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.

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