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?

5 thoughts on “Good News and the Poor in Luke

  1. Kit Danley described these issues from Luke in very sensory terms. Because being poor means being marginalized, isolated, lost, and broken, she would describe ‘the poor’ as invisible to the rest of us. They have no voice. They cannot be heard. They are not seen. They are untouched (or untouchable). They taste nothing (have no access to the family table). Their smell is avoided or hated.

    So one of the signs that the good news has come to us is that we see the poor, we hear their cry, we sit with them and touch them, we break bread with them (we taste with them), and we share the fragrance of Christ together. Shalom happens.

  2. I’m struck by the extent to which “poor” is considered here in socioeconomic terms. This reflects the materialism of modernity, I think, as much as seeing salvation in individualist terms does. “What does salvation look like for the poor today?” I think the things you describe are “good news,” and yet I am hesitant to describe those things in terms of “salvation.” Jesus didn’t die to increase the numbers of the middle class, but to save his people from their sins.

  3. Rob, I really like Danley’s take. Very powerful and beautiful.

    Timbo, you raise interesting points regarding the meaning of salvation. It seems to me as we read Luke that the proclamation of good news is an announcement of salvation. That is, I don’t think there is good news apart from salvation. As Green points out, in Luke, “life must be viewed in its totality, salvation understood in the most all-encompassing way possible.” I think Luke claims that salvation has both spiritual and socioeconomic aspects (among other aspects) and that these aspects cannot be separated from one another. The story of the woman in Luke 7.36-50 is a great example of how salvation in Luke affects multiple areas of life. Jesus announces to her that her sins are forgiven and by doing so he welcomes her to the table and the community from which she was previously excluded. The story of Zacchaeus also shows how salvation addresses several levels of personal and corporate life.

    The evangelicalism where I have spent most of my life has largely emphasized the spiritual and individual nature of salvation often to the exclusion of the other aspects of salvation. Though there have been brothers and sisters calling out for a correction for many years, it has been in the past decade or so that this correction has made a greater foothold in this tradition — that is, this correction isn’t merely being discussed in the academy, but is now in congregations. I am grateful for that. At the same time, I would hate to run so far the other direction as the social gospel proponents of the 19th century did when they emphasized the corporate and socioeconomic aspects of salvation to the exclusion of the personal and spiritual aspects.

  4. I’m up early before work. I appreciate what you note about brothers and sisters long having been calling out for correction. And I do think there has been good (visible) progress made in the past decade. From where I stand, observing some that I know, I think there is fatigue from the calling out and the work along needful lines in isolation. But I also sense increasing relief as change continues to come within the Church. I’m grateful as well and hope for a healthy balance to take root. Christ’s life was, after all, good news for the poor.

  5. I will have to ponder this more (thanks for raising such great perspectives and questions) but my first gut response is that a middle class life is certainly not the fulfillment of what God invites us to in Jesus! That is not meant to minimize the real struggles of people below or even in the middle class – I just think the gospel is so much fuller and richer than that. Middle class living seems such a “here and now” goal for salvation, and I think that’s the short-sidedness that Jesus called us to be wary of. I also don’t mean to imply salvation or God’s kingdom is all fluffy personal happiness in the ever after – I think Scripture is very grounded and practical in describing God’s promises to us. But I think even the either/or of the personal salvation/social justice conversation is short and narrow sided. My prayer is for the church body to move into a both/and conversation more and more – but this requires grasping the mystery of God and our existence, which we don’t love to do so much, and then from that place finding common solutions for injustice, which we don’t do well either! No wonder “middle class living” seems such a nice, easy goal to strive for…

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