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So writes respected scholar Luke Timothy Johnson in his introduction to Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands. ...
So writes respected scholar Luke Timothy Johnson in his introduction to Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands. Stepping purposefully into the “murky waters” of owning and sharing, Johnson endeavors to clarify and define the ambiguous concept of human possession — especially in relation to God's divine ownership — and to discern the Bible's teaching on the mystery of human possessing and possessiveness.
This second edition, reflecting thirty years of Johnson's further thinking on the subject, features chapters expanded with fresh insights, helpful new study questions for each chapter, and a substantial epilogue updating the work.
“All who found in Luke Johnson's treatment of possessions as part of the mystery of human existence a deeper and more fruitful approach to the 'problems' of wealth and poverty will find in this new edition continued critical reflection and fresh insight. Those for whom this is a first encounter will find out what made it worth reissuing after thirty years.”
— Sondra Ely Wheeler Wesley Theological Seminary
We want to take the Bible seriously as the norm for our Christian identity and action. How can we do this? To get our thinking started, I will begin with some propositions with which I do not agree but which are not uncommonly held. By digging away for a while at these propositions, we may begin to excavate the real question posed for us by the Scriptures.
The first proposition is that the Christian life, whatever else it may be, is surely a code of ethics. To be Christian means to live in one way and not another, to have certain definite values manifest themselves in certain definite patterns of behavior. What makes Christians different from others is the way they perceive and deal with life's important issues. The second proposition is that if this code of behavior is to have any consistency, and if the individual Christian is to know whether he or she is acting in a Christian manner, there must be a place where the appropriate ways of behaving are laid out. Where there is a code, we should be able to expect a codification. For Christians, this codification is found in the Bible, the Christian rulebook. The third proposition is that if the way people use money and possessions is at all significant for the Christian life, if the employment of material things is at all an ethical or religious issue, then this rulebook should have something clear and unambiguous to say about it. All we need to do to check whether our behavior is consonant with the Christian ethic is to consult the proper code.
Here, of course, is where we start to run into trouble. There is no lack of directives concerning the use of possessions in the Bible; they are everywhere. Nor is there any doubt that the Bible considers the use of material possessions significant for the life of faith. The problem is that the directives seem to be saying different things: they seem to point us in different directions. When we face these conflicting demands squarely and refuse to harmonize them, we are forced to ask ourselves about our starting point. Is the Christian life a matter of a code of behavior? Is the Bible to be appropriated as a rulebook of behavior? Is what we do with material possessions really important for our Christian lives?
But is it really so difficult to derive a consistent mandate concerning the use of possessions from the Bible? I think it is, if we are really looking for a clear, consistent, and unequivocal direction for our behavior. In order to demonstrate this, I invite you to look with me at what is said in a single New Testament writing that is particularly replete with commands about possessions — Luke-Acts.
Luke-Acts is the shorthand title adopted by scholars for the two-volume work ordinarily called, respectively, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The title Luke-Acts indicates that although these writings appear separately in the canon, they were undoubtedly written by a first-century Christian teacher and historian as one continuous, though two-part, work. The first volume tells the story of Jesus; the second, the story of the beginning of the church. Both are told as the continuation of the biblical story of God's work among the chosen people through the prophets. The literary unity of Luke-Acts is important for the interpretation of this scriptural witness; to find out what Luke wished to teach on any particular subject, we must read Luke-Acts as a whole.
Even a cursory reading of Luke-Acts shows the author's concern about riches, poverty, and the use of possessions. References to these matters are more frequent in this Gospel than in any other. Luke has all the material on possessions found in Mark, and most of what is found in Matthew, with the exception of Matthew 5:5; 6:1-4; 13:44-45; 17:24-27; 18:23-35; 20:1-16; 25:31-46; and 27:3-10. Beyond this, there is a great deal of material dealing in one way or another with possessions which is unique to Luke, quite apart from what we find in Acts (see Luke 1:51-53; 3:10-14; 6:24; 8:1-3; 10:1-16; 10:38-42; 11:41; 12:13-21; 14:12-14; 15:8-10; 15:11-32; 16:1-9, 14, 19-31; 17:28-30, 32; 18:9-14; 19:1-10; 21:34-36; 22:35-38). Apart from 12:6 and 13:29, John's Gospel adds nothing to the synoptic tradition. So, in Luke, we have a compendium of the gospel teaching on possessions, and no end of attention has been paid to this "evangelist of the poor" by scholars. The trouble is that, after all this attention, scholars have a hard time deciding just what exactly Luke wants to teach his church (and, by extension, us) about the use of possessions. If we ask the simple and straightforward question posed by the hearers of John the Baptist, "What, then, are we to do?" (Luke 3:10), the answer is not altogether clear. Although Luke consistently speaks about possessions, he does not speak about possessions consistently. In what follows, I will deliberately isolate various strands within his text and refuse to harmonize them. I will, in effect, be treating Luke-Acts as a "code of Christian life," to see if we can follow Luke's directions concerning the use of possessions.
