Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Wealth and poverty in Luke and Acts and its implication for the Church's mission today

/essay/
1. Intro
2. What might the material on wealth and poverty in Luke-Acts suggest about his readers?
3. What might it suggest about Luke’s understanding of the church’s mission?
4. What might Luke’s view on wealth and poverty imply for the Church’s mission today?
5. Conclusion

  
Title: What might the material on wealth and poverty in Luke and Acts suggest about Luke’s readers and his understanding of the church’s mission? What might that imply for the Church’s mission today?

1.          Intro.
“Money makes the world go round” is a famous saying that the majority of people would agree to, if not in its literal, at least in its metaphoric sense. In our age of consumerism most people would like to be rich. The ‘I want it all and I want it now’ mentality is not only today’s youths’ favourite credo, it has been the inner drive for many generations all over the earth. The drive to accumulate wealth and have power and standing is what really makes people live![1] Even Christians have succumbed to the pressure of materialism and have started preaching the ‘health-and-wealth’ gospel, instead of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But what does the Bible have to say on the subject of wealth and poverty? Is wealth really a sign of God’s blessing? What was the place of wealth in the world of the New Testament and how it related to the Church’s mission? How does it relate to us and our role in Christ’s Great Commission? In order to answer to all these questions I will try to discuss the material in Luke and Acts on wealth and poverty. First I will tackle the question of weather we can rely on this material in order to identify Luke’s readers and their situation. Then I will try to see what Luke’s theology of wealth and poverty is and how it applies to his understanding of the mission of the Church. And lastly, I will point out some practical suggestions regarding our use of material riches for the Church’s mission today.


2.          What might the material on wealth and poverty in Luke-Acts suggest about his readers?

Before identifying what the experience of poverty in Luke’s ‘community’ was, it will be helpful for us to take a glimpse on the development of the attitude to property and poverty in the Old Testament times. A thorough study of the many respective passages leads us to the following conclusions. First, property is not wrong in itself. It is the way God has chosen to provide for his chosen people, Israel. Its purpose is to provide all that is necessary for all the people of Israel to live. Property belongs ultimately to God and human beings are only stewards of it, not owners[2]. Secondly, and just because of the above-mentioned, the rich members of society who take the liberty to afflict the righteous and misuse their own status are criticized and warned by the prophets that they will be judged[3]. Thirdly, even though the Essenes turned poverty into a spiritual virtue[4], and this is something particularly evident from the Mishna writings, pre-Christian Jewish sources still looked at material riches as a God’s blessing or part of God’s deliverance, whereas poverty was seen as something to be avoided.[5]

Later, in the Roman society, аpart from the tiny aristocracy, the remaining majority were merchants, day-labourers, beggars, slaves and debtors. Poverty was at times striking, and was further deepened by high inflation and occasional famines, ‘resulting in begging on a relatively large scale throughout the eastern parts of the Roman Empire[6]. In spite of the occasional acts of charity of the wealthy citizens, in each big Roman city there were homeless people begging on the streets.

Such was the context of Luke’s readers. The first time the word ‘poor’ is mentioned in the gospel of Luke is in Jesus’ synagogue appearance[7]. If we agree to the suggestion that this makes this reference especially significant for Luke’s readers, we should try to answer the question ‘What does Luke mean here by ‘the poor’?  As Nolland suggests in his commentary[8], it could be interpreted both literary as ‘beggars’ and parabolically, as ‘the powerless’. Having in mind Jesus’ overall teaching in Luke’s and the other gospels, and his concern for people from all social strata[9], it seems to me that the latter interpretation is much more convincing. Thus ‘release’ in v. 18 would mean not just setting people free from physical prisons, but freeing them from both physical and spiritual oppression. The latter opinion is supported by the existence of many other verses pointing to both dimensions of the word ptochoi (‘poor’) in Luke and Acts[10]. So, both should not be separated. Moreover, it is a well-known truth that poor people are more willing to confess their need before God and to respond to the good news, so the two levels of meanings can be related.

But it is one thing to interpret the text, and totally different – to try to reconstruct what the community to which the text has been written have been like. For example, Esler points out to Luke’s literary artistry, the numerous references to rich people and all Jesus’ warnings against the dangers of riches and takes them to be clues suggesting that there were quite many people of noble status among Luke’s community. He even interprets Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 1:26 as a hint that the number of people of noble birth in Corinth has grown significantly and takes it to suggest that the same holds true for Luke’s community.

