Jesus, the Welfare State, and Government Coercion

bread and wineWhat Would Jesus Take?

Dr. Joel McDurmon

As things normally go in the world of professional talk, an off-hand comment by a conservative commentator has provided another occasion for a liberal pundit to make an idiot out of himself (please excuse the redundancy).olivet discourse

In a now well-known clip (thanks to leftist commentator Lawrence O’Donnell, as we shall see), Rush Limbaugh confronts the question some liberals are asking about the federal budget: “What would Jesus cut?” Leftist activists like Jim Wallis of Sojourners respond that Jesus would cut military spending and tax “subsidies” for the rich, but would not cut any “funding focused on reducing poverty” including creating “decent jobs at decent wages.”occupy and the elite

(Wallis’ organization is even trying to cash in—capitalist-style—on the slogan, selling “What Would Jesus Cut?” armbands on its website.)

In other words, these leftists think Jesus is a leftist—that He would support the modern leftist Welfare State, take from the rich, cut from the rich, and give to the poor using government coercion.

Mr. Limbaugh exposed their charade: “The question is not, ‘What would Jesus cut?’ The question is, ‘What would Jesus take?’”

A Brief Primer on “Taking”

Indeed, this is a great question for leftists and rightists everywhere! This places the politics of Jesus (or anyone else) in proper perspective. When speaking of a government budget, why does the discussion always begin with spending? This is to start already half-way through the process. Why speak of spending versus cutting before we talk about how the government gets its money to begin with?

The government does not earn money like hardworking people. It is not a business, it does not produce anything. It has nothing to sell in the marketplace, and indeed refuses to compete in the free market. Government is regulatory, penal, and decretive—not productive or profitable. As such, it can only obtain money by one of two ways: borrowing it or taking it by force from someone else. In the modern world of Welfare/Warfare States, governments do both regularly.

Some might add that governments also obtain money a third way: printing it. But of course, this is normally done by a pseudo-governmental central bank and then lent to the government, so it’s really just more borrowing. And of course, the inflation of the money supply is really a hidden tax on all holders of currency because it dilutes the value of the currency while transferring large sums of it to the government or other central banks. So, inflation is really just another form of taking in addition to borrowing as well. Thus, central bank manipulation of money is really a combined form for borrowing and taking from someone else.

So we are left with two basic ways of funding government: borrowing and taking. These two are summed up by the biblical, moral, and common descriptions: debt and theft.

And yet this can be reduced further, because anything government borrows it must either pay back later or default on the loan. But anything government pays back later can only be paid back with money obtained via the same two methods—either borrowing or taking.

Government can, of course, borrow more to service its existing debt, thereby compounding the problem while buying time; but this is now well-known as “kicking the can” down the road. The problem here is that as more is borrowed, the can keeps getting bigger; and the road is infinitely long. At some point, kicking the can results in a broken foot. This is the point of de-foot, more commonly known as default. At this point, someone, somewhere starts getting stiffed on the deal.

Since borrowing only leads to compounding the problem, the only way for government to fund the payback of its debts and its promises is through taking wealth from someone else who is productive. It calls this by a variety of names—contributions, withholding, millage, appropriations, even sometimes plainly “taxes,” or more recently by Obama, “spending reductions in the tax code”—but in the end we all know that taking what belongs to someone else is called “stealing”—at least this is what the Bible calls it. Therefore, government “taking” is a form of theft.

So Limbaugh is correct: the more appropriate question is “What would Jesus Take?” It is a question that hits directly at the core of the morality of federal government budgets—much more so than the later question of how the money shall be spent.

And Limbaugh answers this question appropriately as well, “Of course the answer is ‘Nothing!’” We all know Jesus’ view of theft inasmuch as He would not have broken a single commandment, nor condoned anyone else to do so (Matt. 5:17–19). If it’s stolen money to begin with, then the spending or cutting question is moot. If the spending is based on theft, then it is a no brainer: cut it all. This is to say, don’t take anything to begin with.

