Before one can ascertain what Luke is arguing when it comes to the poor within an individual passage, a literary analysis of the entire Gospel of Luke is needed so that such statements are not taken out of context.
Luke begins his Gospel, after his introduction to Theophilus, in a way that the other Gospels do not. He describes John the Baptist’s birth in great detail, and in doing so, tells us that John’s purpose, as Elijah come again, in 1:17 is to “restore the hearts of the fathers to the children and those who are disobedient according to the wisdom of just men.” In other words, to bring about a reformation within the people of God to be obedient in terms of the covenant justice spoken of by the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. John is coming to restore God’s people as a people who seek to do what is just to one another, and as we will see, this prophetic justice in the prophets has everything to do with how one treats the poor and person of little or no repute within the covenant community.
Part of Luke’s reason for writing Theophilus may be due to Theophilus being a Christian in power, and capable of using his position of power to help other Christians. Luke’s argument, which is something that applies to all Christians with resources, may root itself in an actual example of a person who has the power and/or money to help other Christians in need.
Luke then continues to describe the blessing given to the lowly and poor virgin, Mary. Whereas Matthew emphasizes the fulfillment of the typological prophecy given in Isaiah, Luke emphasizes Mary’s humble conditions. In her song, recorded only in Luke, she sings, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant” (1:46-48). She continues her song by singing about God’s debasement of the proud and mighty in contrast to lifting up the lowly (vv. 49-52), and that “He has filled the hungry with good things, but sent the rich away empty handed” (v. 53).
In 2:7, Luke alone, as opposed to the other Gospels, tells us that Mary gave birth to a baby in a manger “because there was no room in the inn,” displaying her low status and even the humble beginnings of Jesus’ earthly existence. We are, then, not told of rich Magi presenting costly gifts to Christ when He was a toddler, as in Matthew, but only lowly, poor shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem who are called in to see the infant Messiah by an angel as witnesses of the greatest event in history. The other Gospel writers make no mention of these shepherds, but Luke has a specific purpose in emphasizing this scene as opposed to mentioning the later visit by the Magi.
After this scene, we are met with Simeon, who is called “a just man” by Luke, and a poor widow, who both become witnesses to the Messiah’s coming (2:25-40). He, then, comes to the ministry of John the Baptist, and quotes additional material from Isaiah 40. Whereas, the other Gospels only quote vv. 3-5, Luke quotes also 5-6, which includes a statement about lifting up every valley by filling it up and bringing every mountain low, and indication that what is exalted is humbled and what is in a state of humility will be exalted (cf. 14:7-11; 18:14).
Like Matthew, Luke indicates to his audience that his purpose in the book will be to give them identity markers that will help them identify whether they are truly the people of God, the true offspring of Abraham, or false believers who have empty claims about belonging to the kingdom of God. In other words, Luke is answering the question, “Who are the true members of the covenant community?” Or to put it in terms of the later question asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He relates the same scene that we see again in Matthew.
So John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance, and don’t begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones! Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7-9)
Unlike Matthew, however, Luke has John the Baptist continue to elaborate on what this fruit looks like in terms of the poor within the covenant community.
So the crowds were asking him, “What then should we do?” John answered them, “The person who has two tunics must share with the person who has none, and the person who has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He told them, “Collect no more than you are required to.” Then some soldiers also asked him, “And as for us – what should we do?” He told them, “Take money from no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your pay.” (3:10-14)
This scene, which is common to both Luke and Matthew, where John rebukes those coming to be baptized, is augmented in each Gospel to accord with the argument being made by each respective author. The particular material above is unique to Luke. Matthew does not relate the rebuke of the soldiers and tax collectors that come. The picture that begins to emerge from Luke’s unique or altered material is one in which Luke is concerned about communicating to his audience that genuine members of the covenant community, the true people of God, are identified by how they treat the disadvantaged within the community. He communicates in these opening chapters that God cares greatly about the poor and lowly among His covenant people, and whether they are treated justly and mercifully by others within the covenant community. Anyone who is a true child of Abraham, and true heir of the covenant promises, will seek for these marginalized believers what God seeks for them. Anyone who does not seek justice and mercy for these fellow believers, and yet claims to be a follower of Jesus, is a false believer, and therefore, not saved. This is Luke’s argument.
