Keith Reeves, professor of biblical studies, Azusa-Pacific University
Note: This article is the third of a three-part series on economic production and Jubilee in the Old and New Testaments.
In previous articles we looked at the Jubilee in the Old Testament and why the Old and New Testaments treat wealth differently. Now we turn to Jubilee in the gospel of Luke. This gospel is famous for its deep concern with wealth and poverty, and space does not permit a full analysis of wealth in Luke here. This article suggests what we can learn by reading Luke in the light of Jubilee.
Luke addresses his gospel to a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:3). Theophilus was a high ranking dignitary, as is shown by his title, “Most Excellent.” He is obviously a person of means. He is also Luke’s benefactor; Theophilus is picking up the tab so Luke can write his gospel. Much of what Luke writes can be understood as instructions for how a rich believer ought to live.
The theme of Jubilee is announced by Jesus in chapter 4 of Luke, where he announces his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he is anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Biblical scholars recognize the Jubilee theme here, as Jubilee is the year of the Lord’s favor and involves the release of captives.
The placement of this scene is especially noteworthy. It occurs later in Mark’s gospel; Luke moves it forward so it becomes the first public act of Jesus to appear in his narrative. A telltale sign of Luke’s editing is apparent in 4:23; announcing his mission in the synagogue, Jesus suggests that the people will say to him, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Yet in Luke’s narrative, Jesus does not appear in Capernaum until 4:31.
The changing of the order from Mark’s gospel indicates how significant this passage is for Luke. The announcement of Jesus in the synagogue becomes programmatic. Jesus is announcing Jubilee. Captives will be released and the oppressed will go free.
In keeping with the Jubilee theme, we see the reversal of fortunes throughout Luke’s gospel. For example, Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) announces that the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up (1:52). The hungry are filled and rich are sent away empty (1:53). The reversal theme is reflected in the Lukan beatitudes as well. Jesus says, “blessed are you poor,” (6:20) and adds, “woe to you who are rich” (6:24). This is quite different from the Matthean version, in which Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and omits the Lukan woe. Reversal of fortune occurs in other Lukan passages as well, too numerous to elaborate here.
“Rich” and “poor” should not be understood in a strictly financial sense. New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson has developed this theme extensively in his book “Sharing Possessions.” Johnson argues that a consistent view of wealth cannot be developed from Luke.
Rather than net worth, Luke draws the distinction based on how one responds to Jesus as the great prophet. Those who give Jesus a positive response and are open and obedient to him are the poor. On the other hand, the rich are those who fail to recognize that their lives and their possessions ultimately come from God.
This use of the terms “rich” and “poor,” which is so counter-intuitive to us, will make more sense if we read it in historical context. Remember that in the first century world, the wealthy were generally people who got ahead dishonestly (see the previous article in this series). This context is also important for the theme of Jubilee and reversal of fortune.
Jesus himself appears to have had a fairly loose attitude toward wealth. Note his saying in Luke 12:27-28: “Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith!”
Jesus’ own background was probably middle-class. Mark tells us that Jesus was a carpenter. The Greek word tekton could be used of any craftsman or builder. A skilled craftsman certainly had an opportunity to do reasonably well in the first century. Excavations from Sepphoris indicate that skilled craftsmen would have been in high demand. Sepphoris was destroyed in four BC upon the death of Herod the Great when a rebellion broke out. Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, ordered the city to be rebuilt and turned it into the ornament of Galilee.
Jesus also did not lack for resources, or wealthy followers. Luke tells us in 8:2-3 that he lived off the dole of some wealthy women; Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, are named. Joanna and Susanna are both apparently women of some means. We know nothing else of Susanna, but Joanna is wife of Herod’s steward Chuza. Herod’s steward would be very high-ranking and no doubt very financially well-off. Thus, from a purely financial perspective, these people are rich – and they are disciples.
Another thing to consider is that Jesus can hardly be considered frugal. He knew how to party. In Luke 7:34, Jesus is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. It is unlikely these accusations would be made if there were not some basis in Jesus’ actual lifestyle. In fact, when you read through the gospel of Luke it seems like Jesus is almost always at a banquet. He tells five different parables about banquets, and is present at 19 different meals. And let us not forget Jesus’ attitude toward the woman who used the nard to anoint his head; her extravagant act is praised (Luke 7:36-50).
Luke contains numerous parables about wealth, which can’t be developed here. They indicate that wealth should not become an idol and that our ultimate dependence must be on God.
Let’s briefly look at the story of Zacchaeus to illustrate this (Luke 19:1-10). The story of Zacchaeus is well known. Zacchaeus climbs a tree so he can see Jesus. Jesus sees him and invites himself over for dinner. Zacchaeus follows Jesus’ directive and receives him into his house, where Zacchaeus makes the declaration: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” At this, Jesus pronounces salvation on Zacchaeus. “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” The theme of salvation is import in Luke’s gospel also, with terms for salvation (soter, soteria, soterion, and sozein) occurring roughly 20 times. People are saved from many things, including bondage to sin and sickness. They are set free. Zacchaeus’ reception of Jesus indicates his openness to Jesus, and he is released from his bondage, including his bondage to wealth.
The theme of Jubilee in Luke is very much in keeping with his theme of salvation. As we saw in the first article of this series, the Jubilee in the Old Testament restores things to how they were originally. It is resetting the clock. In Luke, Jubilee brings wholeness and sets people free from whatever binds them – whether that be sin, sickness, or in some cases, material goods.
Jubilee means pride and selfishness are cast down while humility and love are exalted. Jubilee brings freedom. Luke does not advocate redistribution or even, necessarily, voluntary abandonment of wealth. Rather, he shows that wealth should be held loosely. Jesus himself praises extravagant expenses when done for the right reason, and he knows how to party. Our attitude toward wealth should be the same.