Gospel of Luke Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Wealth and Poverty
In the wake of economic collapse throughout the world, Luke's concern with issues of wealth and poverty is worth some chatter. What's to be done about entitlements, taxes, national debts, income inequality, and health care? What is the role of the federal government? Is socialism or capitalism the big evil or the only solution?
A Lukan Analysis of Capitalism
Luke doesn't pipe in on these issues strictly speaking—duh—but his Jesus does promote some radical and demanding principles that are supposed to guide the money-management skills of his followers. First, Jesus criticizes the lifestyle promoted by the quest for wealth. The problem boils down to the fact that "no slave can serve two masters" (16:13), which means that the first choice will have to be whether your ultimate allegiance is to wealth or to God.
Jesus gets all poetic with us, too, likening wealth-hungry people to thorny soil. Putting too much value on the "cares" of life will choke people and mess with their response to God (8:14). These same "cares" are elsewhere criticized by Jesus as a distraction from the properly human tasks of attending to Jesus (10:38-42), trusting God (12:22-32), and waiting for Jesus's return (21:34).
Translation: be poor—it's better for you.
The Rich Men of Luke's Gospel
Want to know what happens to rich men? Jesus has examples galore.
There's the one farmer who is so productive that he builds bigger barns to store all of his produce. With "ample goods laid up for many years" the man decides that it is time to retire, eat, drink, and be merry (12:19). But right when he's ready to enjoy himself, God demands his life and asks him who's going to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Soberly, Jesus concludes, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God" (12:21). Major irony alert.
How about the guy who's enjoying his riches while a poor man named Lazarus languishes outside of his gate? When said rich guy dies, he heads to Hades and spends his time being tormented by a flame. Lazarus, on the other hand, rests in the embrace of Abraham, who reminds the rich man, "during your lifetime you received good things" (16:25 NRSV).
Bottom line: the pursuit of wealth does not fare very well in Luke's gospel. It distracts from devotion to God and leaves you short-changed when death comes a-knocking.
The icing on the cake: the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders (i.e., the villains of the story) are the prime examples of people who orient their lives around getting more money (16:14). This fundamental flaw in the order of their values brings with it a whole host of other failures and misguided pursuits, such as the love for honor (11:43; 14:7; 20:46) and maltreatment of the disadvantaged (20:47).
The Heavenly Economy
Jesus gives some pretty straightforward advice about how his followers should treat their money: "Sell your possessions and give alms" (12:33). Jesus explains that by doing so, they'll be shoring up their heavenly 401(k), "Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys" (12:33). With their heavenly bank accounts secure, followers won't have to worry.
This isn't just a once-off piece of advice either. When a wealthy ruler asks Jesus how to live forever, the rich man is instructed to sell his stuff and redistribute it to the poor (18:21). That's how he'll secure his "treasure in heaven" (18:22). But heavenly economics isn't easy, and Jesus recognizes as much. After the wealthy ruler departs in despair, Jesus remarks to his disciples, "How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (18:24-25 NRSV). Good luck, Warren Buffet.
All too often people are shoved to the margins of our society because they don't live up to standard norms, and their outsider status leaves them vulnerable to some pretty nasty results.
In Luke's gospel, Jesus draws attention to the plight of outsiders. He gets a lot of heat from the religious leaders for hanging out with "sinners" (like tax collectors), but he declares that his mission is directed especially toward them.
In fact, he wants to bring all outsiders forgiveness, release, liberation, healing, and welcome (4:18-19; 7:22; 14:12-14). This includes the poor (4:18; 7:22; 14:13, 21), "captives" (4:18), the blind (4:18; 7:22; 14:13, 21), the oppressed (4:18), the crippled (7:22; 14:13, 21), lepers (5:12-16; 7:22; 17:12-19), and the deaf (7:22).
Our list today would be a little different, of course, but there's no question it exists.
Luke's Jesus also urges others to perform the vital task of welcoming outsiders—it's not Jesus's job alone. In place of friends and neighbors, the poor and disabled should fill the table of a dinner party (14:12-14). You in?
Mahatma Gandhi. Martin Luther King, Jr. Ever heard of 'em? These are two of the greatest examples of the use of non-violent resistance in our history. This "non-cooperation" boils down to political protest in which activists simply refuse to cooperate with laws they perceive to be unjust or otherwise oppressive.
The hope is that they can appeal to anyone with even one tablespoon of humanity to understand their grievances and to join them in making things right. The key ingredient is the refusal to resort to violence even if activists are attacked or punished for their non-compliance.
Jesus was all about non-violence. In Luke's gospel, he instructs his followers to "love your enemies" and to "do good to those who hate you" (6:27), and even offers concrete examples of what this might entail: blessing those who curse you, praying for those who maltreat you, offering the other cheek to one who strikes you, offering your shirt to the one who steals your coat (6:28-29).
These teachings and the non-violent resistance they've inspired intersect with our contemporary situation in startling ways. We seem to be living after all in an age of revolutions. Just think of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Just think of the Occupy movement in America or the protests over austerity in Europe. Which of these movements have employed the tactic of non-violent resistance? Which are not? And what does success ultimately look like?