Jesus Junk and the Selling of Indulgences

After yesterday’s blog on how a lot of Jesus Junk reflects and promotes a low view of God, today I want to show how similar the retailing of so much of this stuff is not unlike the selling of Catholic indulgences in the Middle Ages. Let me explain.

I’ve been reading the biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, by Roland Bainton (a very interesting and instructive must-read for any Christian!), and I am struck with amazement at the way the Roman Catholic Church used the selling of indulgences as a means of making money off the backs of the people in order to raise enormous amounts of money to build ornate cathedrals in Rome. Namely, St. Peter’s, under which they claimed were the bones of Peter and Paul, which needed to be venerated and protected from further decay by the erection of a cathedral over their tombs. This financial gain was the driving force behind the selling of indulgences in Luther’s day, and the immediate cause of the nailing of the 95 theses.

Here’s how they did it: They sold spiritual benefits to those who came to visit relics. Popes would specify precisely how much benefit could be derived from simply viewing each bone or other artifact attributed to saints of the past. Specifically, the promise was to reduce time in purgatory. The time reduced depended on the relic viewed, when accompanied by the specified payment.

Here are just a few examples of relics the RCC claimed were authentic, claimed would proffer spiritual benefits, and used to make financial gain:

One tooth of St. Jerome, four pieces (bones and fragments) of St. Chrysostom, six pieces of St. Bernard, and four pieces of St. Augustine. Four hairs of Mary, three pieces of her cloak, four pieces of her girdle, and seven pieces of her veil which was sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

The relics of Christ included one piece from his swaddling clothes, thirteen from his crib, one wisp of straw, one piece of the old brought by the wise men, three of the myrrh, one strand of Jesus’ beard, one of the nails driven into his hands, one piece of bread eaten at the Last Supper, one piece of the stone on which he stood to ascend into heaven.

Other relics included one twig from Moses’ burning bush, the portrait of Christ on St. Veronica, the chains of St. Paul, the scissors with which Emperor Domitian clipped the hair of St. John, a crucifix which had leaned over to talk to St. Brigitta, a coin paid to Judas for betraying Christ, and the 12-foot beam on which Judas hanged himself.

Not to mention the walls of Rome near the Appian gate which purported to show the white spots left by the stones which turned to snowballs when hurled by the mob against St. Peter. In the case of Fredrick the Wise (elector of Saxony and therefore Luther’s prince) had a personal collection of relics that mounted to 19,013 holy bones alone! (see pp. 36, 53)

In one instance, those who viewed the relics on the designated day and made the stipulated contributions might receive from the pope indulgences for the reduction of time spent in purgatory, either for themselves or others, to the extent of 1,902,202 years and 270 days!

It was the Dominican John Tetzel who is famed for coining (and defending!) the little jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Often, the handing over of the indulgence letter was so timed as not to anticipate the dropping of the money into the coffer. Sometimes, so much money was going into the coffer that new coins had to be minted on the spot! Raising money was the objective. And this scheme was lucrative!

It was this very hawking of indulgences for money, by the viewing of supposed “holy” relics, that so enraged Martin Luther. He preached against it as undermining the Gospel itself. The church wasn’t concerned so much about the spiritual welfare of the people, as it was about raising money to enrich the church and it’s holdings. They were even willing to falsely promise people spiritual benefit through an act of viewing a relic and paying money! It gave people a false sense of spiritual security and peace. In essence, it was the purchasing of grace. It denied the Gospel on every level.

What’s the connection of this with Jesus Junk? Money. Yes, money is necessary for ministry. I know that all too well. I’m in a paid ministry position. But hawking retail products like the ridiculous ones I showed in yesterday’s post specifically to the Christian community for the sole purpose of making money, is no different than the motives of the Roman Catholic popes in the 1500’s, who used those ridiculous “holy relics” as a money making scheme.

I see no contradiction of the Gospel in selling items that are a genuine help to spiritual edification and evangelism, but those items that devalue Christ, the Gospel, and the Scriptures ought to be driven out of the market place by Christians refusing to buy and sell such items. There are just too many trinkets being sold in Jesus’ name. And too much of it just trivializes what is truly holy, and is transparently aimed at profiteering off the backs of Christians (and those who think they are).

May the church be rescued from that kind of retail marketing and the trivializing of holy things.

Christ and the Gospel and the Church deserve better.


4 Responses to Jesus Junk and the Selling of Indulgences

  1. radicalchange says:

    Nice post. If you look at your history, you will see that it was actually Islam that solved the issue that you are talking about. There are no images allowed in Islam in the mosques because the idea of showing a picture of Jesus is blasphemous. Buddhism seems to have the same problem as Christianity. Lots of images of Buddha that are sold in every store in Asia. This is also a big issue with the Native American religion which regards selling of religious artifacts as sacrilegious.

  2. Scott W. Kay says:

    radicalchange –

    Thanks for you comments, but did Islam really “solve” the issue? No, they didn’t solve the real issue, they just legalistically seek to outlaw certain practices. Which is always the problem with performance-based religion. It overreacts and misses the point.

    The real issue is not the production of these items. The real issue is the reason why people produce these items. In both my posts, I’ve been careful to point to the larger problem: heart issues. Namely, a low view of God and a love for money.

    Islam has no way to solve those heart problems, only regulate them through fear – fear of harsh penalties to the body. As a Christian, I join in Christ’s call for the kind of heart change that will result in a change in actions (and products), not merely a call to outlaw them altogether. Specifically, it is a call to be motivated not by fear but by love – love for God and His Son so deeply that one is grieved by anything one might do that would bring dishonor to His glory and grace.

    That’s being restrained by the all-powerful Gospel, rather than the impotent law. That’s what makes Christianity unique from Islam, Buddhism, or American Indian spiritism: the heart-changing work of Christ in the Gospel.


  3. Scott W. Kay says:

    One more thing to add to that last comment. It’s wisdom from the lips of Martin Luther himself:

    “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit wind and abolish women? The sun, the moon, and stars have been worshiped. Shall we then pluck them out of the sky? Such haste and violence betray a lack of confidence in God.” (Here I Stand, p. 165-166)


  4. It’s true that society, yes, even the Catholic church at some point have resorted to selling religious concepts for mass merchandise. Perhaps, if it’s more subdued and subtle, because we all know that any type of congregation deserves and needs money to work, it should be okay. is a great resource for hand crafted religious products and decorative religious items.

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