What does Jesus actually say about money?

Money and religion are close to each other – and so let me ask what did Jesus think about what money is made of, namely „debt“?

By Lars Schall

Let us begin by stating: Money and religion are close to each other. A critic of capitalism, Karl Marx, wrote in 1844 that money is a „real god.“ In his notes, he elaborates as follows:

The essence of money is … the mediating activity or movement, the human, social act by which man’s products mutually complement one another, is estranged from man and becomes the attribute of money, a material thing outside man. Since man alienates this mediating activity itself, he is active here only as a man who has lost himself and is dehumanised; the relation itself between things, man’s operation with them, becomes the operation of an entity outside man and above man. Owing to this alien mediator – instead of man himself being the mediator for man – man regards his will, his activity and his relation to other men as a power independent of him and them. His slavery, therefore, reaches its peak. It is clear that this mediator now becomes a real God, for the mediator is the real power over what it mediates to me. Its cult becomes an end in itself. (1)

A contemporary of Marx, namely the poet Heinrich Heine, wrote that money was becoming God and God was becoming money. (2) Elsewhere we also read: „‚Money is the god of our time, and Rothschild is its prophet,‘ trumpeted Heinrich Heine… after he had visited the Parisian bank and stock exchange prince Baron James de Rothschild in his private cabinet. ‚Even at the door of his cabinet many are seized with a shiver of awe, such as Moses once felt on Horeb when he realized that he was standing on holy ground.'“ (3)

The thesis that money was becoming God was also put forward by Georg Simmel when he published his book, The Philosophy of Money, in 1900. Money, which for Simmel in its modern form has no intrinsic value („It is not what money is, but what it is for, that gives it its value“), is defined as „the pure form of exchangeability.“ Quantity and quality correspond to each other in monetary wealth, and Simmel suggests that increased accumulation of wealth is accompanied by an increased sense of potency. Money is no longer „a profane means of conducting an economic transaction,“ Simmel continues. „In modern society it has become more and more a god. Money permeates everything; it has become an end in itself.“ I approached monetary expert Bernard Lietaer in 2012 about Simmel’s thesis and asked if he was right. Lietaer: „I’m afraid he’s right. It is a god of shadows. It’s also a god that drives the negative aspects of humanity; greed, short-term thinking, competition. Again, I don’t have a problem with some of that existing, but it becomes a problem when it’s our only means of effecting change within ourselves, and when it pushes us all in the same direction, making sustainability impossible.“

On the „money – power“ equation, Lietaer told me, „Money is probably the main tool of power. Money has the ability to make people do things for you in certain ways, people or organizations, and if you control the money, you can actually control almost everybody. It certainly controls governments, and they in turn control everybody; so that’s what’s going on.“ (4)

And back to our initial question: What does Jesus actually say about money?

In the Gospel of Matthew we read how Jesus said: „No one can serve two masters: either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cling to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.“ (Matt. 6:24)

Jacques Ellul looks at this passage in his book Money and Power when he writes there,

The problem of the ownership of money is not at the heart of the question. Jesus raises the question in its fullness when he calls money mammon, an Aramaic word that usually means “money” and also can mean “wealth.” Here Jesus personifies money and considers it a sort of god. …

What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power. This term should be understood not in its vague meaning, “force,” but in the specific sense in which it is used in the New Testament. Power is something that acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous (or claims to be), is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent. This is its first characteristic. Its second is that power has a spiritual value. It is not only of the material world, although this is where it acts. It has spiritual meaning and direction. Power is never neutral. It is oriented; it also orients people. Finally, power is more or less personal. And just as death often appears in the Bible as a personal force, so here with money. Money is not a power because humans use it, because it is the means of wealth or because accumulating money makes things possible. It is a power before all that, and those exterior signs are only the manifestations of this power which has, or claims to have, a reality of its own.

