Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Luke and Money

One of the problems I see with the way the church uses the Bible is that it completely submerges the differences between the Biblical authors. Luke says something we want to hear, and maybe John says something roughly similar, but Matthew, let’s say, says something different. Instead of looking seriously at what Matthew says, we ignore him, and claim that ‘the Bible says’ the bit we like.

But let’s forget that, and look at Luke and money. We’ll start with Luke 18:18-27, the story of the Rich Young Ruler. Luke, of course, is adapting and expanding Mark, and follows him closely; the extent of the verbal agreement between the two is evidence that he’s using Mark as a source rather than writing an independent account. He changes Mark’s ‘one’ to ‘a certain ruler’.

Throughout his Gospel he makes a distinction between the people, who are responsive to Jesus, and the rulers, who are opposed. So we need not expect this man to become a disciple.

He’s obviously an observant Jew, who keeps the Law, and seems eager to follow Jesus. The stumbling block, of course, is the requirement that he sell everything he has, and give to the poor. This is radical stuff indeed, and the church doesn’t like it. How often do we hear a sermon telling us to take it at face value?

My interest in this began about twenty years ago, when I studied New Testament under the late Prof. Michael Goulder, who died last January. Lukan radicalism was one of the themes he covered, and there’s a chapter on it in his introduction to the New Testament, ‘A Tale of Two Missions’.

Then I found that John Wesley was another man with radical views in this area. I may do a post on this later, as it’s worth looking at in detail. Basically, his view was that money belonged to God, and if we spent more than the necessary minimum on ourselves, rather than giving it away, we were effectively stealing from God. As a young man he found he could live on twenty-eight pounds a year. There was no inflation at the time, and he continued to live on this throughout his life. Everything else - and by the end of his life he had over a thousand a year, a great deal in those days – went into his ministry. Much of it went on books which he distributed free. At the end of his life, he preached a sermon in which he said that the revival, as we'd call it today, had failed because Methodists had become too 'comfortable', meaning too rich, and weren't giving properly. If only everyone involved in what’s called ‘ministry’ followed his example today!

So we come back to the Rich Young Man. The theme is dealt with not only in his Gospel, but also in Mark and Matthew. Outside the New Testament, Origen records another version from the Gospel of the Nazoreans. Clearly, whatever was meant, the story had wide circulation, and was felt to be important. But here we’re concerned with Luke.

He and Matthew both follow Mark in saying that it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye and for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Here the preacher pricks his ears up, and of course they all go on to say that ‘all things are possible with God’. So, they tell us, if you’re rich, you can keep your money and get in after all. Luke, however, gives us examples of what he really means.

The most obvious is the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10; it’s not found anywhere else). He’s a chief tax collector, and an object of well-deserved loathing. Telones, translated as ‘tax collectors’ we men who purchased the right to collect tax. They would pay them money up front – and therefore had to be seriously rich – and took it back by whatever means they could, along with their profits. It was a system established by the Greeks, and taken over by the Romans.

When the latter took control of the Levant in 57 BC, the general and politician Gabinius set up sanhedrins thoughout Palestine, and made them responsible for tax collection. Julius Caesar abolished this after a few years, and made the Ethnarch (Ruler of the People) Hyrcanus II responsible for tax collection in his territory. He, of course, passed large sums on to Rome, but as long as the money was paid to Jews, it doesn’t seem to have raised the same degree of protest.

Herod I used his own officials for tax collection. Rome eventually imposed direct rule over Judea and Samaria (6 AD), and re-introduced their own tax collectors, while Galilee and Peraea, on the East Bank, were the responsibility of Herod Antipas. Doubtless all these people used very much the same system. So tax collectors weren’t necessarily working for the Romans; it depended on where they were. Zacchaeus, operating in Jericho, was in Judea, and therefore paid his money to Rome. Both the Gospels and the Rabbis testify to just how unpopular tax collectors were.

At the bottom of the tree would have been bully-boys who may well have acted like modern bailiffs, taking whatever was of value, and not being at all scrupulous about how much they took over and above what was owed. They would have passed the money on to their bosses. As a chief tax-collector, Zacchaeus was well up in the pile, and as Luke says, he would have been rich. However, he’s falling over himself to see Jesus, and even risks the wrath of the crowd to do so. He promises to give half his money to the poor, and to repay everyone who’s been ripped off four times over, way beyond what the Law requires. Jesus himself declares that he’s now OK with God, but has he got any money left? I rather doubt it.

