اصلی Interpretation A Journal of Bible and Theology Bridge Work and Seating Charts: A Study of Luke's Ethics of Wealth, Poverty, and Reversal

Bridge Work and Seating Charts: A Study of Luke's Ethics of Wealth, Poverty, and Reversal

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Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology
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Article

Bridge Work and Seating
Charts: A Study of Luke’s Ethics
of Wealth, Poverty, and Reversal

Interpretation: A Journal of
Bible and Theology
2014, Vol. 68(4) 416­–427
© The Author(s) 2014
Reprints and permissions:
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DOI: 10.1177/0020964314540108
int.sagepub.com

Amanda C. Miller

Belmont University, Nashville, Tennessee

Abstract
This article examines ethical issues in the Gospel of Luke related to status reversal and the proper use of
wealth and other resources in the reign of God. It first examines the social hierarchy and imperial culture of
Luke’s earliest reading communities, and then presents Luke 14 as an example of how Jesus’ teachings in Luke
challenge the socioeconomic status quo in both the first century and the twenty-first century.

Key words
Luke 14, Status reversal, Roman Empire, Wealth, Poverty, Imperial negotiation, Lazarus parable, Luke
16:19–31, Economics, Ethics

Introduction
The topic of Lukan ethics is a large one, encompassing many areas of life. But one theme is
sounded particularly clearly and often in the Gospel of Luke: what we do with our economic and
social resources—our money, our property, our power and privilege—matters when it comes to
following Jesus. Luke presents Jesus as one who is anointed by the Spirit “to bring good news to
the poor” (4:18). He cautions us against “all kinds of greed” (12:15) through parables about rich
individuals and their mistaken reliance on wealth for security. For example, readers encounter a
“rich fool” who thought a large savings account was enough for a meaningful life (12:16–21).
Later, Lazarus’ rich neighbor was so involved in his own life and pleasure that he ignored the needs
that were literally at his doorstep; thus the parable shows him magnifying the persistent problems
of social inequity and injustice (16:19–31). Moreover, Jesus commands people to sell all their possessions (12:33; 14:33; 18:22) and commends Zacchaeus as a “son of Abraham” for using his
wealth to help the poor and redr; ess his past injustices (19:8–10).

Corresponding author:
Amanda C. Miller, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek, School of Religion, Belmont University, Nashville,
Tennessee.
Email: amanda.miller@belmont.edu

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Closely related to the ethics of wealth, poverty, and possessions in the Gospel of Luke is the
theme of status reversal, the idea that the current power structure and values of this world will be
turned upside down by the reign of God. Reversal is proclaimed early in Luke’s narrative through
Mary’s song (1:46–55) and Jesus’ inaugural sermon at Nazareth (4:16–30). Throughout the rest of
the Gospel, Jesus repeatedly emphasizes reversal imagery in his teachings (e.g., the beatitudes and
woes in 6:20–26) and enacts it in encounters that effect healing and reconciliation (e.g., the honoring of a sinful woman in 7:36–50). In the end, Jesus’ entire life is a story of status reversal; as the
Son of God, he voluntarily lowers himself to humanity and to a humiliating death, and is then resurrected as part of the in-breaking of God’s reign into the world.
These issues of status and wealth are familiar ones in our world, but the teachings mentioned
above are not always taken seriously by present-day readers of Luke and followers of Jesus. We
deal with money every day and expend much time and energy trying to make and manage it. From
a young age, we learn rules, both implicit and explicit, about hierarchy and reputation and social
standing in the various communities to which we belong. Yet we often overlook, ignore, or brush
aside as merely symbolic or metaphorical this dimension of Jesus’ teachings, so prominent in the
gospel message and particularly so in Luke. Perhaps we find Jesus’ radical message concerning
poverty and wealth frightening. Yet these are urgent issues for the world today. In the United States,
economic inequality is rapidly increasing and becoming a growing concern, and the sky-high levels
of wealth enjoyed by many Western Christian individuals and communities, compared to the global
scale, should give us pause.1
How, then, can we approach these teachings in a way that takes Jesus’ words seriously? How can
we more fully understand and begin to implement them, and through them participate in the reign
of God that according to Luke Jesus came to announce and enact? It is these questions that I hope
to explore in the following article. I will first survey the Roman imperial context of the Gospel of
Luke and its earliest reading communities. Close attention to Rome’s social hierarchy and its implications for daily life among early groups of Jesus-followers will help us understand the original
impact of Luke’s theological and ethical claims. The second section will focus on Luke 14, a passage that addresses multiple status groups in the Roman Empire and deals extensively with socioeconomic reversal. Through the lens of this passage, I will demonstrate that Jesus’ teaching in the
Gospel of Luke challenges and transforms societal norms about honor-seeking, status competition,
and material consumption. I also will consider the significant ethical demands the Lukan Jesus
places on elite and non-elite disciples alike. Finally, I will conclude by exploring some

