ethic” which some described as being “not very ethical, and it didn’t work for anyone outside of it”. Whatever its critics say this worldview created the conditions for the explosive growth of Capitalism, as the investment of earnings to make more capital became one of the only options remaining. Consumerism, as a later subset of capitalism was able quickly to thrive in such an environment. It has been astonishingly successful. Its success though has been at the expense of the Gospel of the Kingdom, as the Enlightenment fostered a private version of faith, with an emphasis on personal sin expressed in mostly sexual morality and a focus on the post –mortem sate (Heaven or Hell) rather than the life lived. Finally in its later versions this denuded Gospel the call of Jesus to a life of costly discipleship became recast as a cheap offer of a once and for all “decision for Christ” which bore little consequences for the rest of life. To people, even Christians, growing up in the shadow of such an oppressive worldview, it is no wonder that this teaching of Jesus is found to be puzzling.
So what about us, how should we understand this parable of Jesus?