To this we could answer that the fact that Paul says that at the time of their conversion not many of them were wise or of noble birth suggests nothing more than what it says, namely, that the majority of them were poor! Besides, it seems to me that Esler implies that Luke was adapting its message simply to make it adequate for the needs of his readers. But although Luke was a brilliant writer and redactor, he was also a reputed historian. In the prologue to his gospel he had made sure his readers knew that his real intent was to give a just ‘account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by … eye-witnesses’[11] So, to try to reconstruct Luke’s community using only the arguments of Luke’s redactional emphases is going too far. We may presume that among Luke’s readers there were people of different social status, but we can say nothing more than that.

3.          What might it suggest about Luke’s understanding of the church’s mission?

The question of the relation of the material on riches and poverty to Luke’s understanding of the mission of the Church cannot be answered without first considering Luke’s theology of wealth and poverty. The latter can be best done by the means of the comparative study of the texts of the synoptic gospels. For lack of sufficient space for a thorough study, we shall consider only a few examples.

Most of the references to the poor in Luke don’t have synoptic parallels. Where there are such, Luke elaborates more on the theme of poverty than the parallelled verses. For example, in 6:20 ‘poor’ are, as Nolland puts it, ‘the literary poor who presently have a hard life’ characterized by hunger and weeping[12]. The latter characteristics are not present in Matthew. So, even though the poor here are not spiritualized in meaning, they are clearly shown to be Jesus’ disciples,[13] so their poverty is related to their decision to follow Christ.

Another interesting example is Luke 7:21f. Unlike Matthew, Luke mentions twice the details of Jesus’ liberating ministry. The emphasis on this is meant not to show that all who believe in Jesus’ name can hope to have liberation from their physical sicknesses, but rather as a statement confirming Jesus’ messianic identity in answering John’s disciples’ query.

And if indirectly the gospel of Luke depicts the desperate conditions of the prevailing members of society, in Acts he is ready to show the renewing power of the Holy Spirit, working in all spheres of life, including the believers’ economic situation.  When referring to the poor, we can see that Luke is concerned to show that after Pentecost the Church was empowered by the Holy Spirit and came to a position to be able to take care of the needs of its poor members[14].

As for the passages referring to ‘the rich’, only Luke 18:22-25 has synoptic parallels in Matthew and Mark. Some of the texts show that Jesus deems it possible for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven[15]. But the major thrust of these texts is that wealth is dangerous for those who want to become Jesus’ disciples because it creates in them the deceptive feeling that they can live independently from God.[16] Thus becomes evident, that the heart of the matter is not so much wealth in itself as this independent attitude to God that stems from it. That’s why, when another wealthy character, Zacchaeus, declares that he is going to give half of his property to the poor, i.e. repents of this arrogant attitude to God and people, Jesus promises to grant salvation to him.[17]

At the same time, by ‘rich’ Luke does not mean necessarily people who possess lots of money or considerable property. His definition is much broader and includes also those for whom money is a higher priority than God. Preoccupation with money is in fact not only characteristic of materially rich people, but also of the poor. The first recorded sin in the life of the Church, caused by love for money, was committed by people who apparently did not possess that much – Ananias and Sapphira. Even the poorest and most pitiful members of the society, such as the beggars and the crippled are not immune from materialistic desires[18].

So, both the gospel of Luke and Acts show that the mission of the Church is incompatible with materialism. And here Luke speaks from the vintage point of the whole Bible. The Church of Christ can only be effective in its evangelism when there is unity and love among its members,[19] whereas materialism is a deadly enemy of love. Its children are ‘bitter envy and selfish ambition’; they come ‘of the devil’ and lead to ‘disorder and every evil practice’[20]. Love of money, in the last analysis, is the deadly poison that threatens to and can very easily extinguish all the life and joy from a Christian’s life and ministry. For, as Matthew puts it, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’[21]. And, as many treasures there are, so many obsessions that can sever our relationships with God. Luke, as the rest of the Bible, tells us that the Church’s mission is actually incompatible with all other ‘-isms’ – with anything that can separate or distance people from God.


4.          What might Luke’s view on wealth and poverty imply for the Church’s mission today?

As shown above, materialism can hinder evangelism and render it ineffective. Furthermore, it can prevent people from renouncing their old lives and reaching the point of genuine conversion. However attractive prospects life with Christ might offer and no matter how gifted the evangelist, the attraction of material riches can blind the person and render him or her a bad soil for the good news[22].

Secondly, materialism also puts off the poor non-Christians from the Church. This holds true especially in cultures such as Bulgaria where people in general are very sensitive to and suspicious of other people’s wealth. In such context pastors and ministers should refrain from demonstrating a high standard of life if  they want to reach out to their poor communities[23]. Usually those who do that are proponents of the prosperity gospel. It is used by them not merely as a theological excuse for their lavish styles of living, but also as a ‘proof’ for the effective application of this doctrine in their lives of Christians. But the health-and-wealth gospel is just another name for Mammon, the god of money, and worshipping it means breaking the first of the Great Commandments[24].