1

For a comprehensive treatment of this issue and its historical trajectory, see Timothy Noah, The Great
Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (New York: Bloomsbury,
2012); his introductory chapter clearly outlines the United States’ exceptionally high level of economic
inequality and the alarmingly rapid rate at which it is increasing in recent years. For a social work perspective on economic inequality, its negative effects upon the economy overall, and its interactions with
social service programs, see Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, “Economic Inequality and Economic Crisis:
A Challenge for Social Workers,” Social Work 57 (2012): 211–24.

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contemporary parallels and suggesting implications of Luke 14 and related texts for twenty-firstcentury communities of faith.

Understanding the World of Luke and His First Readers
Unequal division of resources, social hierarchy, and economic status stratification are present in
every society, so this is familiar territory. At the same time, these issues are culturally defined and
conditioned. Thus it is necessary to do some background work on the first-century world, in order
to understand Jesus’ teachings and gain a clearer picture of what their implementation would have
meant in the communities reading the Gospel of Luke. Only then can we consider what they mean
and how they might be enacted in our own lives today.
The attempt to profile the communities for which the Gospels were composed involves a measure of speculation, and Luke is no exception. In fact, as Joseph Fitzmyer and Luke Timothy Johnson
point out, Luke presents particular challenges for those who seek to identify the narrative’s earliest
audiences.2 This difficulty notwithstanding, the contextual setting of the New Testament writings
is important to their interpretation. As I will show, investigation into even the general setting indicated by Luke, that of a late-first-century, Greek-speaking city in an eastern province of the Roman
Empire,3 yields significant insight into the text of the Gospel.
The overarching characteristic of life in the first-century Mediterranean world was the presence
of the Roman Empire in every aspect of society. One’s place in the imperial hierarchy determined
everything from where to sit in the amphitheater and whose banquets to attend, to what the punishment for stealing would be and how to make a living. This social hierarchy was naturally complex
and determined by factors both innate or ascribed (e.g., ethnicity and gender) and achieved or
earned (e.g., through work, luck, political advancement, or military service).4 For the purposes of
this essay, it is especially important to distinguish the three major divisions of status groups: elites,
retainers, and non-elites.

2

3

4

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I–IX (AB 28; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1981),
57; and Luke Timothy Johnson, “On Finding the Lukan Community: A Cautious Cautionary Essay,” in
SBLSP 1979, vol. 1 (ed. Paul J. Achtemeier; Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1979), 87–100.
This setting is indicated by several Lukan distinctives: rural buildings in Mark and Matthew urbanized
with a tile roof (Luke 5:19) and foundations (Luke 6:48–49); Semitic titles changed to Greco-Roman
ones like “scribe” of Mark 12:28 becoming “lawyer” in Luke 10:25; and the centrality of the city (both
the word polis and the setting) throughout Luke–Acts. The precise location of Luke’s earliest audiences cannot be determined with any certainty, but scholars have suggested various Greco-Roman cities
such as Ephesus (in modern-day Turkey), Antioch (in modern-day Syria), and Philippi (in modern-day
Greece).
For a full discussion of social hierarchy in agrarian societies like the Roman Empire, see Gerhard E.
Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (1966; repr., Chapel Hill: University of
North Carolina Press, 1984), 189–296.