We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and mammon. He is not using a rhetorical figure but pointing out a reality. God as a person and mammon as a person find themselves in conflict. Jesus describes the relation between us and one or the other the same way: it is the relationship between servant and master. Mammon can be a master the same way God is; that is, mammon can be a personal master.

Jesus is not describing the particular situation of the miser, whose master is money because his soul is perverted. Jesus is not describing a relationship between us and an object, but between us and an active agent. He is not suggesting that we use money wisely or earn it honestly. He is speaking of a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.

Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims. We are not talking only about our inner life; we are observing our total situation. We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power. …

Love, in the Bible, … comes from the entire person; it involves the whole person and binds the whole person without distinction. Love reaches down into the roots of human beings and does not leave them intact. It leads to identification and assimilation between the lover and the beloved. Jesus Christ teaches us in great detail that our love binds us to the spiritual future of our beloved. This is how we must understand the connection between Christians and Christ, which is a love relationship. Love led Christ to follow us in our entire condition, but inversely, today it joins us to Christ in everything – his life, his death, his resurrection, and his glory. Where Christ is, there also is the one who loves Christ. Such is the force, the vigor, of this bond.

Love for money is not a lesser relationship. By this love, we join ourselves to money’s fate. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Ultimately, we follow what we have loved most intensely either into eternity or into death. To love money is to be condemned to follow it in its destruction, its disappearance, its annihilation, and its death. …

Because love makes us follow the beloved and nothing else, we cannot love two things at the same time. Jesus firmly points out the necessity of choosing. “He will hate the one, and love the other.” To love one is not simply to be unacquainted with or indifferent to the other; it is to hate the other. Do we really believe that if money were only an object with no spiritual significance Jesus would have gone that far?

As for the formula: „Render unto Caesar…“, I talked about this subject matter with political scientist Alexandre Christoyannopoulos – see here. Christoyannopoulos explained from his point of view of analysis:
 
The Pharisees are out to trick Jesus and ask him whether taxes should be paid. His first reply is to ask for a coin (he doesn’t seem to carry one). They bring one up. He asks whose face is on it. They say Caesar’s. At the time, one’s face on an object denoted ownership. Then comes “render unto Caesar what is Caesars”, followed immediately by “and to God what is God’s”. The question is therefore what is Caesar’s and what is God’s. For Christian anarchists, coins, public monuments and the like are indeed Caesar’s. But not much else. Certainly life and hence the giving and taking of life are God’s prerogative. Coins, then, are indeed Caesar’s to claim back, but beyond that little else “belongs to Caesar”. The rest, to Jesus’ audience, quite clearly belongs to God. In other words, Jesus here calls his listeners to clearly distinguish what really matters a lot (and belongs to God) from the fickle things (like coins) that are technically Caesar’s. It’s about prioritising God over Caesar on all the important decisions, and giving Caesar what he asks when it concerns the less important things he likes to keep busy with.

Focusing on Jesus and an essential facet of money, namely debt, U.S. economist Michael Hudson points to a sermon in the 4th chapter of Luke’s Gospel and, based on it, argues that Jesus‘ mission was to bring universal debt relief – or in the words Jesus speaks at the beginning of his sermon: he came „…to proclaim the year of the Lord.“ He unrolls the related scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which tells of freedom for captives and a „year of the Lord’s favor“ (Isaiah 61:1-2). The maintenance of debts by the Pharisees (according to the rules of the so-called „prosbul clause“) Jesus explains in his sermon as a violation of the Mosaic law – the law in Leviticus, chapter 25, which speaks of the „year of jubilee“. Thus Jesus opposes the Pharisees, who are inclined toward creditors, and speaks for the class of debtors. Hudson further suggests that the parable of the ungrateful servant, depicted in the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, intends to express that the poor should be „literally forgiven their debts.“ This corresponds with the „Our Father“ prayer of the Sermon on the Mount when some translations read, „And forgive us our debts.“ Luke’s Gospel cites the admonition to „lend without expecting anything in return“ – according to Hudson, this expresses the opposite of the intentions that the „prosbul clause“ had. All four Gospels record Jesus coming to Jerusalem and going to the temple of the Lord, „where business contracts and oaths, including debt agreements, were sworn to the Lord (as had been done at the temple gates of Babylonia). By this oath, the repayment of the debt was sanctified.“ The temple cleansing occurs, during which Jesus, among other things, overturns the tables of the money changers, saying (quoting Jeremiah 7:11), „Is it not written, ‚My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations‘? But you have made it a den of thieves.“ Finally, Matthew 23:16-17 says from Jesus‘ mouth, „Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‚Whoever swears by the temple counts for nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is bound.‘ Ye fools and blind, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold?“ (6)

