Good News and the Poor in Luke

While this period of economic hardship and uncertainty has hurt my friends and family, one thing I am grateful for is that people have taken the time to reflect on the positions and sources of our ethics with regard to the economy. Three of the four sermons I preached this year have come from Luke or Acts, which means I’ve had to wrestle a lot with what the New Testament has to say about money and ethics.

Preaching out of Luke and Acts also means I’ve had the pleasure to read a lot of Joel Green recently. Green is a first-rate scholar who has written a great deal on Luke-Acts. He reads the text closely and carefully, emphasizing theology and how Scripture shapes people. In his excellent work, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, Green explores the overarching themes at play in Luke. I love what he says regarding how Luke deals with the issue of salvation and how it confronts our contemporary individualism, and by extension, our economics:

Traditional understandings of Christian faith in the northern hemisphere have generated a series of fissures — between the horizontal and vertical, the spiritual and secular, social witness and evangelism, the personal and the public, individual sin and systemic sin, and the like. These have made problematic our understanding of “salvation” and, thus, “evangelism.” Saved from what? Saved to what? Traditional styles of evangelism concomitant with rifts of this nature have emphasized proclamation to individuals and the initiation of individuals into the heavenly reign of God. “Salvation” in this Christian subculture has generally been defined along narrow lines, in subjective, individualistic terms.

Analogously, “good news to the poor” in wider society is often understood as a matter of economic intervention, as though the answer for “the poor” would be to transform them into members of “the middle class.” The needs of “the poor” around issues of dignity and kinship are rarely entertained; after all, did the psychologist Abraham Maslow not teach us that there can be no “self-actualization” (itself often defined outside of relational lines) without material security? The problems represented by hunger and homelessness in the West are frequently dissected along biographical lines: how did this person find herself living on the street? What irresponsible decisions did he make that left him without a roof for his family? Rendering the problem along individualist lines, we also entertain a narrow band of solutions, themselves focused on individuals. The potential harm or help of cultural institutions — for example, the political economy, the public church, the almost hypostatized power of technology — rarely comes under scrutiny….

In the Lukan conception, life must be viewed in its totality, salvation understood in the most all-encompassing way possible. Luke holds together what the contemporary church has often partitioned into discordant elements: empowering the disadvantaged, seeking the lost, reconciling persons across social lines, calling people to repentance, healing the sick, forgiving sins, initiating people into the community of God’s people. All of these and more are constitutive of salvation in the Third Gospel. (134-136)

The sentence in bold text (which I emphasized) has had my mind swimming and I would love to hear what others have to say about the issue. In many discussions about “good news to the poor,” I would argue North American churches largely reflect the values of wider society — namely, that we too think the “answer for ‘the poor’ would be to transform them into members of ‘the middle class.'” Green shows that in the world of Luke-Acts, being poor does not mean only being economically disadvantaged, but poverty also carries an element of social isolation. The fact that one was poor was seen as a rejection from God and if God rejected you, then others maintained a safe distance as well. When Jesus brings good news to the poor (Lk 4.18), he breaks down the social barriers, the social systems that others use to ostracize the poor. Simply giving a person money would not bring about deep reconciliation.

Forgive me for asking a slew of questions. Feel free to answer any of them or just share your positions and opinions. I’d love to hear peoples’ thoughts.

If it is the case that “being poor” in the time of Luke-Acts meant more than not having money, but also included being marginalized by various values and social systems, what does it mean to be poor in our modern capitalistic system? Are “the poor” central players in the conversation about how we should shape economics? Do they have a voice equal to “the middle class,” or “the rich”? Or are the poor today also marginalized, though perhaps in different ways than in ancient Palestine? I would argue that the poor still are ostracized and kept out of many of the major decisions regarding the economy.

Will helping make the poor members of the middle class actually solve their problems? Is the “good news to the poor” that Jesus continues to preach through his Church announcing to people that they should get a better job so they can repair their credit and buy a home, a new car, and a better television? What does salvation look like for the poor today? I assume access to capital and better-paying jobs, as well as better educational opportunities are necessary components to bringing salvation to the poor, but good news cannot stop at merely helping someone get a better job, or helping one student go to college. I also think there are systems and institutions that need the light of Jesus’ gospel shined upon them.

What do you think about Green’s description of North American individualism and our approach to addressing poverty? In what ways are “the poor” ostracized or included in our current economy? Is poverty primarily an individual matter or are there also larger systems that must be addressed in order to bring good news to the poor? What is good news for the poor in our cities, in our country, and in our world?