Luke’s unique material will evidence this emphasis, and it gives the reader the larger literary context of his argument, which provides a context for the individual passages within the book that are often taken out of context by those who ignore the argument that Luke is actually making to his audience.
For instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan, unique to Luke, is often used as an example that Christians should give to everyone because “everyone in need is our neighbor.” Yet, the actual parable says nothing of the sort. In fact, the person in need is already assumed to be a covenant community member, as he is Jew on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. This is why it makes it so shocking that he is passed over by both a Levite and a priest, who are supposedly the most prominent Jews in the covenant community. If the injured was a Gentile, there is really nothing shocking about it. Likewise, the fact that a Samaritan, considered ethnically impure, even though a worshiper of YHWH, takes care of the covenant member instead of the other two is only shocking and completes the point being made if the injured is already a covenant community member, which is what the word “neighbor” means in the New Testament and much of the Old. What is being asked, instead, is who is this covenant community member’s fellow covenant community member? Who evidences by his fruit to be a fellow follower of God? The answer is not, “Everyone.” Instead, Jesus asks,“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
In other words, not everyone is his fellow covenant community member. Only the one who had mercy on him, as God has mercy upon the poor and marginalized among His people, evidences that he is a true heir of Abraham and a fellow covenant member to other followers of God.
What has happened is that social gospel advocates have taken this passage out of the larger context of Luke’s argument, flipped it on its head, and made it a prooftext for an inclusive understanding of Christian charity, which assumes an inclusive, and Christless, Christianity that is simply about having good will toward one’s fellow man. Thus, the “neighbor” must be radically transformed in the story to anyone in need, whether a believer or unbeliever—thus, making the good that is done an activity performed for the wicked outside of Christ, and not for the righteous poor and marginalized in Christ.
This larger argument also informs Luke’s use of the Sermon on the Mount in Chapter 6, where, instead of Matthew’s, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke has, “Blessed are the poor.” Where Matthew has, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Luke has, “Blessed are you who hunger now for you will be satisfied.”
Unlike Matthew, Luke contains not only covenant blessings that identify the true people of God and what they will inherit, but also covenant curses that identify the frauds.
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
It is clear that Luke is concerned with the poor and marginalized within the covenant community, since Christ is talking to the Jews who are characterized by these things. “Blessed are you . . .” and “Woe to you . . .” is directed at the covenant community with the blessings and curses given to them as YHWH gave blessings and curses in the Mosaic law. It is also clear that those who persecute, marginalize, and do evil toward those who are blessed are the cursed ones who are also claiming to be covenant community members, as they are treating the people of God as “their ancestors use to treat the prophets” (6:23, 26).
Like Matthew, Luke presents Christ’s teaching to the covenant community as a warning that those who do not listen to Jesus’ teaching concerning how fellow community members are treated do not really regard Jesus as their Lord, even if they claim it to be the case. Hence, in v, 46, Jesus asks, “Why do you call me Lord and do not do what I say?” He thus ends the sermon where Matthew does with the analogy of those who build their houses on sand or rock are like those who hear His words and choose to practice or ignore them.
Both the context of Luke’s larger literary argument, and the immediate context of the Sermon indicate that Jesus is addressing the way those who claim to be covenant community members treat others who claim to be covenant community members. To apply it to the church, which Luke clearly desires to do, it is how the visible church treats the visible church, specifically those who are poor and marginalized within the visible church community.
One of the more difficult passages for people to grasp within the Sermon, therefore, can be illumined by this understanding of the context. When Jesus commands that one must do good to his enemy, giving him more than what he takes from you, lending to him without seeking to be paid back, He is addressing those within the covenant community and how they treat others within the covenant community who they feel have wronged them in some way. They are not foreign enemies, or pagans, who just want to rob Christians. Instead, they are fellow believers, at least in their claim, and may not be listed among one’s friends who are in good standing. This feeling of being personally wronged and insulted by another believer creates a feeling that one has no obligation to those who are one’s enemies within the community. In contrast to this feeling, Jesus states that members of God’s covenant community all have an obligation to one another, even if they are at odds with one another. There is no justification for withholding what is good from another believer, even if that believer has acted wickedly toward you.
