Luke: Evangelist to the Rich

I can’t find where (or if) G. K. Chesterton really said it, but I’ve seen it attributed to Chesterton often, and it sure does sound like him:

It may be possible to have a good debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies. It is a tantalizing question. Alas, it is impossible to have any sort of debate over whether or not Jesus believed that rich people were in big trouble—there is too much evidence on the subject, and it is overwhelming.

Strikes me as Chestertonian in character. And mostly true. There are big dangers associated with being rich. Jesus makes that point pretty clear. But if there are big dangers for the rich, there are also big opportunities. The New Testament is not anti-rich, but it is emphatically anti-status quo when it comes to the way rich people typically view and use their money.

Anyone who has studied the Gospels knows that Luke’s Gospel uses the harshest language toward the rich and also includes the most about our obligations to the poor. For example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus not only pronounces a blessing on the poor (Luke 4:20b), he also pronounces curses on the rich. “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 4:24-25a).

Of the four Gospel writers Luke has the most to say about wealth and poverty. He chooses his material and organizes it in such a way that his audience would understand that how you handle your money has everything to do with following Jesus.

With this obvious emphasis, it’s easy to make Luke (and the Jesus he writes about) into someone vigorously opposed to rich people. Indeed many Christians look immediately to Luke when they want to say something “prophetic” against materialism or income disparity or the wealth of the Western world. While these “prophetic” words are sometimes necessary, they don’t do justice to Luke’s aims and appeals. We make a profound mistake to see Luke as an evangelist against the rich. He is, more accurately, an evangelist to the rich.

Keeping the Audience and Author in Mind

We must remember two things if we are going to understand Luke’s attitude toward the rich.

First, Luke was almost certainly writing to the rich. Both of his books are addressed to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). In his Gospel, Luke gives Theophilus the title “most excellent,” the same honorific given to the Roman magistrates Felix (Acts 23:26) and Festus (Acts 26:25). Most scholars figure that Theophilus was some kind of Roman official, or at least a person of some social standing who was recently converted and in need of firm grounding in the faith.

Second, Luke was most likely relatively well-off himself. This occasional traveler with Paul was known as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), not a meager profession now or then. Moreover, Luke shows evidence in his writing of being well-educated, well-traveled, and well-connected—a cosmopolitan Gentile convert and probably a person of some means.

Luke was not a poor man writing to poor people that together they might denounce the rich. It’s much closer to the truth to say Luke was a rich man writing to another rich man (and people like him) in order to show how the rich could truly follow Jesus.

Evidence to Support a Verdict

This thesis statement may sound strange, even jarring, but when we look closer at Luke’s Gospel and then at Acts we see several instances—unique to Luke—of rich people “getting it” and using their money well. Luke includes much material to warn and rebuke the rich. He also includes a surprising number of examples of wealthy persons who demonstrate genuine discipleship of Christ.

A brief survey of the relevant material in Luke-Acts will bear out both these points. Luke, more than any other biblical writer, wants us to see that the rich often get it wrong, but they can also get it right.

Surveying Luke

We read in Mary’s Magnificat about the great reversal that is coming where the poor will be exalted and the rich will be cast down (1:51-53). From the outset of the Gospel, we see that the humble, hungry, and poor are in a position of future blessing, while the proud, exalted, and rich are in danger.

In chapter 3 John the Baptist explains that repentance is directly tied to what you do with your money (3:10-14). Importantly, however, the text never suggests that being a tax collector or a solider made one complicit in an oppressive Roman regime. There was a right way to make money and work for the Romans.

We see Jesus preaching in his hometown of Nazareth in chapter 4. He reads from Isaiah 61 and identifies himself as the Spirit-anointed prophet sent to preach good news to the poor (4:18). In what follows, Jesus gives two examples of the “poor” who received the good news. He mentions the widow of Zarephath (4:25-26), who was materially poor. And then he mentions Naaman the Syrian general (4:27), who was materially rich. Here is our first example of a rich man who “got it”; though he was an elite general, he was humble enough to seek Elisha’s help and dip himself in the Jordan River.

In chapter 5 we see Jesus calling a tax collector named Levi to follow him. And when Levi followed Jesus, he left everything behind and then later threw a great big party in his house with all sorts of tax collectors (5:27-29). Here, then, is another rich man doing the right thing. He left his profession behind (at least for the moment), but he does not seem to have left all his wealth behind.

In chapter 8 we see a number of rich women serving as patrons for Jesus’s ministry and for his disciples (8:2-3). More rich people using their money well.

We meet the Good Samaritan who helps the needy in chapter 10. Here we see negative examples of the societal elite ignoring urgent needs right in front of them.

