How you answer the question “What would Jesus say about inequality?” depends on how you define the “words of Jesus.” Many “scholars” limit them to no more than “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Others include only the quotations in the Gospels attributed to Jesus. Most Christians see the entire Bible as the words of Jesus because, being God, he wrote it.
Let’s start with the Gospel quotations. One passage that comes close to dealing with inequality is the parable of the Ten Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In it, a rich man gave one servant five bags of gold, one two bags, and the third got one bag of gold to invest, “each according to his ability.” Jesus recognized that different abilities will result in different outcomes, although he is vague about the rewards they receive.
Another is the parable of the ten servants (Luke 19:11-27). In it, a nobleman took a long journey and entrusted ten servants with one mina apiece, or roughly $500, and told them to put it to work. Each achieved different outcomes for which the nobleman rewarded them proportionately. His master put one who returned 10 minas in charge of ten cities; the one who returned five received five cities. Again, Jesus recognized that people have different talents and their rewards will be proportionate.
Next, consider the problem of the envy. The Bible is full of condemnations of the sin. People who worry about inequality may be trying to correct crimes, or they may be consumed with envy. Envy is the power behind socialism and Jesus warns against it.
Christians who insist on equality of wealth run to two passages in the Bible, the story of the rich young ruler (Mark 10) and the account of the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 2). Jesus told the rich young ruler to give all his wealth to the poor and follow him. But this passage is the only one in the entire Bible in which God demands that someone give away all their wealth; it’s an anomaly. Jesus didn’t ask Zacchaeus the tax collector to give away all his wealth, though Zacchaeus volunteered to follow the law of restoration of immorally obtained wealth (Luke 19).
Jesus knew that the ruler had obtained his wealth through immoral means. Bribing judges to steal land from the poor and refusing to pay workers were common methods of gaining wealth and the main reason the prophets and New Testament writers condemned the rich. Jesus addressed the specific needs of the young ruler, as the commandments Jesus emphasized suggest, and was not giving a command to all Christians of all ages. The Bible has a lot to say about wealth as John Schneider wrote in The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth. Schneider shows that God intended for his people to enjoy the wealth of the earth that he has given us.
A superficial reading of Acts suggests communism. There are several arguments against that, but for the sake of argument, let's assume that the early church did practice communism. That still doesn't support a socialist government because the church was not a state and states should not do the work of churches because they have very different roles. No one wants to see Baptist pastors arresting drug dealers nor bureaucrats preaching the gospel.
Even if the early church practiced communism like the early Israeli kibbutzim, that is still not an argument for a socialist state because as Hayek pointed out, small communes don't scale. Communist principles are necessary for small groups like families and tribes. They can work for local churches as well because everyone knows each other. But scaling those principles to the national level where few people know each other is a disaster, as history proves.
Finally, if the early church at Jerusalem practiced pure communism, it didn't become a model for any other church and it abandoned communism quickly. By the time the church chose deacons, the money given by members was distributed only to widows. Later, Paul restricted such giving to widows 60 years old and older. And he required members in his churches to work so that they could support their own families and have something left over to help the poor.
Through Paul, Jesus wrote that Christians should all work (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12) so we will have money to help others; to work to provide for our families (1 Timothy 5:8); not to be lazy and not to give charity to young widows (I Timothy 5:11).
Assuming that Jesus as God authored the Hebrew Bible, Jesus created greater inequality when he blessed ancient Israel with great wealth when they followed him but punished surrounding nations with poverty. Poverty and inequality are not the same, but poverty can increase inequality. Jesus recognized that some poverty often comes from sin, as he wrote through Solomon (Proverbs 6:9, 19:15 and other verses). Some poverty comes from oppression by the state in which the state steals the wealth of the poor (Isaiah 1:23 and many other verses).
Finally, we have to consider “general revelation,” that which Jesus revealed about himself through his creation. Economics is the study of part of God’s creation, people, and therefore part of general revelation. Good economics teaches us that humanity escapes the cycles of famine and mass starvation only by suppressing envy enough to allow for differences in wealth so that the rich could finance innovation. Envy and equality of wealth are the enemies of innovation and poverty reduction.
Good economics teaches us that capitalism lifted the West out of the cycles of famine and mass starvation that humanity had suffered through for ten thousand years. The extreme poverty our ancestors lived through doesn’t exist in the West today. Slightly freer markets have elevated over 500 million people from extreme poverty in India and China over the past generation.
Yet most Christians reject the economic science that explains how capitalism works. That’s as irrational as clinging to the medical science of Jesus’ day and doing nothing more for cancer patients than anointing them with oil and praying for them.
Most inequality in the US comes from the differences in wealth between older, married couples who have spent decades working, improving their skills and savings on the one hand, and young, single mothers heading households on the other. If no one is being lazy but all who can are working, and if we eliminate state theft and give a reasonable amount to the poor, Jesus seems to say that inequality is OK. That’s partly because he promised to bless those who follow him and partly because some people have a God-given gift for making money honestly and others don’t. Honest wealthy people who give to the poor should not live under a cloud of suspicion and guilt but should enjoy what God has enabled them to earn.
Of course, achieving total equality of wealth would be so easy it’s trivial: we just need to become as poor as tribal people in the Amazon. Such tribes “enjoy” nearly complete equality in wealth and income because anyone who does better gets kicked out of the tribe. But it’s impossible to have a higher standard of living than those tribes and have perfect equality of wealth. That’s where socialists go wrong. They live in an altered state of consciousness in which they believe everyone can be as rich as the richest American, all good looking and super athletes.
That world will exist in the new heaven and earth, but most socialists will not be part of it. That world is impossible today because of sin. Jesus through Paul told us (Romans 1) that God gives rebels over to their own lusts, that is, lets them have their way. The result is a lot of sin and the result of sin is poverty. That is the judgment of God against rebels. Nothing Christians can do will reverse that judgment.
Socialists burst into blames when anyone blames the poor for their poverty. We are punishing the victim, they say. They believe that all people are born good and turn evil only because of oppression, so no poor person is responsible for being poor. They’re all victims of the rich. If the rich would simply share, all would be equally rich. Jesus taught us that the opposite is true. Men love darkness more than light and violently suppress the truth with unrighteousness. The result of suppressing the truth is poverty.
That doesn’t mean we are to ignore the poor. The chief test of our love for Jesus is our giving to the poor. It’s one of the most common themes in the Bible. Still, charity never lifted people out of poverty while capitalism has rescued billions.
Considering all the Bible and general revelation as the “words” of Jesus, it’s clear Jesus approves of some inequality because 1) he created people with different abilities, 2) sin causes many people to remain poor, 3) he never insisted on strict equality but on those whom he blessed lending a helping hand to the poor, and 3) he gave us capitalism.