The problem is that people have been reading these passages with the understanding that the wicked and ungrateful here are unbelievers outside the faith community. Not only does this ignore Luke’s larger argument as the context for what is said here (the same can be said for Matthew as we will see), but it also has the habit of creating the idea that one has done what Jesus commands here by giving to secular charities, rather than giving to those he or she is at odds with within the church. Hence, people who think they are somehow obeying Jesus by giving to outside charities feel no obligation to take care of those within the covenant community that they simply do not like. This is, according to our argument here, a damnable mistake. Hence, it is no mere quibbling over words that such poor exegesis yields, but an actual practice of ignoring what Jesus commanded here, and a falling into the trap of hearing His words, but not practicing them as one who builds upon the sand and has his entire house collapse when the storm finally comes. The same argument was made about Matthew, where Christians believe that they are fulfilling these commands by donating to secular causes, and yet have no problem dividing from and perpetuating divisions among other Christians. It is, therefore, of no little consequence for us to get these texts wrong.
As one continues in Luke, we are met with the Centurion in 7:1-10, who Luke presents as worthy of Christ’s care, since he used his money to care for the nation of Israel and build their synagogue. They literally say to Jesus, “Worthy is he for you to do this for him” (v. 4), expressing that he is able to receive covenant help because he has demonstrated covenant love toward the people of God. This comment about the Centurion is unique to Luke. Matthew mentions nothing of his character in using his high status and money to help the people of God. The story is not mentioned in Mark or John at all.
Instead, Luke’s use of the story can be seen in these unique elements. He wishes to present the Gentile as a true covenant member received by the Jews because of his love and financial support of the covenant community. In other words, Luke wishes to argue throughout his work that a true covenant member demonstrates his identity by caring for those within the covenant community, specifically those who are poor, outcast, or at a disadvantage, as were the Jews to Roman soldiers. This leader of the Roman soldiers could have abused them all the more, but instead his love for the people and demonstration of that love by building their synagogue places him in the context of a fellow believer. It is, therefore, fitting for him to receive what he asks from Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.
The next unique material in Luke describes a scene where Jesus contrasts a Pharisee, named Simon, with a woman who is identified only as “a sinner” (7:37), who begins to weep and anoint Jesus’ feet with oil. Whereas the prestigious Pharisee says to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner” (v. 39), implying that she is not worthy to be touching Christ. The scene becomes a bit comical as the man is reasoning to himself that if Jesus were a prophet He would have a knowledge of the woman that is largely public. Jesus then answers the man according to what the Pharisee is thinking, displaying His “greater than a prophet” status by knowing something that is not common knowledge about the Pharisee, i.e., his very unspoken thoughts.
But, then, Jesus begins to imply, by way of His argument, that the woman is actually greater than Simon, the prestigious Pharisee, in the kingdom of God because of her greater love for Jesus, and that love is solidified by her being forgiven “much.” What emerges is a teaching that the discarded sinner who comes to repentance in the community of faith, even though she has little respect given to her from those who are regarded as more worthy, may be considered greater in the eyes of the Savior. Hence, the repentant sinner who is forgiven may, in fact, be greater in the kingdom due to the greatness and gratefulness of his love for the Lord who has forgiven him of his sins. Hence, Luke continues his argument that it is not necessarily the prestigious and acceptable within the kingdom who are the greatest, but possibly the outcast who comes to Him. Since they are regarded by God in such a manner, therefore, Luke implies that the people of God ought to see the poor, the repentant sinner, and the disadvantaged within His covenant community in the same way.
This is not an appeal that all sinners, even if unrepentant are regarded this way by God anymore than Luke’s argument is about all poor people, believing or unbelieving. Luke is not arguing that God sees all the poor and disadvantaged this way. He is arguing that God sees the poor and disadvantaged within His covenant community this way. Everything Luke says will be directed toward the covenant community, not toward one’s “fellow man” in general. To make it about everyone, rather than about those who have come to Christ in repentance, is to disregard Luke’s argument, and miss the point he is making entirely.
