Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This is Part 3, the final part, of the series on Wealth and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke. Part 2 appeared here.

The Rich Man and Lazarus:

16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus is a deceptively simple story: a rich man feasted in his palatial home and ignored the poor man at his gate; when the poor man died, he was taken by angels to be be comforted with Abraham, and when the rich man died, he went to Hades, where he was tormented. The punishment of the wealthy man initially seems to be based upon the fact that he had wealth, as 16:25 reads: "Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony." Is the punishment simply due to wealth? The issue is that he did not share his wealth with those in need. The clue that this was a choice for the rich man, that he ignored the needs of others, comes in two telling details: the man lay at his gate daily; and the rich man knows the name of Lazarus when he calls out, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames" (16:24). He knows the name of the poor man, he just decided to ignore his needs. What is significant is that if material wealth is not used to help those in need, there are eternal implications. Wealth in this world, as we are told in the Dishonest Manager (16:1-9), has implications with respect to our eternal home. The tables will be turned if you do not use your wealth wisely.


19:1-10: Zacchaeus’ salvation is based in the account in Luke precisely on his willingness to divest himself of his wealth. Zacchaeus was a tax collector, which itself makes him an object of derision and anger, but also in the eyes of most in 1st century Judea, a sinner and collaborator with the enemy. When Zacchaeus is called by Jesus his repentance is made clear by his act of giving away his money: "Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much" (19:8). Zacchaeus goes beyond the Law of Moses in terms of paying back defrauded wealth and by the time he has paid back the money to the poor and given back his possessions (hyparchonton), I think he is out of possessions. The connection with giving away money and earning salvation is clear, as Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham" (19:9).

The issue of possessions functions at two levels in the Gospel of Luke: how do our material possessions pull us away from God and the love of neighbor? How can we use our material possessions to draw us closer to God and neighbor? The way in which we use our wealth has implications for our eternal destiny. While possessions and wealth do not matter in the long run, the way we use or misuse them does.

There is another level, also, however, at which the issue of possessions functions and that is at the spiritual level: the possessions that truly matter are human beings, God’s most valuable possessions, and we must make certain that we do not overlook, misuse, or forget any of these possessions. If we do, our debt could be eternal. Spiritual debt, however, is no hindrance for those who come to God with repentance and faith; their debts will be relieved by God. So, too, should we lift the burden of debt on those who owe us something, whether materially or spiritually.

How does this map onto political visions of a free market Jesus or a socialist Jesus? Economically, I do not know how to place Jesus in party politics, since governance is not something Jesus spent much time discussing apart from the basileia (kingdom, reign) of God. In Luke 12:35-48 (see part 2) the task of governance in the Church is to care with compassion for the people over whom Church leaders have authority. Most interestingly, though, Luke moves another challenging statement about leadership and ruling amongst his disciples from the context of the road to Jerusalem in Mark 10 to the liturgical context of the Last Supper in Luke 22:24-26:
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
The goal of leaders in the Church is to care for those in need not to take advantage of them. There can be, it seems to me, prudential disagreement about the best way to care for those in poverty and how best to see that their material needs are met, but not about the corrupting impact of wealth and possessions and the need for these to be shared with those who lack basic necessities.

Should we expect the government outside of the Church to help in the care for the needy? Jesus does not speak about types of government, certainly nothing that would connect to our understanding of democracy and political parties, but is it too much to expect that in countries as physically vast as ours, as wealthy as ours, and in a world that lays at our gate, which we cannot ignore, governments might aid in the distribution of riches? Jesus' teachings on wealth and possessions make one thing clear: we might disagree on how best to do this distribution, but he leaves no doubt that it must be done, for the good of our neighbor and for the good of our souls.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens 


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