Possessions and the Poor in Luke-Acts

Written by D. P. Seccombe Reviewed By Max Turner

It has become commonplace either to assert that Luke has a bias towards the poor (if not an ideal of poverty and an ethic of renunciation) or to spiritualize his handling of the theme to the point that he has nothing of practical significance to say on the question of wealth at all. Seccombe’s book, a revision of his Cambridge PhD thesis (and written at Tyndale House), argues both such positions to be misunderstandings of the evangelist’s intention.

Against the first position Seccombe offers essentially two arguments. Firstly, the chief passages on which such an idea is based are (a) Lk. 4:16ff., with its commission to preach good news to the poor (cf. 7:22); (b) the beatitudes in Luke which speak of the blessing of the poor, the hungry, and those who weep with corresponding woes on the rich, the full, and the merry (6:20–26); and (c) the Magnificat, with its celebration of the humble lifted up and the hungry filled, while erstwhile rulers are torn from their thrones, and the rich sent empty away (1:51–54). But these passages, Seccombe argues, are not about the ‘poor’ in general and in socio-economic terms; they are about Israel. The poor in the Psalms call out to God in their need, for he pledges himself to hear the needy. But already within the psalmic tradition some not-so-poor (in literal and economic terms) begin to present themselves to God as ‘the poor’, using this as a metaphor to designate their situation of need even when the latter is a matter of ill-health (Ps. 88:16) or of persecution (Pss. 22:24; 35:10; 69:29, 33; etc.; indeed, so ‘David’ prays in the latter two). So, too, in the Psalms ‘the poor’ becomes a designation for Israel, oppressed by the nations and crying out to God in her need as she had done in Egypt (cf. Ps. 9). It is this tradition of metaphorical use for the nation in need of salvation from oppressive enemies that is taken up in Isaiah (esp. in Is. 61:1f.) and given a cosmic dualistic spiritual interpretation in Judaism (esp. in 11 QMelch) and by Jesus (Lk. 4:16f.; 7:22; etc.). In these places ‘the poor’ carries no real socio-economic sense; they are first and foremost Israel, seen as the oppressed of Satan (cf. 13:16; Acts 10:38). The Lucan beatitudes and the Magnificat derive from the same tradition of interpretation; the poor, the hungry and those who weep are Israel in need of salvation. The rich, the haughty and the rulers who are to be plucked from their thrones are the oppressive demonic powers and their agents. Where ‘the poor’ in the Lucan tradition denotes the literal poor, they do not include Jesus and his disciples. The poor are those who need charity; Jesus and his circle come from the more comfortably-off sector—they give alms rather than receive them.

Seccombe’s second major argument against the view that Luke champions poverty is that the passages normally taken to evince a renunciation ethic (Lk. 14:25–35 and 18:18–30) in fact do no such thing. The first of them, contextually, is neither about renunciation of possessions as such, nor about normal discipleship at all. It depicts Jesus’ hyperbolic challenge to any triumphalist understanding of his ministry; Jesus bids ‘disciples’ abandon all calls of family, and any care for their own safety, and rather take up the cross-beam, and join him in his execution march to Jerusalem. In this context ‘everything he has’ (14:33) is much more than the disciple’s bank balance; in the extreme situation discipleship is revealed to be potentially limitless. Luke’s point for his readers has nothing to do with an ideal of voluntary poverty; nor is it that discipleship will normally take such an extreme form, but that at any time it might.

The pericope of the rich ruler (18:18–30) is atypical in its demand too. That it has nothing to do with an idealization of poverty is clear from vv. 29–30, where a disciple who has left anything for the sake of the gospel is assured he will receive many times as much in this age as well as eternal life, and from the Zacchaeus story (19:8, where Zacchaeus gives half, not all of what he owns, for the poor). The ruler who has kept the commandments since his youth is invited to receive its reward, and to enter life in the circle of Jesus’ followers. That he should return home and sell what he has appears as a subordinate direction; atypical in that Jesus more usually requires a man not to return home, but to follow immediately (cf. 9:59–62). The response, however, shows the demand was justified; and Luke wishes his reader to learn from the story that he should not be held back in responding to the challenge of the gospel by misgivings related to money and social position. The rich ruler’s dilemma reveals how hard it is for one with privilege and power in this world to count these things as nothing for the sake of enjoying true ‘life’.

But Seccombe also avoids the trap of concluding that Luke has specialized the question of riches and poverty to the point where they have become mere cyphers for different types of existential relation to the gospel (a danger not successfully circumvented by, e.g., L. T. Johnson). In chapter 4 he gives a good exegesis of Luke’s warnings concerning greed (see especially his treatment of the parable of the rich fool (12:16–21)); and he nicely saves Lk. 12:22–34 from the banality of teaching that worry is psychologically damaging. The whole assures the Christian facing possible deprivation due to persecution that he should persist in discipleship, for the harassed ‘little flock’ are at the centre of God’s concern, and the Father will provide. Indeed, the disciple need not save for the rainy day, but may without worry give generously, for as he does so he will surely receive God’s blessing even now (purse and treasure ‘in heaven’ mean ‘with God’, so available now, not merely future eschatological joys). The parable of the unjust steward (16:1–9) and connected teachings emphasize that the follower of Jesus is not to shun the ‘mammon of this age’ (which is how Seccombe interpets ‘mammon of unrighteousness’), but to use it generously in such a way as displays God’s love to the needy. The parable of pounds (19:11–27) makes a similar but more general point—the need to strive to maximize the benefit of anything God gives; while the parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus declares that failure to use one’s resources to help those in need is an outrage against the Law and the Prophets which are fulfilled in the gospel. Jesus’ ethic in Luke is thus portrayed as an ethic of anticipatory realization of the kingdom, based in Is. 58:6f.; the disciple is called to use his resources now to mirror what God will do at the end: to feed the hungry, etc.

A further chapter on Acts briefly examines the way Luke’s handling of the theme of poverty and riches parallels Greek ideas of how true friendship is expressed in ‘fellowship’ of goods and life without legalistic communal possession. There are valuable insights here too, but the discussion is much briefer and the strength of the book lies in the chapters on the gospel.

Seccombe has given us a thoroughly researched yet readable book, with originality, a commendable lack of strained exegesis, and a message of some importance for the church in an affluent society. What he says needs also to be heeded by those in less affluent settings who too uncritically read Luke through the spectacles of current liberation theologies. This work shows they need to aim for a much more exegetically nuanced statement. A good book, well worth the price (I say in faith); especially if you can get a rich man to buy it for you!

Max Turner

London Bible College