In fact, before this scene, Christ makes the statement that John the Baptist is the greatest man who has ever been born of a woman, but even the lowest person in the kingdom of God is greater than he is (v. 28). Clearly, Luke is making an argument about the least in the kingdom of God, not the least in society in general. What makes them greater is there connection to Christ as the true Israel who has overcome the temptations of the devil. Where Israel has failed, Christ has succeeded and gained victory (4:1-13). Hence, all of those who are in Him, even the poor and lowly, are to be considered greater men and women than those who came before them who belonged to the ethnic Israel that failed to overcome the devil in the wilderness.
Hence, when Christ hangs out with sinners, it is not in a manner that is emphasized in some church circles. It is not in toleration of their sin because it is not even a matter of Him hanging out with people in sin. Rather He comes to the sinner and calls him to repentance, and, as a good King, all that He has to give is for the repentant sinner who enters into His kingdom. These are the worthless, who, by entering Christ’s kingdom, become the worthy. They, therefore, are to receive His kingdom resources and blessings, and those who claim Christ, but do not take care of these worthy ones in Him are cast out of the kingdom into darkness as liars and thieves.
This brings us to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16. Much more could be said of the chapters between 7 and 16, but neither time nor space permit it. Instead, one can simply read these texts and see more of the same. The story here, however, displays Luke’s point very clearly.
Before we take a look at it, however, it is important to note that Jesus is not condemning all wealth, but rather how one uses his money.
In v. 9, He states, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into their eternal homes.” Here, Christ is arguing that one ought to make philos “friends” (lit. “loved ones”) with their wealth. That these friends are to be made of God’s covenant people is evidenced by the reference to being welcomed into “their eternal homes” when the wealth of the world has passed away. In this charge, the Lord argues that wealth can be used for the good of other covenant community members, and if it is used for that reason, those who had resources to share will share also the eternal dwellings of those with whom they shared them.
In vv. 10-13, Jesus continues the argument by laying out a proper use of wealth rather than a full-blown rejection of anyone who has it.
“The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth who will entrust you with the true riches? And if you haven’t been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you your own ? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and disregard the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
A couple things are said here. The first is that one can be faithful with an abundance of resources. It is not a sin to have wealth. The second is that Jesus seems to imply that the wealth of a person is actually the property of another, presumably in the context, God’s property/resources. Finally, he argues that what one does with his money is a matter of worship. Money is either used as God’s property that belongs to His people, including the least of those in the kingdom, or it is an idol shows itself as an idol when the person who has the resource does not use it to make “friends” with other kingdom members who are in need. Hence, Christ tells us that we cannot serve two masters, where both God and the security gained from money direct what we do with those resources. One will always win out over the other.
Just before he tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, a story that He has now set up with these other statements, He gives a warning that it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for a single stroke of the law to fail. This warning has the intent of saying to the rich Pharisees, who Christ is rebuking in this context, that the law will not fail to judge them in their treatment of their neighbor, i.e., other community members. He cites their abuse of their wives and the wives of others as an adultery that the law will judge. Likewise, the treatment of a fellow covenant community member, in terms of disregarding his need, is a disregard of the commandments of the law that require a care of one’s fellow covenant member. Hence, He tells the following story in vv. 19-31.
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. But at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus whose body was covered with sores, who longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. In addition, the dogs came and licked his sores. “Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side. So he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus likewise bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in anguish. Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us, so that those who want to cross over from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ So the rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, father – send Lazarus to my father’s house (for I have five brothers) to warn them so that they don’t come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they must respond to them.’ Then the rich man said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He replied to him, ‘If they do not respond to Moses and the prophets they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
What we must first understand is that these two men are fellow members of the visible covenant community. The both have a claim to being Jewish, and brothers/neighbors. The name Lazaros is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliezer “My God is help.” Thus, he is a poor Jewish man, i.e., a member of God’s covenant community. The rich man, although never named in the story, is also clearly Jewish, and would have a claim to be a member of the covenant community as well. For instance, he calls Abraham, “Father Abraham” in v. 24. He now wants Eliezer/Lazarus to help him in his need, since he is a fellow member of the covenant. Abraham also responds to his request to go and warn his brothers that “they have Moses and the prophets” (v. 29), something that would not have been said of a Gentile. Hence, we are met again with two people who would claim to be members of God’s covenant community, and yet, Jesus indicates that one, by virtue of his apathy toward another fellow member of the covenant community, proved himself a false believer.