Instead of teaching and practicing this doctrine, the Church should encourage rich Christians to support the poor within the community. This can be done by organizing special sell-outs, or creating a team that is responsible for connecting people in need with their prospective donors. The church should learn to invest primarily in people and this should be done wisely and carefully. Giving should be directed not simply to relieving the symptoms of people’s poverty, but towards ‘people and causes grappling with the systematic powers that hold people in bondage to a cycle of poverty’.[25] And here the local churches and every individual Christian need a good deal of discernment for deciding ‘when, where and how to give money away.’[26]

And, lastly, evangelism is not only proclamation, but presence. For the Church’s mission to be effective she needs to combine the oral proclamation with the practically-expressed love of social work. Local churches might fundraise for holding lunches or dinners for homeless people or beggars. Second-hand clothes could be collected for children in orphanages or other people in need. A decision, made by the church board, for using 50 percent of the money allotted to evangelism to be spent on social projects for needy non-believers, could make the evangelism of the church much more effective and fruitful. Examples can be multiplied and adapted to the different contexts.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Luke tackles the theme of the wealth and poverty in a much bigger detail then in the other synoptic gospels. He is particularly interested in Jesus’ teaching on material wealth and how it relates to evangelism. Luke shows that poverty is not a virtue in itself, but sometimes it may lead to a contrite spirit. On the other hand, he demonstrates that riches are not a sin in themselves, but also that more often they lead to independence from God. Luke believes that whenever the rich are challenged by the gospel they should respond in sacrificial giving to the poor. At the same time, Luke makes it clear that this would not result in overnight solving the problems of all poor Christians. Rather, he states that the rich people’s response (or lack of it) will show whether they have really genuinely accepted the good news of Jesus Christ. Materialism, like all other “-isms”[27] is the real issue as it can be a stumbling block not only for the rich, and because is completely incompatible with Christian discipleship and evangelism. Thus Luke and Acts challenge us to humbly consider once again what the real priorities of our lives are, ask God for forgiveness and courage to set them right.


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

OTC, Distance Learning Degree in Theology, Acts
Marshal, I.H., Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Acts, IVP, 1980
NIV Study Bible, Hodder & Stoughton, Zondervan, 1985
Hughes, K., ed, L2/NT1: Luke-Acts, ОTC
Nolland, J., 35A Word Biblical Commentary, Luke 9:21-18:34, Word, 1993
Nolland, J., 35B, Word Biblical Commentary, Luke 1-9:20, Word, 1989
Green, M., Evangelism Through The Local Church, Hodder & Stoughton, 1990
Banks R. & Stevens R.P., The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, IVP, 1997



[1] Banks & Stevens, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, p. 1102.
[2] Distance Learning Degree in Theology, L2, Luke 15.20, Guidelines, 1.
[3] See Isa. 5:8-9; 10:1-3; Amos 5:12, 8:4-6, etc.
[4] Distance Learning Degree in Theology, L2, Luke 15.4.
[5] Ibid., 15.5.
[6] Ibid., 15.6.
[7] Luke 4:16-30.
[8] Nolland, J., World Biblical Commentary, Luke 1-9:20, p. 197.
[9] See Luke 19:10, Matt. 9:12,13.
[10] Luke 14:13, 21; 16:20,22; 6:20; 7:22; 16:20; 18:22; 19:8; 21:3; 4:25f; 1:77; 3:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18.
[11] Luke 1:1-4.
[12] Ibid., 6:21 – see Nolland, J., World Biblical Commentary, Luke 1-9:20, p. 282.
[13] Ibid., 6:20a.
[14] See Acts 3:2-10, 6:1-6, 9:36, 10:2, 11:29.
[15] Luke 18:25-27; Acts 10:2.
[16] Luke 6:24-26; 16:14f; 18:10-14; Acts 5:1-11; James 2:6f;
[17] Luke 19:8.
[18] Acts 3:5.
[19] See John 17, 1 Cor 12, 13, Eph 4, etc.
[20] Jas 3:14-16.
[21] Matt 6:21.
[22] Luke 14:18-20.
[23] Very often the pastors boast with their expensive western cars, nice homes and churches, whereas this puts off common people.
[24] Deut 5:14.
[25] Banks & Stevens, The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, p. 1105.
[26] Ibid.
[27] See Luke 12.21; Deut. 5:14.