The entire country pauses on Dec. 25, as Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, known to Christians as God’s Christ and Savior, and known to many as The Prince of Peace.
The impact of this one special life has reverberated through the centuries. Kingdoms and governments rise and fall; the celebrities of one generation are largely forgotten by the next; powerful institutions and organizations—from central banks to giant business enterprises to mighty armies—come and go, but the influence of Jesus of Nazareth endures.
There is much more to this phenomenon of the longevity and enduring power of Jesus’ life than is yet understood. He didn’t conform to the world’s standards and expectations; rather, he marched to the beat of a different drummer—his heavenly Father. And while his consistent and faithful obedience to his Father’s will has confounded the worldly wise, his words and works continue to inspire and guide us today, while other philosophies wax and wane.
From the very beginning, Jesus’ mission was misunderstood. Many of his own people had expected God to send them a mighty man of war, who would deliver the children of Israel by force of arms. Instead, Jesus eschewed violence. He wasn’t timid, though. Indeed, he rebuked, scolded, and chastened those who had corrupted God’s earlier testament with Israel by turning sacred religion into a loveless commercial enterprise, forsaking spiritual things for material self-indulgence. Especially censured by Jesus were leaders who twisted the letter of the law so as to establish themselves atop a supercilious, vicious, social pecking order.
Today also, Christians often misunderstand their Savior, as when they invoke the New Testament as justification for government to forcibly redistribute wealth in the name of charity. The social gospel, social justice, and liberation theology strains of Christianity have overlooked one fundamental principle of Jesus’ life—one that should be especially obvious at this time of year when we think of Jesus as a tiny infant: He never used force to compel others to do good.
Take, for example, his encounter with the rich young man who wanted to know the way to eternal life. (Matt. 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). Jesus offered the young man a deal—a contract: You sell your goods and give them to the poor and then follow me and you’re “in.” The rich man declined the offer. Jesus made no attempt to try to gain control over the man’s wealth; instead, he let him depart in peace, honoring his right to make his own decisions and manage his property as he chose.
In Luke, Chapter 12, a man approached Jesus and asked him to help him obtain a portion of the inheritance that the man’s father had left to his brother. Jesus declined, saying pointedly, “Man, who made me a judge or a divider over you?” If the Master Christian felt that he wasn’t qualified to order wealth to be redistributed, why do his professed followers seem to believe they are so qualified?
Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 showed the model of genuine Christian charity. The Samaritan freely gave his own money and time to help the person in need. He most assuredly did not seize money from others to help pay for the care of the wounded man. Jesus shunned the use of force. He rejected the liberal temptation of using other people’s money to accomplish ostensibly charitable goals (what William Graham Sumner referred to as A and B deciding what C should do for D).
Adam Smith, the great moral philosopher, understood the difference between law and gospel better than many contemporary Christians do. In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” Smith cited prudence, justice, and beneficence as the three great social virtues. Christian charity—beneficence—was “the ornament which embellishes, not the foundation which supports [society].” Justice, by contrast, is “the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice” of society. Therefore, no person may compel another to give charity, for that would violate justice, the basis of society and law. While Jesus encouraged charity and beneficence in the clearest terms to his disciples, he did not view the gospel as abrogating the law protecting private property; hence his statement in the Sermon on the Mount, “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one title shall in no wise pass from the law.” (Matt. 5:18)
Just as the physician’s first principle is “do no harm,” so Jesus did harm to nobody. He did not believe in a zero-sum economy in which one person would benefit at the expense of another, but believed in freedom, voluntary contract, and mutual benefits. His life was the highest example of the non-aggression principle in practice. He never taught that it was legitimate to help one person by trespassing on the rights of another. He never taught that the key to heaven lay in making other people do good things. Instead, he healed, comforted, taught and saved human beings, rescuing them from their sins, errors, diseases, and fallibility with a love so far above the normal human sense of love that we still are far from grasping its full import.
What we can grasp is the innocence and gentleness of the baby Jesus. Think of how blessed the world would be if that spirit governed mankind.
At Christmastime 2013, it’s worth pondering what Jesus would ask of us today. I imagine it would be profoundly simple and sublimely wise—something along the lines of: Whatever you do, don’t hurt anybody and, if you can find it in your heart, be willing to help somebody.
Merry Christmas everyone, and “on earth peace, good will toward man.” (Luke 2:14)