The Poor Are Privileged in the Eyes of God, and the Rich Condemned
In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, when Mary praises God for the blessing of bearing the Messiah, she says, "he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (1:53). The sending away of the rich, together with the "scattering of the proud" and the putting down of the "mighty from their thrones" (1:51-52), is a sign of the reversal of fortunes and expectations brought about by God's visitation to his people (see 3:5-6; 14:11). The filling of the hungry with good things accompanies the exalting of "those of low degree" (1:52). The Greek word used for "those of low degree," tapeinoi, has definite resonances in the tradition. It designates not only those who are without possessions but those who are oppressed by their fellow human beings and must look to God for help, since they can expect none from elsewhere (for example, see Zeph. 2:3-9; 3:11-13; Isa. 25:4; 26:5-6; 28:5-6; 29:18-19; 41:17; 49:13; 61:1-4; 66:2; Jer. 20:13; Pss. 9:9, 12, 18; 10:14, 17-18; 12:5; 14:6; 22:24; 33:18-19; 34:6; 35:10; 36:7; 40:17; 55:22; 56:11; 62:1, 5-8; 68:5-6, 10; 69:32-33; 70:5; 71:4; 94:22; 102:17; 103:6; 124:8; 140:12; 146:7-9).
When Jesus starts his ministry, he applies to himself the reading from Isaiah 61:1-2, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18). This is clearly intended to announce the kind of messiah Jesus was to be and the gist of his message. In his first major sermon, Jesus begins with a beatitude, "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (6:20). We notice that this is not moralistically shaded, as is Matthew 5:3, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." No, Luke says "you poor," as though the group of disciples and others who heard him (6:17, 20) were themselves poor. And the word "poor" seems to bear its usual meaning of being without material goods. Jesus calls such as these blessed, simply because the good news is addressed to them. Lest we miss the point, Luke alone has added to his beatitudes a series of woes, the first of which reads, "woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation" (6:24).
The division established by the beatitude and woe continues throughout Luke's Gospel. When John the Baptist sends messengers to ask whether Jesus is the awaited Messiah, Jesus' response has as its climax the notice that "the poor have good news preached to them" (7:22). The program of prophetic visitation enunciated at 4:18 and announced at 6:20 is here certified by the work of Jesus. The call of the poor to God's kingdom is also signaled by the parable of the banquet that Jesus told while sitting in the house of a Pharisee (14:16-24). Those who were first invited to the banquet refused the invitation because they were too involved with the affairs of their lives to respond (14:18-20). More about them later. The master grew angry and sent his servants to bring into the banquet "the poor and maimed and blind and lame" (14:21). As the poor stood in last place at 7:22, here they stand first in line, representing those outcast from the people Israel whom God calls to his feast. This parable, in turn, serves as the model for human hospitality: "when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you" (14:13-14).
The blessing of the poor and the rejection of the rich by God is sharply expressed in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31) told to certain Pharisees, whom Luke calls "lovers of money" (16:14), who had scoffed at Jesus' words about loving God more than money. The story captures precisely the import of the first beatitude and woe found in Luke. We are not told explicitly that the rich man did anything bad in his lifetime (though from 16:19 and 31 the implication might be drawn that he did not practice alms); he was just exceptionally rich. He had his consolation in this life (see 6:24) and after death had to sit in Hades, bereft of comfort. Nor are we told that Lazarus was particularly virtuous. He was simply miserably poor in this life, and in the next life received his consolation, apparently for that reason alone (16:25).
Let us pause for a moment and consider what the implications of passages such as these might be, if we take them in isolation and apply them to our lives as norms. We note immediately that these are not passages about how one should use possessions, but passages about how God views people who have or do not have a certain amount of possessions. Clearly, God loves the poor and hates the rich. Otherwise, why is God's good news directed to the poor as a blessing and heard by the rich only as a woe? Otherwise, why punish a man simply because he is rich and reward another simply because he is poor?
