The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel

Written by Halvor Moxnes Reviewed By Thomas W. Martin

Moxnes’ book is an excellent example of the fruit which can result from the use of social science methods in the study of the NT. The current (utilitarian) canon for the use of social science methods is their ability to enlighten the text. Moxnes more than succeèds in bringing to light the complex interdependences presupposed by the economic material in Luke’s gospel. Beyond this, he is capable of making the sometimes complex modelling of social anthropologists transparent to novices and yet instructive to those specializing in the social scientific interpretation of the NT.

The problem that Moxnes sets for his study is to understand the role of the Pharisees in Luke’s gospel through the focus of Luke 16:14, where they are called ‘lovers of money’. The meaning of this verse has remained opaque because it has not been interpreted in light of the place of the Pharisees in the overall picture of socio-economic relationships within the gospel. The systems of socio-economic interaction presupposed by the gospel narrative are part of a distant foreign world. To understand it we must find tools which can aid in comprehending foreign worlds. Moxnes helps us travel through this foreign world using the skills of social anthropologists, experts in foreign travel.

Systems of social interaction are never ‘frozen’ artefacts. They exist in an ongoing manner, with a constant flow of social relationships up and down various scales. A strength of Moxnes’ study is his currency in interactionist theory as opposed to more static social theories. He offers a major advance in understanding the Pharisees in Luke because he attempts not to capture a still photo, but a moving picture of the ways in which they interact with other groups and individuals on the gospel scene. However, one should be aware that social theorists are ‘legion’ and interactionism is one of several possible viewpoints for the material Moxnes examines.

Social anthropologists and classical historians agree that the socio-economic system of first-century Palestine was one of negative and/or balanced reciprocity. The first was represented in the exploitation of the peasant classes by the social élite and the second in the manner in which the élites interacted among themselves. Moxnes argues that Luke is strongly opposed to this system and calls instead for the ‘economy of the kingdom’ to govern human relationships. God’s action in Christ offers the model to be followed. Jesus came as the benefactor of humanity, the one who has brought the jubilee year. This is a time of justice and equality for all as God himself enacts a central redistribution of goods and initiates role reversals. The central social and economic theme of Luke’s gospel is a call for a generalized reciprocity, which includes the poor, and outright redistribution. This is to be found in Luke’s emphasis on alms and hospitality. In the classical world, giving enhanced the status and power of the giver. Luke calls instead for the giver to expect nothing in return and for the great to be servants.

The Pharisees in the gospel appear as foils for this Christian economy. They seek to enhance their own power by negative reciprocity vis-à-vis the poor and balanced reciprocity in relation to their peers (e.g. they invite to dinner only those capable of repaying them). The charge against the Pharisees of being ‘lovers of money’ is Luke’s Christian value judgment. Moxnes argues that a neutral observer would not have found the Pharisees particularly avaricious. They acted within the accepted social standards of their time. They are ‘bad’ people because they reject Jesus and in common with ‘bad’ opponents in antiquity are seen as operating with impure economic motives.

Moxnes’ work is unsurpassed in bringing to light the socio-economic world of the gospel narrative, i.e. what he calls ‘the surface level of the gospel at the time of Jesus’. But although most of the work is devoted to understanding the socio-economic world of Jesus as portrayed in the gospel, ultimately he wishes to draw conclusions about the situation in Luke’s community as reflected in the gospel. In this step he encounters some methodological problems.

  1. Comparison with Acts is only cursory. He acknowledges it to be a different setting than the gospel, but does not ask how this affects the reading of the gospel. One must somehow account for changes in reading between the time of the narrative and the time of its narration. Most agree that Acts more closely mirrors the world of Luke and his church. It is urban, mobile, upwardly aware, and relatively prosperous. How do such people understand stories about Palestinian peasants? This question is not asked.
  2. Moxnes divides Luke’s world into élites and non-élites and rightly states that Christians were among the latter. But his economic contrasts are élites to non-élites (all presumed to have the same economic viewpoint), while the important question is how the more prosperous segments of the non-élites interacted with the less prosperous segments. This question is only briefly touched upon.
  3. It is not adequately demonstrated that some of Luke’s material reflects the viewpoint of those ‘who receive’ as opposed to those ‘who give’.
  4. The social sciences are inherently reductionist. Moxnes is to be applauded for allowing theological questions to stand after social analysis of the text has been completed. However, some may be uncomfortable with the direction he sees Luke to be leading us. Luke’s gospel holds a theology of liberation, i.e. a theology of empowerment for the dispossessed. Luke’s Christian economy is the ‘view from below’, i.e. the view of the peasant. This he believes originated with Jesus. More central to Moxnes’ closing statements is the position that through the gospel the existing social system is challenged to reflect the egalitarian economy of the kingdom of God. In this he is surely right.

Thomas W. Martin

Fremont, New England