economics

Does Luke Want All Christians to Be Poor? (Part 1)

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No house slave is able to serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he, himself, will be devoted to one and think little of the other. You are not able to serve God and wealth. Now the Pharisees, who were being lovers of money, were hearing all these things and were ridiculing him [Jesus].

— Luke 16:13–14[1]

Luke’s Gospel has been the focus of numerous studies on wealth and poverty, and, as the longest New Testament (NT) document, Luke is integral to our understanding of faith, work, and economics (FWE). Popular approaches to Luke’s teachings include: a “prosperity” approach that views Luke through the windows of wealth,[2] and a “liberation/social” approach that understands Luke from the plight of the poor.[3] However, both approaches are problematic.

For example, the so-called “prosperity” approach equates spiritual health with material wealth. Like Job’s “friends”—who assumed that, given Job’s suffering and lack, Job was an egregious sinner (Job 4:7–8; 22:5)—many prosperity proponents believe that wealth is indicative of godly living. Luke reveals that this statement may (Luke 7:5; 19:1–10) or may not (Luke 12:16–21; 18:18–25) be true. Christians should not give merely to receive (Luke 6:34–35). The gift of salvation is free (Rom 5:15–16; Eph 2:8–9).

The “liberation/social” approach is also defective in that it elevates life experiences over the timelessness of Scripture. This approach to doctrine is ahistorical/anachronistic in that Scripture is “reinterpreted” in light of current conditions and the values of the poor. The “poor must be liberated” out from under the “oppressive forces of the rich”— thus, creating and fostering class distinction.

While passages such as Luke 16:19–31, appear—on the surface—to elevate the poor and denounce the rich for no other apparent reason than the amount or lack of the characters’ possessions, other passages reveal how wealth can be used for good (e.g., Luke 7:36–50; 10:25–37; Acts 4:32–37; 16:14–15). Luke appears to be fond of contrasting positive and negative examples of wealthy and powerful characters in his writings.[4] Nevertheless, scholars such as Kenneth Bailey and John Szukalski, have argued in their works, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (395) and Tormented in Hades (ix–x), that Luke depicts wealth as an idolatrous, blinding influence against God.

Hence, the problem question addressed in my triad of articles exploring Luke-Acts: Does Luke want all Christians—including affluent Americans—to be poor? I contend that while Luke condemns the love of and allegiance to wealth, Luke-Acts presents wealth as morally neutral—neither mandated nor forbidden. Christians are to love and serve God supremely, and adopt a Christocentric understanding of material possessions. In other words, while certain characters in Luke-Acts are condemned for their love and allegiance to riches,[5] Luke does not rebuke Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10) or Lydia (Acts 16:14–40) for obtaining their wealth, or dissuade them from their professions. Rather, Luke challenges his audiences to worship God alone, and to use their resources accordingly. These same challenges apply to us.

As part of the FWE Curriculum Project, these three articles briefly explore a curriculum on Luke-Acts that attempts to answer this problem question and more. While this introduction serves to orient readers to the question, my subsequent articles will consist of four sections: (1) How does Luke-Acts intersect with FWE? (2) How can FWE be incorporated in a course on Luke-Acts? (3) How does the presentation of FWE in Luke-Acts intersect the Great Commission (GC)? and (4) synthesis and concluding thoughts.

Editor’s Note: This article is an installment in the FWE Curriculum Project.

[1] All Scripture references are author’s original translations from Barbara Aland, et al., eds., Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012).

[2] See e.g., Creflo Dollar’s [The Holy Spirit, Your Financial Advisor] and Joel Osteen’s [30 Thoughts for Victorious Living] exegesis of Luke 6:38; 8:5–8.

[3] See e.g., Gustavo Gutiérrez’s [A Theology of Liberation] and James Cone’s [A Black Theology of Liberation] exegesis of Luke 4:18–19; 6:20.

[4] See David L. Matson, Household Conversion Narratives in Acts: Pattern and Interpretation, LSNTS 123 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), 150 n.76.

[5] See e.g., Luke’s scathing term for the Pharisees (philargyroi) in Luke 16:14, which can be defined as “loving wealth, lover of riches.” See Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (New York, NY: United Bible Society, 1988–1989), 1:301, hereafter abbreviated L&N.

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  • economics
  • FWE Curriculum Project
  • wealth and poverty
Gregory E. Lamb

Gregory Lamb is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in Biblical Studies (NT) at Southeastern Seminary, where he teaches NT Greek as an adjunct professor, and the pastor of Mays Chapel Baptist Church (founded 1802) of the historic Sandy Creek Baptist Association. He is a regular presenter at academic conferences and has published articles on fatherlessness, wealth and poverty, disability studies/physiognomics, and the technical study of NT Greek. Gregory and his wife, Tamara, live in Sanford, NC where Tamara is a STEM teacher for one of the local public middle schools. They have five children aged 21 to 8 (Austin, Brennan, Caitlyn, David, and Elijah).

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