Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Reading Luke's Economic Absences and Alterations (Part 10)

In the previous post, having established a trajectory of economic redistribution in Luke-Acts (John the Baptist-->Jesus-->early Jerusalem community), some of Luke's alterations and absences make more sense. Although reading absences is often dangerous, having Luke's source (Mark) and comparing alternative versions of the same saying (Matthew) puts us on a bit safer methodological grounds. Although many out there like to read absences anyway.

One of the most famous alterations of shifts is in Luke's version of the Beatitudes. So, while Matthew has Jesus say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3) Luke has Jesus say, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Luke 6:20). Matthew follows the contemporary Jewish circumlocution in order to avoid saying "God" and instead says "heaven." But the more important shift, for the present purposes, is that Matthew writes "poor in spirit" and keeps the discourse in the third person. Luke's Jesus jumps out at you, speaking to YOU, in the second person plural. And this Jesus keeps things on a more material level, instead of escaping into a spiritual discourse, of poor in spirit (although this may have some emotional or psychological undertones). Instead, in Luke, it is just the poor, you poor, who will enter the Kingdom of God (like Lazarus in 16:19-31).

Something Luke has that Matthew does not discuss is the series of "woe's." So, while the poor (and not just poor in spirit, but the materially poor) shall enter the kingdom of God, "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:24). As a whole, the rich do not come off very well throughout Luke.

Another absence that I never noticed until someone objected to part of my analysis of "render unto Caesar," is that unlike the rest of the gospels, no one in Jesus' group actually carries money. That's right, there is NO MENTION in Luke that Judas keeps the money. I looked and looked and looked and could not find it. But it makes sense, for how could Jesus tell everyone else to give ALL their money to the poor and hold back some? Yet, he is not personally holding back some in the OTHER gospels, but the group has money. So, again, there is a communitarian ethic in the other gospels that reemerges in Acts, but in Luke, Jesus has no money. The usual passage that mentions Judas as the moneykeeper may have been removed for another purpose however.

First let's take a look at one of Luke's purported sources: Mark 14:3-8:

And while he as at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. But there were some who said to themselves indignantly, "Why was the ointment wasted? For this ointment might have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and given to the poor." And they reproached her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenver you will, you can do good to them; but you will not always have me."

In Matthew the disciples as a whole are indignant (Matt. 26:6-13); in John, Judas is the only one (12:1-8). Also in John, the scene occurs at Mary and Lazarus' house. But in Luke a huge shift occurs:

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table. And behold a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears,a nd wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he woudl have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner." (Luke 7:36-39)

So the whole thing about you will always have the poor with you but not have me with you does not fly in Luke. Luke omits it ocmpletely. It is there that Judas is shown as having money (in John). For Luke, such a saying seems to fly completely in the face of everything else he is trying to portray as Jesus' economic message of giving all to the poor without holding back. Instead, in Luke, this situation becomes a commentary on Jesus reaching out to outcasts in society and those outcasts reaching to him in return. He goes for the lepers, the poor, the tax collectors, women, prostitutes, and "sinners" and general. These are the ones for whom he has come. So, in short, Luke has dropped an episode that potentially threatens his portrait of Jesus. Is this part of his more "orderly account"?

One last thing for we are approaching Christmas. The birth story. It is clear that Matthew and Luke present very two different birth stories that are harmonized for the Christmas holidays. The biggest difference, with regard to the current discussion, is who visits Jesus? In Matthew, wise men or magi from the East follow a star and give Jesus great, expensive gifts of gold, frankinsense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:1-12). This does not seem like it would work in Luke, unless Mary and Joseph immediately sold the gifts and gave the proceeds to the poor! Instead, we have a bit of a more lowly visitation in Luke of shepherds tending their flocks nearby (Luke 2:8-20). These are the ones who see the child in a manger who later declares that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

I think this shall end my series, now in ten parts, on the economic redistribution program in Luke-Acts. If there is anything I missed in these ten sessions that you think is pertinent to discuss, please, by all means, drop a note!


Richard Fellows said...


I have just read your series. I'm sorry that I missed it before.

Any idea why Acts does not mention the collection from Galatia, Achaia or Macedonia? Was it to protect those involved from retribution, or is there a better explanation?

Interestingly, there are different portraits of St Francis. In the early biographies he is very loyal to 'lady poverty' and does not allow his 'brothers' to have any personal wealth or to indulge in book learning. The later biographies de-radicalise him. Are there parallels here with the way that Jesus has been de-radicalised over the centuries?

Jared Calaway said...

Dear Richard,

I have not thought about this particular omission of Paul's collection. It is something I would need to look into a bit more, and perhaps I'll have a little time over winter break.

But if we think of Paul's collection from the standpoint of Luke-Acts, it seems very half-hearted, no? It seems more like those who "give out of abundance" or give and hold some back for themselves (as in Ananias and Sapphira) instead of, in each case, giving all.

On the other hand, it might be difficult to maintain this rather utopian vision of the early Christian community holding all things in common on a broader scale. It seems logistically difficult once you have a series of loosely interrelated communities. It might be possible to narrate, however, on this broader scale...sort of having a series of communatarian groups who are interrelated to one another.... But, then again, I doubt that Paul would have been able to attract very many to that lifestyle. Again, this is just my speculative musing, but hopefully I can turn to this in the next few weeks if I have spare time.

As to your second question, Jesus' message gets de-radicalized rather quickly. In the second century CE, Clement of Alexandria wrote a treatise entitled "Who is the rich man who shall be saved?" based upon the story of the young rich man who was unwilling to give everything he owned to the poor and follow Jesus which prompted Jesus' saying, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." He was able, through some exegetical virtuosity, to argue that Jesus was NOT referring to material money, but to the vices that weighs one down. It was rather typical a middle-Platonizing move, actually, to equate something considered bad in the text with vices and good things as symbols for virtues. As such, the rather wealthy man, Clement, was able to claim Jesus for the wealthy.

You could argue that we see a slight de-radicalization already in Matthew in the "blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT," but that would involve arguing whether Luke's version precedes Matthew's version or vice versa.

Of course, throughout history, there are those who did take Jesus' words at face value, who did sell all they owned and gave it the poor...at least, in hagiographical literature (St. Anthony, for example, or perhaps your own example of St. Francis). Basically, to find people who did do this, you have to go to the hermits hanging out in the desert, or many nameless monks in history.