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At the pinnacle of imperial society were the ruler and the elite governing group, including the
Roman emperor, senators, governors, procurators, and local elites or magistrates. This latter group
would have been the most visible powerbroker in Luke’s urban communities, and one of the main
beneficiaries of Roman rule. Rome needed the local elites to become its allies, and the local leaders complied with Roman domination in exchange for Rome’s allowing them to maintain considerable power.5 Particularly in the Greek East (e.g., cities in the provinces of Achaia, Macedonia,
and Asia, or modern-day Greece and Turkey), the local hierarchy modeled itself on that of Rome,
which meant support of the imperial cult, constant struggle for status, and competitive benefaction
(known as euergetism, or “good works”). These civic donations of public buildings and monuments, entertainment, food, and other services, although called “charity,” were generally offered
only to the “good poor” rather than to the truly destitute, and ultimately served more to legitimize
Roman domination and the power of the local elites than to provide real or lasting help to the
needy.6
With the elites comprising only about three percent of the urban population, the vast majority
(97%) of residents were non-elites, almost all of whom lived at or near subsistence level. Richard
Longenecker estimates that perhaps fifteen percent of Roman urban dwellers had moderate surplus
resources, fifty-seven percent lived at or just above subsistence level, and a full quarter of the population, twenty-five percent, was forced to survive with resources well below subsistence level.7 The
so-called “middling” group (the 15% with some surplus) included the most prosperous merchants
and artisans, some veterans of the Roman military, and the status group Gerhard Lenski calls retainers. Retainers served the elites as soldiers, stewards, tax collectors, and other petty officials, carrying out exploitation of the non-elite population in return for a small share of the economic surplus
and slightly higher social status.8 Luke–Acts portrays Jesus and his followers as actively engaging
with retainers like Pharisees (Luke 7:36–50; 11:37–54; 14:1–24; 17:20–21), tax collectors (5:27–
39; 19:1–10), and Roman centurions (7:1–10; Acts 10:1–48). A transfer of retainers’ loyalty from
the elites and the imperial status quo to Jesus’ proclamation of God’s coming reign would have
been particularly significant for the early Jesus movement.
The vast majority of the people in Luke’s cities (82% in Longenecker’s estimate) were poor
non-elites: peasants, artisans, slaves, day laborers, and beggars and other “expendables.” Their
5
6

7

8

Christopher Kelly, The Roman Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press,
2006), 46–48.
Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1987), 33; Valerie Hope, “Status and Identity in the Roman World,” in
Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire (ed. Janet Huskinson; London:
Routledge, 2000), 125–52 (137); and C. R. Whittaker, “The Poor,” in The Romans (ed. Andrea Giardina;
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 294–95.
Bruce W. Longenecker, Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2001), 52–53. Cf. Stephen J. Friesen, “Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New
Consensus,” JSNT 26 (2004): 341–47.
Lenski, Power and Privilege, 243–46.

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basic pattern of life was an ongoing struggle to maintain subsistence-level survival, while the elites
and to a lesser extent their retainers gained an ever-increasing share of wealth, power, status, and
resources.9 To put this in perspective, the income ratio of a day laborer to a Roman senator can be
estimated at 1:200, that of a centurion to an elite tribune at 1:6, and that of a common legionary
solider to that same tribune at 1:400.10
The stress of living in perpetual danger of falling below subsistence level was compounded by
social competition and humiliation, the ever-present threat of the Roman military, and poor and
dangerous living conditions.11 Elite benefaction in the form of occasional food handouts and sponsorship of games and entertainment, for example, gave nominal relief for the non-elite, as did collegia (associations) such as trade guilds and burial clubs. Both of these avenues of relief also
played a significant role in upholding the Roman order, however, not least by differentiating
between the “good” or “honest” poor and the “dishonorable” poor who did not receive even these
small boons. The games, for example, reproduced Rome’s worldview in miniature through seating
arrangements based on social status, reenactments of Roman military victories, and public humiliation and execution of dissidents.12 Collegia, meanwhile, exhibited mimicry of elite honor and
power, as they sought elite patronage and created a hierarchy of their own that excluded all but the
“honorable poor” who possessed enough surplus money to afford the membership fees and to contribute to monuments or to pursue other paths of obtaining public honor.13 Elite euergetism and
elite-sponsored collegia, then, played a significant role in binding many non-elites to the status
quo, so that they might preserve the few benefits it allowed them.
These observations about existence under Roman domination shed new light upon the impact
the Gospel of Luke might have had upon the lives of its earliest readers. Considering the nuances
of the stratified society in which Luke’s Gospel was first heard, it seems at first glance that Jesus’
unorthodox teachings about status reversal and the renunciation of wealth and possessions would
have been most challenging to elites and perhaps also their retainers. In reality, however, many
non-elites, especially those in relatively stable positions, would have been equally challenged by
the message that public honor and status competition should no longer be the community’s primary
value and motivation. A closer look at the possible composition of the communities first reading
Luke will provide one more piece of the puzzle, before we turn our attention to illustrative passages
from Luke.
In the Greek East, where Luke’s Gospel first circulated, there was both acceptance of Roman rule
and some ambivalence about it. On the one hand, Hellenistic city magistrates showed themselves
9 Garnsey and Saller, Roman Empire, 43, 51–52; and Ramsay MacMullen, Roman Social Relations: 50
B.C. to A.D. 284 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974), 38–39, 42.
10 Whittaker, “The Poor,” 278.
11 Kelly, Roman Empire, 59–60; Jerry Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Cambridge, MA: Polity,
2009), 58, 62–74.
12 Garnsey and Saller, Roman Empire, 117; Kelly, Roman Empire, 79–82; Toner, Popular Culture, 114–17.
13 For more on collegia, see MacMullen, Roman Social Relations, 74–77.