When one understands the message of this story, he will come to understand the message of Luke. It is not the one who claims to be of God who truly is of God, but the one who proves he is of God by his care for the poor and disadvantaged within the covenant community. Luke is not, therefore, arguing that Christians should take care of the poor in general, as this was never what Jesus commanded. Instead, his argument is that Christians, as fellow members of God’s covenant community, are identified as genuine members of the covenant community by their love for one another as it is expressed in their sharing of kingdom resources with all who are in the kingdom, especially those who would be considered socially low on the totem pole (e.g., the poor, sick, sinners, Samaritans/ethnically mixed, etc.).
Hence, Luke’s version of the invitation of the Sermon on the Mount has, not one’s opponent in the covenant community that should be invited to dinner, as in Matthew, but rather those within the covenant community who are poor and disabled.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors (geitonas) so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (14:12-14).
Luke tells us that if one is to follow Jesus as His disciple He must renounce His own possessions (14:33). What belongs to a disciple of Christ is Christ’s, and what is Christ’s belongs to Christ’s disciples. Hence, a principle is developed whereby a Christian is to consider what he owns in terms of worldly wealth and possessions as belonging to Christ and the people in need within the kingdom. Only then, will someone truly be considered a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. To take care of these poor and disabled covenant community members, therefore, is to surrender one’s assets to the Lordship of Christ.
The chapters that follow Luke 16 will present the nobility (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, chief priests, and the prōtoi tou laou “first/prominent among the people”) as rejecting Christ and His rebuke of their unjust dealings with those who are in need, like widows (20:45-47), ignoring acts of justice and mercy that create shalōm (19:41-42), and the poor who come to the temple to sacrifice (19:45-48). They are presented as men who use their positions of power for self benefit rather than to help other covenant community members in need, i.e., to help the very people for whom their money and positions of power were granted to them by God.
It is important to note that Luke is not making a case for all of those who are outcasts. He is not saying that all of the poor, disabled, sinners, and disadvantaged are to have the blessings of the kingdom, and therefore, are to somehow receive the care of kingdom members. It is Luke who uniquely records the two criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus in 23:39-43. He contrasts the one who mocks and is unrepentant with the one who repents and acknowledges Christ as Lord. Christ grants him, not the other, a place in paradise, thus showing that the kingdom does not belong to everyone who is disenfranchised, but only to everyone, including this criminal, who repents and comes into the kingdom under Christ’s Lordship. To make Luke about giving to the poor and outcast in general, even apart from their reception of Christ, is to proclaim a completely different message than that of Luke, which at its core is Christocentric.
In fact, Luke, in his remaining chapters, flips the script, so to speak, in many ways. He presents those in power (Pilate, Herod, the Centurion at the cross) as declaring Jesus innocent, and the victimized Jews as the oppressors, showing us that those in power can be just and those who often are the victim can be unjust (23:13-25; 47). The idea that the oppressed cannot oppress others, even those in power, is rejected here by Luke, who has been subtly arguing to Theophilus that Roman officials are being manipulated by the Jews to imprison and execute Christians.
He also presents the rich council member Joseph of Arimathea, the one who wraps Jesus body and places Him in his tomb, as a “good and righteous man” who was “looking forward to the kingdom of God” (vv. 50-53). Again, Luke is not arguing that the rich are all evil, nor is he arguing that the powerful always oppress others. He is arguing that the rich, within the kingdom, should take care of the poor within the kingdom, and those Christians who find themselves in positions of power should help, rather than oppress, other Christians in the covenant community who are under their authority. It is how one uses his wealth and authority. Luke wants to argue that it is an identity marker for the member of the covenant community as to whether his or her claim to be a member is legitimate. This idea will be repeated by the apostles throughout the New Testament.