And, by the way, what was Jesus’ view of defaulting on one’s debts? Not favorable: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:25–6). This, mind you, is from the allegedly “meek and mild” Sermon on the Mount.

This is why liberals and leftists (and many Christians and conservatives as well) start the budget question at spending instead of revenue—they prefer not to think about the immorality inherent in the system of collection to begin with. But a Christian ethic demands that we assess the root of the problem: taxation and the Welfare State. Taxation is theft, Jesus will have none of it, and we should completely defund every Welfare program at every level of civil government in this country.

Liberals are too committed to their system of central planning and theft in the name of benevolence that they prefer not to think morally. But the moral issue is loud and clear. And when guys like Limbaugh make it clear in public, liberals have to scramble to put a moral façade on State coercion.

The Gospels in the Hands of an Angry Liberal

In this episode, the job of building that façade has been taken up enthusiastically by MSNBC pundit Lawrence O’Donnell. He calls Limbaugh’s comment, “a wild display of biblical ignorance.” He then attempts to remedy this ignorance. We are then treated to the spectacle of the attempt to cure a delusion by means of a deeper delusion.

O’Donnell states: “The New Testament does have an answer to Rush’s question, ‘What would Jesus take?’. . . . The answer is, ‘Everything . . . . 100%’”

He then heads to the Gospels for proof of this assertion. He confidently pronounces his findings. He refers to the episode in Mark 10:17–22 in which a rich man inquires of Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds,

“You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

O’Donnell briefly considers whether this phrase “give to the poor” refers to all the proceeds from the sale of everything, or just a portion of it, but he concludes that it’s inconclusive.

It could mean that we should all sell everything and then give everything we have to the poor. But this interpretation would be ridiculous as a general rule—as it would require everyone to give everything all the time, which would mean no one would have anything—and even O’Donnell tip-toes all around it in order to avoid connecting it to civil policy. He says: “I lean toward the ‘give all of your proceeds to the poor’ interpretation, but I don’t do so with absolute certainty, nor would I use that line as a Christ-based argument for a particular tax bracket.”

Then why bring it up at all? If the argument is over what Jesus would indeed take, why talk about what does not apply to this?

Simple. Because it allows liberals like O’Donnell to prevaricate—to say it doesn’t apply to the situation of government taking but that it does support liberals’ view of government taking. Got that? O’Donnell does: “But, it seems very clear that Jesus would be cool with a 39.6 percent tax bracket for people making over $250,000.” In other words, O’Donnell thinks Jesus’ statement is not an argument for a specific tax bracket, but that it is an argument for a specific tax bracket.

If you can make sense of that logic, then you have grasped the heart and soul of modern liberalism (note that I am speaking figuratively here: I do not think modern liberalism actually has either a heart or a soul).

O’Donnell continues by adding that the rich man’s reaction of sadness to Jesus’ statement is applicable to rich men like Rush Limbaugh:

And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23–25).

O’Donnell spikes this punch by adding Luke 14:33: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Then, forgetting his previous prevarication on “everything,” he adds, “That means you Rush, and that means everything. Give up everything.”

Let us make a couple of remarks here. In regard to Mark 10:17–25, O’Donnell has committed two fundamental (and elementary) errors of biblical interpretation. First, he has simply ended the story too soon—that is, he has ignored (or suppressed) vital information. Second, he has ignored the basic context of the passage.

First, the rest of the story is in Mark 10:28–30, and it is very revealing:

Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Unlike the rich man who was unwilling, Peter notes how he and the disciples had in fact left everything to follow him (Peter says nothing of giving to the poor, which indicates that the main issue was not Welfare, but rather the general willingness to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus. This is the case as we shall see in a moment). And what does Jesus say in return? Does he speak of a life of selfless giving (or taking by government)? No, He promises that these sacrificial followers would “receive a hundredfold” in wealth and treasures, not just in some heavenly age to come, but “in this time.” In short, for a temporary sacrifice of everything, Jesus promised tremendous increase later in their lives by following His word, although for the apostles this would come amidst persecutions.

