Thursday, April 19, 2012

The issue of whether Jesus was for free markets or a socialist in terms of economics was raised in an NPR story a couple of days ago, with supporters, as one might expect, on both sides of the issue. That the discussion is, in many and profound ways, anachronistic -as far as we know, Jesus never sported an “I Voted” button in Judean, Galilean or Roman “elections”- does not mean the discussion is out of bounds: Jesus’ words and deeds in the NT ought to be applied at practical levels as they impact us today; the NT does discuss taxes in a couple of places; and how we use our wealth and possessions matters to Jesus.
I want to focus only on the Gospel of Luke, since it is manageable for a blog, if only, and because throughout the entire Gospel, Luke is concerned with the issue of “debt,” both at a material and spiritual level. The material and spiritual are closely and carefully intertwined, giving heft to the material at a spiritual level and the spiritual at a material level. Luke’s unique parables are often focused on the issue of people giving material wealth for the greater good, that of the salvation of the soul and for the care of those in need, or of people being submerged in wealth, possessions, and debt to the extent that one loses one’s true life. For those used to trusting in wealth, power, prestige and possessions, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Independent, Luke is an extended shake up.

According to the Gospel of Luke, how ought we to behave with respect to wealth, possessions, status and debt? Jesus forgives the “debt” of a woman with many sins in 7:36-50.  In this narrative, Jesus uses the example of a Creditor with two debtors, one who stands for the Sinner woman (greater debt) and Simon the Pharisee (smaller debt). In the story, the creditor forgives both debts, with the result that the one with the greatest debt loves the creditor all the more. This is an example of how God relieves spiritual debt: if we show repentance, faith, and love, our debts are wiped out. Clearly, financial debt in this story stands for spiritual indebtedness, but throughout Luke’s Gospel the relationship between financial debt and spiritual debt is complex and intriguing.

How should a human being deal with financial possessions and wealth? “Lend, expecting nothing in return” () – this leads to “a great reward” (misthos polus), “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” ().  We are to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful (). In 12:33-34, Jesus says to his followers, "sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Yet, wealth in itself is not problematic, it seems, if it is used wisely, for Jesus praises the women in Luke 8:3 who support him and his ministry, including "Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources."

So, we are aware of two basic things: 

  1. God forgives debt, no matter how great, when people respond with faith, repentance, and love. One’s status in the kingdom of heaven is not determined by our wealth, possessions, or status, but how we respond to God’s offer of forgiveness through Jesus.
  2. We should act by being merciful as God is merciful, by disposing of ourselves with love and our material goods with respect to the needs of others.
The passages that I want to discuss over the course of the next few days include a number of parables from Luke, which raise significant and important questions that are not easy to follow. My focus in these passages will be on the issues of possessions and wealth, debt and forgiveness, which express to us the centrality of these concerns in Luke’s Gospel. I will not draw any overall conclusions or summarize my thoughts until the final entry.

Good Samaritan:

10:25-37: The parable is an answer to someone who has asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"(-28).  The shock of the hated Samaritan acting on behalf of a wounded man, we suspect he is Jewish, lying beaten on the roadside is heightened by the fact that a Priest and Levite walk by and leave him, assuming he is dead or dying, or out of fear for their own safety. The actions of the Samaritan are not simply understood on the basis of possessions, though he does through his merciful actions risk his most valuable possession – himself – as he cannot know whether the robbers are still nearby lying in wait to rob him. But apart from his genuine care and the healing he offers, he also takes the wounded victim to an Inn and opens his pocketbook, saying, “take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend” (10:35). The Samaritan’s act of mercy is matched by his financial generosity.

Martha and Mary:

10:38-42: The story of Martha and Mary has been read for centuries as an account pertaining to the contemplative (Mary) and active (Martha) spiritual lives. Jesus praises Mary for listening to him, and encourages Martha not to be worried or distracted. There is certainly no outright condemnation of Martha, who seems to be more connected to her possessions than to Jesus, but Jesus challenges her because of her “distractedness” (10:40) and “worry” (10:41). Jesus challenges her worry and anxiety regarding even these good and necessary “possessions,” which in this case are acts of hospitality or offerings of food and drink, if they draw us away from what is most significant: a relationship with Jesus Christ.

The Rich Fool:

12:13-21: In the parable of the Rich Fool, a  man calls out from the crowd: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me" (12:13) Jesus ignores the question of “justice” with respect to inheritance, pushing the questioner to a true acknowledgement of what is valuable. This creates a dynamic challenge, for when the man calls out from the crowd for “justice” or “fairness,” Jesus warns him against greed, saying in 12:15, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." When Jesus tells the story of the Rich Fool as a way to explicate his teaching, he uses an example of a man whose material success leads to “bigger barns” for his crops, what was known as “the Galilean Dream,” but who also feels that material success is his salvation:

“Then he said, "I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, "You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." (12:18-21)

It is not that we do not need these things,  Jesus seems to be saying, it is more an issue of anxiety regarding possessions, attachment to or desire for them, and ignorance of what matters most, especially God and the poor in our midst (see 12:33-34).

More tomorrow.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens 


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