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ready to comply with Roman “peace” in order to preserve their own stability and economic advantage. Consequently, Asia Minor was absorbed into the empire with relatively little military violence
and presence.14 At the same time, though, local leaders and urban residents felt a certain superiority
to their Roman rulers. After all, the imperial culture was founded on an adaptation of Greek art,
culture, and education. The paradox of this situation is captured well by an often quoted line from
the Roman poet Horace: “Captive Greece took her rough conqueror captive and introduced the arts
to rustic Latium.”15 The urban centers of Asia Minor and Greece were composed of a complex layering of cultures: Roman and Hellenistic, native and foreign, elite and non-elite.16 Multifaceted communities with diverse populations, they encompassed diverse and sometimes conflicted perspectives
on the imperial world. Luke’s reading communities likely reflected this mixture of various ethnicities, occupations, religions, and levels of wealth and social status.
The evangelist himself appears to have been a moderately successful artisan, or of another livelihood that would have afforded comparable status. His dedicatee Theophilus (1:3; Acts 1:1) was
likely from a group enjoying higher social and economic advantage and thus able to promote the
Gospel in social circles that an artisan could not influence as effectively.17 Many members of the
Lukan congregations were probably artisans like the evangelist and therefore would have identified
easily with the protagonists of Luke–Acts, among them the fisherman Peter and the tentmaker Paul.
In addition, these congregations almost certainly included a few members from both the highest
and the lowest status groups: a few elite members—or more likely some from the “middling” group
who possessed surplus resources and therefore could provide meeting places, food, money, and
other resources—and also some members regarded as society’s “expendables.” These conclusions
paint a picture of a heterogeneous community. F. Gerald Downing’s reconstruction of this group
imagines a reading of the Gospel of Luke at a communal banquet populated by an unusually diverse
audience of men, women, slaves, children, freedpersons, and citizens—an audience comprising
persons from a wide range of status levels, ethnicity, and life experience.18
In such a pluralistic context the actions and teachings of the Lukan Jesus would have presented
many challenges to the various social groups in Luke’s audience. Nowhere is this multilayered
ethical standard more evident than in Luke’s treatment of wealth, poverty, and status reversal, and
14

Lorna Hardwick, “Concepts of Peace,” in Experiencing Rome (ed. Huskinson), 349–50; Kelly, Roman
Empire, 44–47.
15 Epistulae 2.1.156–57. See Janet Huskinson, “Élite Culture and the Identity of Empire,” in eadem, ed.,
Experiencing Rome, 95–123 (98); and Craige B. Champion, ed., Roman Imperialism: Readings and
Sources (Interpreting Ancient History; Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 268–70.
16 Huskinson, “Élite Culture,” 108.
17 Although space prohibits detailed support for these conclusions, interested readers are encouraged to
consult Loveday Alexander, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in
Luke 1.1–4 and Acts 1.1 (SNTSMS 78; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
18 F. Gerald Downing, “Theophilus’s First Reading of Luke–Acts,” in Luke’s Literary Achievement:
Collected Essays (ed. Christopher M. Tuckett; JSNTSup 116; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1995),
94–95.

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in the role these concerns play in Jesus’ vision of God’s coming reign of peace and justice. With
this background, let us now turn our attention to Luke 14 and its interpretation within faith communities of both the first and the twenty-first centuries.