Why did O’Donnell not continue the story to this point (if he even noticed the rest of it)? Had he done so, he would be forced to elucidate a doctrine of how, when the rich give away everything they should expect to become a hundred times richer by doing so. But this would not make sense in general, let alone as a matter of government policy (although, the wealthy often do use government coercion to enrich themselves many times over).

In order to make full sense of Jesus’ teaching here, we must also consider the basic context of the passage. When He spoke of sacrifice and wealth in “this time” and in the “age to come,” He was not referring to earthly life versus life in heaven. He was speaking of the old covenant age versus the new covenant age (as I have discussed more thoroughly elsewhere). This means that Jesus’ comments to the rich man and subsequently to Peter have primarily (if not exclusively) a first-century context.

And this makes sense in light of the fact that Jerusalem was about to be leveled to the ground according to Jesus (Mark 13,Matt. 24). While most people disbelieved Jesus in general, especially on this point, His disciples—if they truly believed what He said—had to be willing to prepare for this destruction. The sensible thing to do would be to sell their property before the great calamity destroyed real estate values and likely the person, too. And we know that this is exactly what the faithful did (Acts 4:34–35). But this was a great sacrifice in faith—selling one’s property based solely upon the words of the teacher—this was some great faith in the radical words of that teacher. But what an amazing testimony to Jesus! And how relieved and empowered were these disciples after the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70—within their own generation just as Jesus had predicted?

Both of these ideas come together again in the Luke 14:33 passage. In fact, they show up continually throughout the Gospels. Jesus was continually warning that the time was short for Jerusalem—that a great calamitous judgment was coming upon it with that generation. His message was that following him would mean selling all wealth and property, but heeding His advice was the only way to survive into the coming age—the age of the New Testament when the old covenant temple and city would be destroyed. Only by sacrificing now would His followers be able to have any viable life after that time. And Christ would richly bless them on that other side. This would require a cold, hard calculation of the costs of following Jesus, which is the theme of the overall context here (Luke 14:25–35), and trusting that Jesus’ Word would indeed come to pass.

And this pertained not to all Christians at all times, but only to those first-century Jewish disciples who would be facing the destruction of that city in their lifetimes. This is why Luke 14:33 is not stated as some general spiritual principle for all people, but specifically as a message to a Jewish multitude following Him as He was travelling (see Luke 14:25). In Luke 14:33, Jesus does not say broadly “anyone,” but rather “anyone of you.” He was speaking this particular message of giving everything to that particular people. Those Jews who were truly faithful to His message indeed sold their local houses and lands, enabled the poor believers with them (not all poor in general) and got ready to get out of town.

So when you combine the whole story and the context of the story, claims like O’Donnell’s not only fall flat but seem utterly ridiculous. A “wild display of biblical ignorance” indeed! But not by Limbaugh; not here.

Jesus and the Progressive Income Tax

But the lunacy has only begun. O’Donnell goes on to make the argument that “While Jesus may not have specified specific tax brackets, He was the first recorded advocate of a progressive income tax.”

In addition to its loopy English—“specified specific”—this statement makes a ridiculous stretch in regard to Scripture. O’Donnell quotes Mark 12:43–44, where a poor widow gives a tiny offering in comparison to the large gifts of many rich men:

“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

From this O’Donnell derives a Marxist theory of taxation:

What would Jesus take? Obviously He would take from each according to his ability to pay. That is the clear, Christian, philosophical basis for a progressive income tax. Ten percent on low incomes, 35 percent on high incomes is the current structure, and if it were up to me, much, much higher percentages on even higher incomes.

O’Donnell is wrong on all three counts: this alleged basis for a progressive income tax is not clear, nor Christian, nor philosophical. Let’s examine:

It is not clear in that it does not derive clearly—or even after much straining—from the text considered. Jesus’ is not promoting taxation at all, nor is he prescribing a tax of a progressive nature (in which rich people are taxed not only proportionately more, but at great percentages).