And what are the implications of this for me? Does it mean that if I have a great deal of money or property the good news is not for me? If I am rich, am I automatically excluded from God's care? But, then, what does it mean to be "rich"? What exactly is the measure? How much property or money does it take? This is not a trivial question if God favors those below a certain economic line and detests those above it. Is wealth determined by the quantity of material things I have or the degree of my attachment to them? Or is there something evil about possessions as such that taints everyone to some degree, and more when more is owned? Another question is whether being rich or poor is an absolute or relative state. Are there degrees of richness and poverty, and do these degrees indicate relative position within or without God's people or God's favor? If so, once again, what is the measure? Must I divest myself of all I own and become destitute, or only become uncomfortable? Do I have to live in a hovel, or only a second-class hotel? These are all grim questions and not easy to resolve. Not only are we puzzled by what appears to be a decided selectivity in God's mercy, but also by the vagueness of the conditions under which we might confidently expect that mercy.
Jesus Demands Complete Renunciation of Possessions for Disciples
Luke makes a point of noting that, when Jesus called his first disciples, "they left everything and followed him" (5:11). Levi the tax collector also, when called by Jesus, "left everything ... and followed him" (5:28). The tax collector left a lucrative sinecure; Peter and the sons of Zebedee left their source of livelihood. Peter later had occasion to remind Jesus of this. That occasion was when the rich ruler came and asked Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life (18:18). Jesus' first response was that the man should keep the commandments. When the ruler said he had already done that, Jesus told him, "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (18:22). The man withdrew sadly, for, as Luke notes, "he was very rich" (18:23). Jesus' comment on the whole situation was that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (18:24-25). This encounter and Jesus' interpretation threw his hearers into consternation: "Why, then, who can be saved?" Jesus assures them that what is impossible with human resources is possible by God's power (suggesting a way open to the rich?). When Peter reminds Jesus that he and the Zebedee brothers had in fact left their own things in order to follow him (18:28), Jesus promises a reward in this life and in the next (18:29-30). If we read this story "on the flat," we can gain no other impression than that just as the first disciples left everything to follow Jesus, and could therefore look for a reward, so this is expected of any subsequent follower. Beyond keeping the commandments, they must sell all they have and become destitute followers of the Messiah. The rich man in the story simply failed to meet this demand of discipleship and was therefore rejected.
The same point is forcefully made in the passage following the parable of the great banquet in chapter 14, in which, as we saw, those first invited refused to come. In 14:25ff., Jesus turns to the great multitudes following him and states the demands of discipleship. Disciples must be willing to leave behind all close relationships and to take up their cross after him (14:25-27). He warns them to count the cost before responding (14:28-32) and concludes with this unequivocal demand regarding possessions: "whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (14:33).
Now, this is consistent enough and follows logically from the first theme: that God's good news is for the poor and not for the rich. By stripping ourselves of all our possessions and becoming destitute, we place ourselves among the "poor" and can therefore both receive and respond to God's invitation to the kingdom. If we take these sayings of Jesus as being addressed to us as "disciples," there does not seem to be any way of avoiding the demand — being a follower of Jesus demands becoming radically poor. The question that needs to be asked now is whether this demand was made of all those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah in the Gospel story.
Disciples of Jesus Are to Give Alms to Help the Poor and Provide Hospitality
There is another way of using possessions mentioned in Luke-Acts, which is perhaps the dominant response called for — that practice of "charity" or "justice" called almsgiving. The ideal of almsgiving seems at least to be implied in the difficult story of the unjust steward and its awkwardly appended sayings about mammon (16:1-13). Jesus expressed admiration for the cunning, if not the morality, of the rich man's steward who, when caught fiddling with the books, secured a place for himself among his master's debtors by still more financial fiddling. Jesus recommends to his followers that they show similar enterprise in their response to crisis. The second moral of the story addresses more directly the use of possessions by the disciples: "make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations" (16:9). If we attach this moral to the pattern of the story, this would mean that the disciples are to use money in a way that will secure them a reward from God; as the steward found a place, in effect, by distributing goods among the creditors, so they will find a place in heaven by the distribution of alms (16:10-13). The sayings that follow are notoriously obscure. In each, a lesser activity or reality is contrasted with a greater one. What seems clear from this passage is that the followers of Jesus are expected to use their possessions in a creative way (see also 19:11-27); they are to give alms to the poor, and this will secure them a place in heaven. We notice the similarity to that which was told the rich ruler in 18:22. He was to have a treasure in heaven if he sold what he had and gave it to the poor. The difference, of course, is that the rich ruler was expected to sell all he had, and here there is no hint of that.
Excerpted from Sharing Possessions by Luke Timothy Johnson Copyright © 2011 by Luke Timothy Johnson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Preface to the Second Edition vi
1 Searching for a Mandate 11
2 Toward a Theological Understanding of Possessions 29
3 Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith 73
4 Critical Observations on the Community of Goods and Almsgiving 109
Study Questions 157
Suggestions for Further Reading 161
Scripture Index 163