In the debtor-creditor relationship, the analogy can be observed that, as in the religious God-believer relationship, fear is the central element. (7) The economists Tim Di Muzio and Richard H. Robbins, in their book Debt as Power, emphasize that Friedrich Nietzsche, in the Genealogy of Morals (1887), looked at the fact that the German word for „debt“ in the monetary sense is also the word for „guilt“ or „sin“ in the moral sense, and he „speculates that in Christianity God becomes the ultimate creditor of human debt and, of course, the ultimate forgiver by dying for sins. This notion that the debtor-creditor relationship is central to our sense of moral obligation, and that ultimate power can be conceptualized as a debtor-creditor relationship, refutes the classical economic notion that money is neutral and simply a medium of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. If you have the power to create money through the medium of interest-bearing debt, as soon as you lend it, you reproduce what for Nietzsche is the original relation of power and the source of morality and civilization itself.“ (8)

Addendum:
 
One economist, who is an outspoken advocate for a debt jubilee in our times, is the Australian Steve Keen — see, for example, this interview here. I’ve asked Keen, whether he appreciates the fact that his debt jubilee concept is in sync with Jesus‘ attitude towards debt. Keen replied: „In the sense that the biblical Jesus sided with debtors, as Michael Hudson has documented, yes. But my ‚Modern Debt Jubilee‘ concept involves using the State’s capacity to create money to cancel credit-based money and replace it with fiat-based money. That’s a bit more complicated than overturning the moneylenders‘ tables in the temple–though definitely in the same spirit.“
 
With Keen saying „fiat-based money,“ we are, of course, in a way back in religious territory, as you may remember: „Dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux…“
 

Sources:

(1) Cited as Karl Marx: Excerpts from James Mill’s book Élémens d’économie politique, 1844. For an in-depth analysis of the thesis there that money is a „real god,“ see Ian Wright: Marx on Capital as a Real God, Sept. 3, 2020; https://ianwrightsite.wordpress.com/2020/09/03/marx-on-capital-as-a-real-god-2/, and: Dark Eucharist of the Real God, Nov. 25, 2021; https://ianwrightsite.wordpress.com/2021/11/25/dark-eucharist-of-the-real-god/

(2) See Heinrich Heine: Die romantische Schule, in: Sämtliche Schriften, Vol. 3. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2005, p. 472.

(3) Cited as EWG Banker Rothschild. Der Spiegel, No. 35, August 28, 1962; https://www.spiegel.de/politik/zweite-fortsetzung-a-a0708175-0002-0001-0000-000045141360. Elsewhere, Heine reports on the subject of money: „All is quiet, as on a snowy winter night. Only a quiet, monotonous drip. That is the interest that continuously trickles down into the capitals, which are constantly swelling; one hears neatly how they grow, the riches of the rich. In between, the quiet sobs of poverty. Sometimes, too, something clangs, like a knife being sharpened.“ Cf. H. Heine: Über Frankreich. Lutetia, Essays 2nd Part. Online: http://www.heinrich-heine-denkmal.de/heine-texte/lutetia52.shtml

(4) Cf. Lars Schall, How About Money? Interview with Bernard Lietaer, LarsSchall.com, August 21, 2012; https://www.larsschall.com/2012/08/21/how-about-money/

