Recently, I posted an essay on Acton’s Transatlantic Blog reflecting on the economic implications of the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament. After reading my essay (David Bentley Hart’s Gospel of Cass Division), a friend of mine shared observation from his seminary New Testament professor that I think helps set the context for Jesus’ comments about wealth.
During the New Testament era, keeping the various laws of ritual purity was expensive and so beyond the economic reach of all but the wealthiest members of the Jewish community. We get hints of the economic burden of the Law in several places. The first, and maybe most notably, is in Luke 2:24 where Mary and Joseph offer “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (NKJV) in thanksgiving for the birth of Jesus. Historically, this was the minimally acceptable offering under the Law and so the typical offering of the poor who couldn’t afford either a bull or a sheep.
Another notable example is the widow in Luke 21:1-4:
And He [Jesus] looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, ‘Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.’
The critique of the wealthy is clear. Yes, they offer great sums of money. However, they do so not because they are generous but because they are able to do so with relatively little adverse economic impact. The widow, however, has very little money and so the more extravagant gifts and sacrifice necessary for the purification of serious sins are beyond her reach. Like the Mary and Joseph, all she can offer is the bare minimum and so cannot free herself from any weightier sins.
But the wealthy? They can buy ritual purity that is beyond the reach of the poor. For the rich, forgiveness and reconciliation of even the most serious of their sins is ready to hand. But the poor remain estranged from God because of their poverty!
Knowing that reconciliation with God under the Law was conditioned by personal wealth helps us make better sense of Jesus’ comment earlier in Luke 20:46-47.
Then, in the hearing of all the people, He said to His disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation.’
The wealthy are castigated then not for being wealthy as such but for using their wealth to create and perpetuate a two-tiered religious system in which because of their poverty the poor are excluded from intimacy with God.
Compounding the injustice even further, the various sacrifices need for ritual purity had become central to the economic system surrounding the Temple. It is as a sign that He has come not simply to correct this spiritual and economic injustice but overthrow it. “Then He went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in it, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house is a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves’” (Luke 19:45-46).
Jesus comes to replace a system in which access to God is a function of wealth. Worse, acquiring the different sacrificial offerings gas becomes the heart of what in another context would be a morally legitimate system of free exchange. In effect, merchants are making a profit from a system that imposes an economic burden on those who would be reconciled with God on a spiritual level and re-integrated into the community on a social level.
In the events leading up to the cleanings of the Temple (Luke 19:1-10), we meet a man intimately involved in the economic injustice at the heart of the Roman Empire–the tax collector Zacchaeus. Though he works for the Romans–and so has placed himself outside the Jewish community–he nevertheless has access to Jesus and so grace. For this reason Zacchaeus “the sinner” (v. 7) stands, like Jesus Himself, as “a sign of contradiction” (Luke 2:34, Douay Rheims) for those who would limit ritual purity to the wealthy and the powerful.
Aware that he has committed injustices against his fellow Jews, Zacchaeus is willing to make amends: “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (v. 8). Two things are noteworthy here.
First, Zacchaeus doesn’t offer alms (which was a requirement for all Jews) but as a sacrifice for the harm he has done. He does this outside the formal sacrificial system to the Temple. It isn’t a Temple priest but Jesus who both receives his offering and declares the sacrifice efficacious. “Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.’”
Offering a sacrifice for sin is no longer limited to the priests in the Temple. Now, even those outside the community, those who are ritually impure (“sinners and tax collector”) are able to offer sacrifice. That Jesus, Who is not a member of the Temple priesthood, receives the sacrifice undermines the economic system that reinforces the religious authority of the wealthy. at the expense of the poor. With the coming of Jesus, the poor are no longer on the margins of Jewish society. They too have access to God and the forgiveness of their sins.
Immediately after the story of Zacchaeus, Jesus tells the parable of the talents. This serves to reinforce and extend the spiritual/economic lesson. Once again, the question is that of the right use of wealth. Troubling for critics of the free market, the moral legitimacy of profit is assumed. And yet to understand the parable as a New Testament endorsement of capitalism is an anachronistic reading of the text.
Jesus purpose in telling the story is to correct the many who wrongly “thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately.” Like the other passages in Luke, the concern is with announcing the end of an economic and spiritual system in which wealth is used to restrict the access of those on the social or economic margins of society from the Kingdom of God.
This chapter reaches a crescendo when in verses 28-40 Jesus enters Jerusalem not as a wealth King on a magnificent horse but as a poor man riding on a donkey. The symbolism isn’t lost on either the crowds or the Pharisees who “called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples'” (v. 39). Entering as He does on a donkey, “the foal of an ass” (Matthew 21:5 in Luke, “a colt”), Jesus announces a new dispensation in which the wealthy are no longer able to claim–and enforce–an exclusive right of access to God and His blessings.
Unfortunately, for all the enthusiasm with which He is greeted Jerusalem is unable to grasp the true meaning of what Jesus has accomplished.
Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”(Luke 19: 41-42).
The Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown in his commentary of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke (The Birth of the Messiah) argues that a central message of Luke’s Gospel is that (among others) those excluded from the Jewish community because of poverty have now become the privileged witnesses to the Kingdom of God. To understand this as a proto-Marxist statement is as anachronistic as seeing the Parable of the Talents as an endorsement of the modern, free market.
Instead, Brown argues that in St Luke’s telling, economic poverty no longer excludes people from communion with God. It is this that raises, or maybe better, reveals, the dignity of the poor. They too have access to God. And just as God has done, the wealthy are obligated to extend grace to the poor. This grace isn’t limited to material assistance alone; it also must include respect. Philanthropy, no matter how generous, that fails to respect the dignity of the person falls short of what is required by God. In other words, it is unacceptable for out charity to leave the poor in undignified circumstances. Charity that keeps the poor, poor and so dependent, is unacceptable because it replicates the same economic, social and spiritual condition that Jesus came to overturn.
While good in itself, easing the burden of the poor is simply not enough. We fail the poor when we leave them poor. The reason is that wealth has a purpose: it is meant to protect human dignity, to foster human flourishing and serve the person’s growth in holiness.
Neither wealth nor the wealthy as such are condemned in the New Testament. If this were not the case, alleviating the poverty of the poor would be a sin.
What is condemned, however, is not wealth as such but (I would suggest) the willingness of the wealth (with some notable exceptions like Zacchaeus and a few others like Joseph of Arimathea in Luke and Nicodemus in John’s Gospel) to use their wealth to keep others from the Kingdom of God.