This story is not about taxation, because the contributions involved are not mandatory. The “treasury” mentioned in the passage was the Temple treasury, and it contained thirteen separate boxes for various causes. Only one of them was for the mandatory tithe on increase, all others were for free-will offerings for different causes. Since the old widow most likely had no employment and was not a farmer or shepherd, she probably had no income which would fall under the Old Testament’s mandatory tithe laws. Thus, it is by far most likely that she was casting her coins into one of the free-will offering boxes. Indeed, in Luke’s version of this story (21:1–4), all of the donations are referred to in Greek as dona, “gifts.”

Also, note that this was the Temple treasury. It was not a civil government tithe, nor did civil rulers get it or manage it. In fact, in Old Testament law, there was no government-enforceable civil tax. So if government was involved at all in enforcing the tithes associated with the Temple treasury, it only did so in behalf of the Temple, i.e., the priests and the Levites, and to support religious services and causes. Now, if O’Donnell supports a mandatory tax that would go only to ecclesiastical treasuries, that’s a slightly different question. But he does not say this, and I doubt he would.

Jesus does, here, recognize the disparity in percentages involved, and this is what He calls to His disciples’ attention. This is not a prescription, but an observation. His point was for them not to be impressed by the huge sums given by the rich, for it represented little sacrifice on their part; but rather, the widow’s offering was total for her, and thus was a far greater sacrifice.

Yet, in light of this, Jesus did not say, “Therefore, we should use the force of government to take even greater sums from the rich men and less from the widow.” He neither said nor implied anything of the sort. If anything, if Jesus’ acknowledgment of these disparate percentages was to be taken as a normative prescription for taxation today, the poor would have to pay everything and the rich give only out of their abundance. Thus, not only would there be no progressive income tax, there would actually be a regressive income tax. Of course, this is absurd.

Likewise, Old Testament taxation itself was technically regressive. The main tax was, of course, the tithe, and this was a flat tax for all which was paid to the central ecclesiastical authority (in general). Aside from this flat tax, the only other tax was a Temple tax which was a fixed amount of a half-shekel of silver for every male at age twenty, and thus was actually regressive on males in general, and poor males especially. In other words, the rich could easily pay the set fee for it was a tiny percentage to them; but the really poor may have to struggle to pay because a set fee represented a larger percentage to them.

O’Donnell’s application of this passage rests on a bad misinterpretation. It is clear that Jesus taught no such thing as a progressive income tax here. Thus, it is devious as well to call it “Christian.” There is nothing Christian about it. Christ did not condone stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, nor did he condone stealing from people at one level and stealing from others to a greater degree in order for politicians to divvy up the loot according to how it would best get them re-elected. Christ never approved of a Welfare State or coercive wealth redistribution.

Jesus versus the Welfare State

Indeed, Jesus had little respect for civil rulers of this Welfare stripe. In fact, most of the rich men He confronted were rich because they had used positions of power and government to get that way. In fact, the very “rich man” O’Donnell uses as his example from Mark 10:17, is himself a government official: Luke’s version of the story (Luke 18:18) tells us plainly that this guy was a “ruler” (Greek, archon, “ruler, official, authority, judge”).

Wee little Zacchaeus is also a great example: a tax collector. Not only was he a tax collector, but the chief tax collector (Luke 19:1). These guys notoriously used government contracts in order to enrich themselves with the very tax money they collected—which is the thrust of any government contract. After encountering Jesus, Zacchaeus said nothing about needing higher taxes, and neither did Jesus. Rather, the issue became restitution for theft. Zacchaeus saw all of his riches gained through government contracts for tax-collecting as extortion. According to Mosaic law, he promised to pay the fullest penalty to everyone he extorted (Luke 19:8). He also gave half of his goods to the poor freely with no reference to any taxation.