And in chapter 12 we meet the rich fool who lives for himself and trust in his wealth to save him (12:15, 20-21). If you are a rich man depending on your riches, you are (as the kids would say) not doing it right.

In chapter 14, the kingdom is compared to a wedding feast and then to a great banquet. Austerity and asceticism, while necessary at times, are not pictures of the good life God has waiting for his people.

In chapter 15, we see the prodigal son waste his inheritance on wild living, only to come to his senses when he is poor and destitute. Again, Luke (and Jesus) shows us the danger of wealth and the blessing that can come from being poor. But we also see another example of a wide-hearted rich man, the prodigal’s father who throws caution to the wind and spreads a feast for his long lost son.

In chapter 16 we have an example of a rich man using his wealth wisely and an example of a rich man using his wealth poorly. First we have the parable of the dishonest manager. We sometimes get hung up on the fact that Jesus is using a bad man to be a good example, but the point is clear enough: be shrewd with your money and faithful with your earthly wealth so that you can do strategic heavenly good (16:8-9). Second, we have the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This is the negative example to contrast with the positive example earlier in the chapter. The rich man lived in self-satisfied luxury and ignored the needs right in front of him (16:19-21). He faces unending torment in the flames of judgment.

The book ends with a positive example, as Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council, “a good and righteous man,” does not consent to the council’s decision and asks Pilate for the body of Jesus (23:50-53). This was just as the prophet Isaiah predicted, that the suffering servant would be buried with a rich man in his death (Isa. 53:9).

So what have we seen in Luke’s Gospel? We’ve seen that the rich face unique dangers. They can be callous toward others, haughty, proud, cheats, swindlers, wrongly confident in themselves, and foolishly trusting in their wealth. If that is your life now, Luke says, you are in for a rude awakening at the end of the age, because everything will be turned upside down. The humble poor will be lifted up, and the arrogant rich will be cast down.

On the other hand, we see how the rich can be faithful with their wealth. They support Jesus and his ministry. They stand up for what is right. They use their money wisely for spiritual gain. The righteous rich in Luke are still rich, but they are also generous, repentant of any wrongs, and faithful to the cause of Christ.

Surveying Acts

In the book of Acts, just as in Luke, we see both kinds of examples. We see rich people at their worst, and we see how rich people can inherit the kingdom of God and live out its values.

Believers in the early church had everything in common (2:44; 4:32). At first glance it can look like the church modeled an early form of communism. Some people have tried to use the text in that way. They see it reminiscent of the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.” In fact, later in Acts 11:29 we read, “So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea.” But two realities distinguish sharing in the early church from communism.

First, they did not abolish private property (see 4:34, 37; 5:4). People still owned homes (e.g., Lydia, house churches, Mary the mother of John Mark).

Second, The selling and distribution of their possessions was not by force or coercion, but free and voluntary. The church had a wonderful communal spirit, but that is far different from the spirit of state-enforced communism.

The expression “everything in common” was used to describe the radical generosity of the early church. Their pattern is a model for God’s people. The church was fulfilling the ideal of the promised land, in which “there will be no poor among you” (Deut. 15:4). Radical generosity in the church is a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom. We when share with our brothers and sisters in need, we demonstrate that God’s promised reign and rule is taking root here and now. It’s a little bit of heaven on earth.

In chapter 8 we see Simon trying to buy the power of the Spirit with money (8:14-24). Peter tells him, “May your silver perish with you” (8:20). This is where we get the word simony, which was so prevalent in the Middle Ages; it means the buying of church offices. This is an example of the unrighteous rich.

Dorcas in chapter 9 is the opposite example, as she is said to be full of good works and acts of charity (9:36-37).

Lydia was likely a wealthy woman. She was a seller of purple goods (high-end retail clothing at the time) and had a house in which to host Paul and his companions (16:11-15). This rich person “gets it.”

The next story is of a rich person who doesn’t “get it.” A slave girl was used to make money for her owners by fortune-telling. When Paul delivered her from the spirit that inhabited her, the owners got upset, because their gravy train was about to fall off the tracks. So they used their connections to haul Paul and Silas before the rulers of the city, who then gave the order for them to be beaten with rods (16:16-24). More rich people blinded by their wealth.

In chapter 17 we are told that many leading women of the city believed (17:4, 12). More rich people turning to Christ.

In chapter 19, we see that when many people were converted in Ephesus they began divulging their pagan practices. So they burned their magic books, and the value came out to 50,000 pieces of silver. They renounced their former vocation, and its lucrative practice, in coming to Christ (19:18-19).

