Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Yoder's Jesus and Economics: The Economics of Jesus or the Economics of Luke?

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Yoder's Jesus and Economics: The Economics of Jesus or the Economics of Luke?

Article excerpt

Abstract: In The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder based his interpretation of Jesus' economic views on a non-critical use of the Gospel of Luke. An analyses of Luke's redactional tendencies on issues of economics--including his selection of unique material, his use of double-tradition material, and his redaction of Mark-suggests that Luke, more than the other Gospel writers, had a bias in favor of portraying a Jesus who approached economic issues in the ways Yoder emphasized. Because Yoder's conclusions about Jesus and economics rely on a noncritical acceptance of Lukan redaction, they are less conclusions about the economic teachings of "Jesus" or even "the canonical Jesus" than they are conclusions about the Lukan Jesus alone.


In chapters two and three of his widely influential book of Christian social ethics, The Politics of Jesus, John Howard Yoder persuaded many by arguing, among other things, that Jesus had a distinctive social ethic that included an economic reversal connected to the semi-centennial year of Jubilee commanded in Leviticus 25. In this interpretation of Jesus' teachings regarding economics, Yoder built his case on Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke. His noncritical reliance on the Lukan portrayal of Jesus led Yoder to confuse Lukan redaction with "the Jesus of the canonical Gospels" (1) and to imply inaccurately that the distinctive Lukan portrayal of Jesus reflects the likely economic views of Jesus himself. As a result, Yoder's reconstruction of Jesus' teachings on matters of economics probably reflects more the economics of Luke than the economics of Jesus.

In fairness to Yoder, he did not claim to be describing the views of the historical Jesus. In fact, he explicitly denied that he was attempting to do so. However, while he claimed to be presenting the Jesus of the canonical Gospels, he otherwise referred to his topic as the views of "Jesus," without adding an adjective such as "the canonical Jesus" or "the synoptic Jesus." The slippery language--from "Jesus of the canonical Gospels" to "Jesus"--confuses and gives the impression that Yoder established more than he did. To say, for example, that the Jesus of the canonical Gospels presents his teachings in the context of the Jubilee is to say less than that Jesus understood himself to be proclaiming the Jubilee. However, by depending so heavily on uniquely Lukan material, Yoder fell short even of his more limited stated concern for the Jesus of the canonical Gospels. He failed to acknowledge that the synoptic Gospels are less than unified in their presentation of Jesus and issues of economics. Yoder obscured that possibility by presenting the possible subjects of study as the "Jesuses [plural] whom scholarship can present" or "Jesus [singular] of the canonical Gospels." (2) In matters of economics, there is not a single Jesus of the canonical Gospels. Rather, each Gospel has its own Jesus on this issue. The Jesuses of the canonical Gospels do not necessarily conflict regarding issues of economics, but the Lukan Jesus is the most extreme.

The second chapter of The Politics of Jesus is foundational to Yoder's interpretation of Jesus' approach to economics. In that chapter, key texts in Yoder's argument regarding Jesus and economics are Mary's and Zechariah's expectations of social reversal, (3) John the Baptist's concern for sharing of recourses, (4) Jesus' inaugural sermon in Nazareth (5) and the Sermon on the Plain, which begins with economically focused blessings and woes. (6) Each of these passages, on which Yoder's argument regarding economics is based, is unique to the Gospel of Luke.

Yoder insisted that he chose Luke as his primary source because his "story line provides us with a simple outline." He explicitly denied that his choice of the Lukan Jesus would shade his study in any particular direction:

   To simplify the question and bring it within workable dimensions, I
   propose to concentrate largely on one document, on the canonical
   text of the Gospel according to Luke. … 
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