Jesus did not say “half is not enough, you must give all,” nor did Jesus take anything from him nor demand anything be taken from him by the government. Yet, when Zacchaeus freely gave half his goods and freely offered to pay restitution (with no government agency involved), Jesus responded by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9).

The sect of the Pharisees made up the ruling class among the people—they were civil rulers and lay leaders of the people. These are the people Jesus consistently denounced—not because they were rich, but because they had so often gotten that way through extortion and oppression in collusion with the arms of civil government.

When told by such Pharisees that Herod did not want Him in Judea and would kill Him if He went there, Jesus replied by denouncing the politician as “that fox” and defying the threat even of death (Luke 14:31–3). And when it came time that those civil leaders and rulers intended to make good on that threat (out of pure envy, Matt. 27:18), they colluded with civil government rulers—Pilate and Herod—in order to make it happen.

The Herod family was just the type of powerful Welfare State O’Donnell would love. During the era of the early church, soon after Jesus’ ascension, ‘Herod Agrippa I’ began persecuting Christians in order to please his constituency of Jews. He murdered James the brother of John, and then captured and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1–4).

This same Herod ran a Welfare State that kept many of his subjects dependent upon him for handouts. It made them easier to control: “Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food(Acts 12:20).

Herod responded like any elitist liberal politician: he took credit, gave a speech, and acted as a demigod: “On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:21–22).

And what did Jesus think of this Welfare Statist, elite central planner and his little press conference?

Jesus had him divinely removed on the spot: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23).

“But the word of God increased and multiplied.” (Acts 12:24).

In fact, Jesus’ entire Messianic mission in coming to earth had as its broader goal the annihilation and replacement of the vastest Welfare State the earth had ever seen: ancient Rome. This mission is stated in Daniel 2:44–45, where the prophet refers to the time of “those kings” (meaning the last kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, which is a clear reference to Rome):

“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever, just as you saw that a stone was cut from a mountain by no human hand, and that it broke in pieces the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold.”

Jesus Christ is that Stone cut out without hands. The establishment of His Kingdom (Luke 11:20) marked the beginning of the end for Rome. And while it took a few hundred years finally to disappear, it was indeed shattered.


The lessons here are clear. Jesus does not condone a Welfare State, does not condone taxation period, let alone a progressive income tax. Jesus did not teach that governments should take anything from some people and give it to other people. Jesus upheld God’s laws against theft, and expected everyone to be equal before that law.

And when governments get out of the way, the Word of God can spread more easily, affect more people’s lives, and more people will give freely than ever did under a tyrannical, oppressive system of State coercion.

Jesus not only opposed such political systems, He disdained and defied corrupt politicians in general. His kingdom is not about progressive taxation, but progressive freedom. It is not the epitome of Welfare States, but aims at ending the need for all civil coercion period. Taxation should not increase, but vanish.

Recall that the original question here was about taking. What would Jesus take? In all of these verses and twisted applications, O’Donnell has not provided a single verse that says anything to justify any taking. This is especially true in reference to Jesus. Even if Jesus clearly did demand that we give everything, He nowhere even hinted that it should be forcibly taken from us by anyone, let alone by armed agents of the civil government. Never.

On the contrary, every single one of these verses is about what Jesus expected and observed people doing voluntarily of their own free will. These verses are not about taking, but about giving; not about being taxed or being taken from in any way.

This is the basic leftist delusion: “taking” is the same as “giving.” “Taxing” is the same as “offering.”

But the Bible remains very simple, very clear: thou shalt not steal. This applies to people, corporations, and even to that most monopolistic, violence-based corporation we call the government. Caesar has no inherent right to take what is not his. “Thou shalt not steal” applies to everyone, rich or poor. It does not discriminate based on class, creed, race, sex, gender, party, income, or anything else. That is the Word of God, the standard of Jesus.

And I say, “let God be true yet every man a liar” (Rom. 3:4).


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