Right after this positive example, we have another negative example. Demetrius, a silversmith in Ephesus, was upset that Paul was ruining his business making gods and goddesses (19:24-27). People were so upset that their religious and economic way of life was being threatened that a riot broke out in the city (19:28-29).

Wretched Rich and Righteous Rich

We have seen in Luke-Acts a number of these pairings: rich people making an idol of wealth and rich people demonstrating a transformed attitude toward wealth.

We have the shrewd manager and then the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.

We have in Acts 16, the example of Lydia, a rich person who gets it, and then the rich owners of the slave girl, who don’t get it.

And in Acts 19 we see some in Ephesus who give up their magic arts at great financial cost to themselves, and then we see others in Ephesus who cause a riot because they’ve gotten rich from making idols and the gospel is threatening their way of life.

These pairings strongly suggest that Luke was trying to show Theophilus how he, as a rich member of the elite class, could sincerely and obediently follow Christ.

If you aren’t convinced by this thesis, let me go back to two obvious pairings I skipped over. These are the most important Wretched Rich/Righteous Rich pairings in Luke-Acts. We find one in each book.

We meet two of the most famous rich people in the Bible in Luke 18 and 19. First we have the rich ruler who hears what Jesus says about money and becomes sad because he thought he was a good person, until he realized the following Jesus was going to affect his bank account (Luke 18:24-25). For a moment it looks like it’s impossible for a rich man to be saved, but Jesus holds out hope that it’s not (18:26-27). That question—“Then who can be saved” (v. 26)—is answered in the next chapter when we meet Zacchaeus, a rich man who demonstrates his conversion by showing an entirely new attitude toward money (19:8). Zacchaeus didn’t literally give away everything he owned (like Jesus said earlier in verse 22), but Zacchaeus does what the rich ruler does not do. He realizes that following Jesus means repenting of his cheating ways. Zacchaeus does not trade places with the poor, but he turns from his wickedness and turns to Christ with a new heart of obedience and generosity.

The other obvious pairing is in Acts 4 and 5, where we find the deliberate contrast between Barnabas, a rich man who “gets it,” and Ananias and Sapphira as rich people just going through the motions.

Barnabas was a native of Cyprus and a Levite (the prohibition of owning land must have fallen by the wayside). As a Levite, he was likely part of the social elite. As a landowner he was part of the upper crust in Judea. Maybe as few as 5 percent of the Jews owned land. Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the apostles to distribute. (Interesting that Luke doesn’t mind telling us who gave this gift. Maybe it was already obvious. Or maybe sometimes it’s appropriate to point out examples of giving just like we might point out examples in the area of evangelism or prayer.) Here then was a rich member of the elite who modeled Spirit-prompted generosity.

Then in the next chapter we read of two more rich people, Ananias and Sapphira. They too sold a piece of property and laid the money at the apostles’ feet (5:1-2). But they lied about how much they were giving. They kept some of the proceeds for themselves, which would have been perfectly fine, except that they lied about it so they could look as impressive as Barnabas. God killed them both for their deception (5:5-10).

Over and over, then, Luke is communicating to rich people like Theophilus (and to rich people like many of us): Here’s how you can be rich and absolutely blow it, and here’s how you can be rich and be a model of Christian commitment.

How Can the Rich Enter the Kingdom of Heaven

So how can the rich enter the kingdom of heaven? What does it look like for rich Christians to “get it”? Importantly, “getting it” doesn’t mean to feel constant shame for being rich. It doesn’t mean trading places with the poor. And it doesn’t mean prophetic denunciations of material goods or income disparity.

But it does mean something. A lot, actually. According to Luke-Acts, to be a rich Christian who “gets it” means (at least) these seven things.

  1. We believe. Christ is our everything, our all in all. We cannot serve two masters.
  2. We repent. We turn from any cheating, swindling, or lying, and we make amends with those we have mistreated.
  3. We put Jesus before profit.
  4. We are generous. We give freely to help the poor and to further the cause of the gospel.
  5. We are good stewards. We don’t try to be manipulate our way to God by lying, putting on a show, or trying to accrue power with our wealth. We are always shrewd but never power-hungry.
  6. We do not trust in our money. There is no real security in dollars and cents. The righteous rich do not expect their earthly riches to last. They live for the heavenly riches that do.
  7. We demonstrate humility. We consider everything we have to be a gift from God. We are meek before others and meek before God.

In other words, Luke—that great evangelist to the rich—says exactly what Paul tells Timothy:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19)

Yes, the camel can make it through the eye of the needle. Rich people can be saved and be faithful, rich Christians. It requires a new heart toward God, a new generosity toward people, and a new attitude toward money.