Then there are the women who finance Jesus’ mission (Luke 8:1-3) If they’re funding everyone with him, they’re being generous, at least. As soon as the church comes into being, we find that the group holds everything in common, with nobody claiming ownership of anything (Acts 4:33-37). Those who have property sell up, and Barnabas gives a shining example by selling his land; the term is ambiguous, and of much wider meaning than the common translation ‘field’. The result is that there isn’t a needy person to be found among them. Later on in Acts, Paul’s churches contribute enthusiastically to his collection for the mother church in Jerusalem, just as diaspora Jews contributed to the Temple. It sounds suspiciously like a primitive version of the much maligned Communism, but this is the Word of God and all that, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

Luke, of course, gives us the other side of the picture as well. The rich young ruler goes away sad, because he’s extremely wealthy, and he doesn’t want to give it all up. The fellow in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31; again, the story isn’t found anywhere else) doesn’t want to give any of it up either. Lazarus is lying at his gate with the dogs licking his sores, and this Scrooge does nothing to help, but dresses up in his finery, and eats like a glutton. Neither character actually does anything, yet Lazarus, who has suffered in this life ends up in the bosom of Father Abraham, while the rich man, having had his pleasure, goes somewhere nasty. His five brothers, who we may presume are also rich, are headed for the same place, and even someone rising from the dead (ie Jesus himself) would be unable to do anything about it.

Then there’s the awful example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). They lie to the church, and thus to the Holy Spirit, hang on to some of their money, and are struck dead on the spot. All in all, Luke doesn’t have a single good word to say about anyone who keeps their money, and gives plenty of examples of people who give it away. The church can duck and dive all it wants, and as Goulder says, a preacher who tells his congregation to give it all away this week may not have one next week. However, it seems it was not always thus. Luke must have had an audience, or his writings would never have come to regarded as holy writ.

Monday, 19 July 2010

I’ve decided to start this blog out of frustration about two things. Firstly, over many years, I’ve been watching the Methodist Church here in the UK declining. I’ve heard several simplistic pseudo-explanations of this; we’re not evangelical enough, not charismatic enough, etc. I don’t happen to believe in a God who only accepts people who worship in a specific, ‘spirit-filled’ style, or people who believe a specific list of doctrines. For that matter, I don’t read about any such deity in the Bible. Meanwhile, Methodist leadership at every level persists in producing no answers. If we’re not careful, we’re going to fade away like the Cheshire cat, without its talent for reappearing.

Meanwhile, over twenty-odd years, I’ve seen a trickle of people leaving for an obvious, identifiable reason. Poor leadership combined with cliquishness. I’ve been in that situation myself; I joined a church, and found the leadership, such as it was, to be exclusive and patronizing. Nobody else’s ideas were wanted; nobody else was capable of doing anything. Everyone else was marginalized and put down, in the interests of their pathetic little smidgeon of petty power.

I’ve seen exactly the same thing happening in two circuits, in two Districts, in Cornwall and Birmingham. I don’t believe it’s down to individuals, I think it’s endemic; there’s something in our Methodist structures which fosters bad leadership, and opens the way for those who want to use God’s church for their wretched ego trips. Not all leadership is like that, of course, but too much is. More than enough to do massive damage over time.

Taken to extremes, we have the case of the church which no longer accepts new members. I saw two churches close because of this in Cornwall, and there are a couple in my current circuit. In Cornwall, I was able to find out exactly how it happened. In both cases, some little so-and-so had been Senior Steward for twenty-odd years. In theory, we have a thing called the ‘six-year rule’ which stops you being a Church Steward for more than six years; in addition, the common position of Senior Steward has no official existence. However, the rules are unworkable. I’ll explain why in a future post.

Both these characters, men I got to know a little as I went round the circuit preaching, were deeply insecure. The church gave them the only status they had, and at bottom, they were afraid. New members might upset their power trips, and so, out of insecurity, they destroyed those churches. Anyone who might stand up to them was bullied until they left, and the remaining members just gave in. Ministers did nothing, despite our suicidal tradition of looking to ministerial leadership. They come to a station for a limited period, initially five years, and very few of them look beyond those five years. If we want to build the church, we need leaders who look to the long term, and are concerned with the good of the church community, not their own needs. That can only come from the laypeople, and we have to devise structures which will encourage the right people to come forward, not the wrong ones.

My other frustration is easier to explain. The internet is full of conservative Christianity, as are religious bookshops. Liberal scholarship is there, but there are very few liberals making any serious attempt to put their views across at a popular level. Why not? Where, for instance, are the popular liberal commentaries we need to counter the fundamentalists?

Sometimes you hear triumphalist conservatives proclaiming that it’s impossible to preach liberal ideas. I’ve been doing it for twenty years, and I decline to believe them. It can be preached perfectly well, but it’s harder work, as you can’t just follow the thousands who’ve preached on the same thing before you. You have to plough your own furrow, and inevitably, you make mistakes. I know I do.

Back in the 1980’s, David Jenkins, a man I greatly admire, had a go when he was Bishop of Durham. He was consigned to what’s euphemistically called ‘a lost eternity’ in God’s imagined torture chamber, and pilloried in the popular press as an ‘unbelieving’ radical bishop, the sort who were supposedly destroying the church. In fact, he was far more conservative than me, and he never said anything that hadn’t been common currency in theological colleges since the middle of the 19th Century. So how come it wasn’t familiar to ordinary Christians? There’s no excuse, and perhaps I can make some sort of progress with this blog. Doubtless there are others out there doing the same thing, and I hope to find them!