(5) Jacques Ellul, Money and Power. InterVarsity Press, 1984, pp. 75–76, 83–84. It is also of interest that the theologian Karl Barth dealt with Mammon as a „power“ or „force“, namely as one of the „lordless powers“ in the book The Christian Life. (Other „lordless powers“ are, for example, „empire,“ „ideology,“ „pleasure,“ and „fashion.“) According to Barth, the New Testament „conceives of human beings as pushers not only, but also as pushed – as drivers not only, but as driven.“ Money can become a power in its own right, turning people into the driven. Cf. Karl Barth: The Christian Life. Die Kirchliche Dogmatik IV/4, Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, Vorlesungen 1959-1961. Zurich, 1979. Elsewhere we can read in Barth: „Where not man, but interest-bearing capital is the object, the preservation and increase of which is the meaning and goal of the political order, there is already in progress the automatism which will one day send men hunting to kill and be killed.“ Cf. Karl Barth: Die kirchliche Dogmatik Vol. III/4. Zurich, 1951, p. 525. The „lordless powers“ are able to become „disguised religions“ – and money is potentially even a „very real deity“: „There are also religions disguised as science, art and politics, as technology, sports and fashion: hidden under all the secularity worn for show, but all the more sprightly carried out encroachments and superstructures into some beyond, worships of the most diverse gods and idols: Mammon, money, the most powerful of these hidden but very real deities!“ Cf. Karl Barth: Das Christentum und die Religion (1963). In: Barth-Lesebuch, p. 41. Using Aristotle’s „philosophy of money,“ C. Tyler DesRoches provides: „At worst, the individual who pursues money-making as an end in itself risks becoming a slave to what William James Booth describes as the “invisible master” of pleonexia (Booth 1993, 49).“ Aristotle assumes that those who devote their lives to the idea „that they ought either to increase their money without limit, or at any rate not to lose it,“ are concerned only with living and not with living well. According to him, the Good Life and eudaimonia („bliss“) are incompatible with a life devoted to making money.  Cf. C. Tyler DesRoches: On Aristotle’s Natural Limit; https://philarchive.org/archive/DESOAN. On money in Greek antiquity and in the thought of Aritoteles, see also Richard Seaford: Money and the Early Greek Mind – Homer, Philosophy, Tragedy, Cambridge University Press, 2004, and Stefan Eich: The Currency of Politics – The Political Theory of Money from Aristotle to Keynes, Princeton University Press, 2022.

(6) Cf. Michael Hudson, …And Forgive them their Debts – Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption. ISLET Publishing, 2018, pp. 9-16, 224-227. As for the cancellation of debts, to which Jesus gave voice: the Sumerian word „amargi,“ which was used for „freedom from debt,“ is, according to anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber, „the first surviving term for ‚freedom‘ in any language known to us“ ever. Cf. David Graeber: Schulden. Die Ersten 5000 Jahre. Klett-Cotta, 2011, p. 72.

(7) Cf. Bernhard Lauret: Schulderfahrung und Gottesfrage bei Nietzsche und Freud. Kaiser, 1977, p. 169.

(8) Tim Di Muzio / Richard H. Robbins: Debt as Power. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015, pp. 125-126. For further literature that makes a connection between money / debt / economics and religion / theology, see for example Robert H. Nelson: Economics as Religion – From Samuelson to Chicago and Beyond. Penn State Press, 2001. Dirk Baecker (Hrsg.): Kapitalismus als Religion. Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2003. Philip Goodchild: Theology of Money. Duke University Press, 2009. Nicholas Heron: Liturgical Power – Between Economic and Political Theology. Fordham University Press, 2017. Elettra Stimili: Debt and Guilt – A Political Philosophy. Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Devin Singh: Divine Currency – The Theological Power of Money in the West. Stanford University Press, 2018. Adam Kotsko: Neoliberalism’s Demons – On the Political Theology of Late Capital. Stanford University Press, 2018. Benjamin M. Friedman: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Knopf, 2021.

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