Luke and Money

The readings for Sunday, July 31, 2016, Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23; Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11; and Luke 12:13-21.

Luke presents important themes one after another. Last Sunday’s theme: prayer and perseverance in prayer. The week before: discipleship for women. The week before that: discipleship for outsiders (Samaritans). This week: money. No doubt all these themes were hot issues for the Christian Community for which Luke composed his Gospel. Where there is money, there is inheritance. Where there is inheritance, there is trouble. Few families escape disagreements about inheritance. And so it was in the time of Jesus and later in the time of Luke. To handle this aspect of money or wealth, Luke depicts someone in a crowd saying to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus is too smart to get involved in this family dispute and replies, “Man, who appointed me as your judge and arbitrator?”

Sometimes we forget how totally saturated the authors of our Gospels were with their Scriptures, the Scriptures we call the Old Testament. Luke was not an eye or ear witness to Jesus’ words and deeds, and composes these stories about a half century after the alleged events. He had at hand not only traditions about Jesus’ words and deeds, but also his Scriptures assisting him on how to express the stories he chooses for his instructions. It is therefore not by chance that the responding question attributed to Jesus sounds so much like a statement in Exodus 2:13-14. Two of Moses’ fellow Israelites were fighting. Moses intervened but was rebuffed with these words by one of the fighting Israelites, “Who appointed you to be a prince and a judge over us?”

Luke adds a parable of Jesus to illustrate his teaching. A rich man had a plentiful harvest. The generosity of God and nature gave him a problem with the big harvest. Not enough storage for his grain. After building bigger barns he can rest, eat, drink and enjoy. Does this not seem a normal response to good fortune which enables a person to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labor? What was the problem? Was he an addictive collector? A shop till you drop type? Was he too self-centered? The word “I” appears six times in this short parable. No thought of God in all this wealth? No sharing with the less fortunate? True, there is no reference in the story to a neglect of the poor. Concern for the poor would be especially important to Luke, since that is another major theme of his Gospel, but Luke does not tell us that this is the problem.
Instead God comes on stage in this drama, and says, “You fool! This night your life will be demanded of you. And the things you prepared, whose will they be?” This parable echoes Sirach 11:17-19. Whatever Luke found wrong with this hoarder is not clear, but wickedness is implied, at least for the sake of catechesis. And so, the final words, “Thus it will be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” Jeremiah 17:11 illustrates this warning.

The Scriptures are somewhat ambivalent about wealth. The Old Testament generally considers wealth a gift from God. In the New Testament we hear of the wealthy women of Galilee, including connections to royalty, who supported Jesus & Co. Joseph of Arimathea donated his personal tomb to bury the body of Jesus, of whom Matthew writes, “There came a rich man from Arimathea….” On the other hand we have examples of leaving all to follow Jesus.

It seems that Luke had a strong dislike for wealthy people. Only Luke puts a curse on the rich corresponding to his first beatitude, “Blessed are you poor” versus “Woe to you rich, for you have received your consolation now,” 6:20, 24. Only Luke has the story of the rich man who went to hell and poor Lazarus who was carried by angels to the “bosom of Abraham.” 19:22-23. Only Luke speaks of religious leaders who were “lovers of money,” 16:14. Only Luke in his composition of Mary’s Hymn says, “He filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Luke’s gospel is pre-eminently the Gospel of the Poor. His emphasis on the needs of the poor sometimes leads him to over-enthusiastic condemnation of those who could help and would not. His condemnations seem so severe that one must conclude they arise from personal observation of abuse and neglect of the poor in his own Christian Community. We must however not forget the praise he heaps, through words attributed to Jesus, on a very rich man, Zacchaeus, who gave half his wealth to the poor and was privileged to have Jesus as a house guest.