Luke 14: Table Manners in the Reign of God
The bulk of Luke 14 (vv. 1–24) is set at a Sabbath banquet hosted by “a leader of the Pharisees”
(14:1), where Jesus is a guest. He performs a healing for a man with dropsy (14:2–6) and then
speaks extensively about honor, humility, and status reversal (14:7–24). In the chapter’s final segment (14:25–35), Jesus turns his attention from the Pharisees and other retainers with whom he has
been dining and addresses the (likely non-elite) crowds traveling with him (14:25). He confronts
them with a daunting view of the extreme costs of becoming his disciple. Verse 33 exemplifies the
radical demands Jesus holds before potential disciples: “So therefore, none of you can become my
disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Luke 14 thus connects the prominent Lukan
themes of status reversal and of discipleship marked by distinctive economic practices.
At first glance, the healing of the man with dropsy (14:2–6) seems to be unrelated to the concerns that dominate the rest of the chapter. The healing follows a familiar pattern: Jesus heals an
afflicted individual and then engages in debate with various leaders or groups about the appropriateness of such actions on the Sabbath. The man’s specific ailment of dropsy, however, is significant for our focus. Dropsy was a disease of fluid retention characterized by an unquenchable thirst
and bodily swelling. John Carroll points out that Cynic and Stoic philosophers commonly used
dropsy as a metaphor for avarice, symbolized particularly by the parallel between dropsy’s insatiable craving for more water and greed’s acquisitive desire for more honor and wealth.19 This particular healing, then, implies that the following dialogue offers healing and transformation not only for
an individual’s bodily ailment, but also for the community’s damaging preoccupation with the
competitive pursuit of honor, status, and wealth.
In the Roman Empire, meals were typically shared only among persons of similar social status.
As an artisan and wandering teacher, Jesus would appear as something of an anomaly at this gathering of retainers, and the content of his teaching likely increased the social tension. Immediately
in vv. 7–11, he instructs banquet guests to seek out a place as the least honored among their peers,
a social humiliation that according to conventional imperial values should be avoided at all costs.
He then compounds this message by urging them to stop hosting family and friends at banquets,
replacing these customary guests with “the crippled, the lame, and the blind”—expendables with
essentially no status and certainly lacking the means to reciprocate an invitation and increase the
host’s status in any way (14:12–14). The payoff for such actions will be from God, not the Roman
Empire; those who humble themselves will be exalted (14:11), and those who reach out to people
ignored and shamed by the world will be blessed for their practice of justice (14:14, dikaiosynē;
NRSV, “righteousness”).

19 John T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 296–97.

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These verses embody one of the greatest challenges in Luke for all community members, but
particularly for those with surplus resources, including the retainers who comprise the audience
within this scene. No matter one’s status, the Lukan Jesus demands a voluntary humbling of self in
service to the good of others, and a deliberate turning away from what will increase one’s material
and social resources. It is noteworthy that Jesus brings this message even to those who obviously
embrace the Roman status quo. Two chapters later, the evangelist makes explicit what he only
implies here, that the Pharisees are greedy for earthly money and honor (philargyroi, literally “lovers of money,” in 16:14). Yet Jesus still eats with them and tries to help them understand that true
honor cannot be granted by an imperial system of power relations for which the primary interest is
sustaining its position of domination. Humility is needed, but it “is not to be feigned as a strategy
for recognition. On the contrary, humility is a quality of life only open to persons who know that
their worth is not measured by recognition from their peers but by the certainty that God has
accepted them.”20
But neither is this certainty to be taken for granted. When a guest seems to assume his own
blessing as an honored guest at God’s eschatological banquet (14:15), Jesus repeats his warning
that honor and blessing are not what the empire says they are, this time using a parable about a feast
(vv. 16–24). In this final incident at the Pharisee’s meal, Jesus tells of an apparently wealthy host
who gives a great dinner (v. 16) but is snubbed at the last minute by his equally wealthy guests, who
place material possessions and family obligations above attendance at the dinner party (vv.
18–20).21 In anger, the host fills his banquet hall instead with unexpected alternate guests: first the
urban poor, and then even lower-status rural wanderers—not just to have guests at the banquet, but
to fill the hall entirely so that none of the originally invited guests can change their minds and
attend (vv. 21–24). Like Jesus’ advice for meal guests and hosts (vv. 7–14), this parable emphasizes
the need to turn prevailing social divisions on their head. It is one of several sharp warnings Luke’s
narrative addresses to those who are too attached to social and economic boundaries.
Carroll writes, “The parable highlights the inclusion of persons of low status, the marginalized
and outsiders. But accompanying inclusive generosity is risk for those for whom the banquet was
first prepared.”22 Jesus is reaching out to retainers as well as his fellow non-elites, seeking to
engage them in his ministry as it restores dignity to the needy and offers them a place of honor
within the community. But it is also clear that the retainers, as those who benefit from and perpetuate the oppressions entailed by the status quo, will not be given unlimited opportunities to change
their ways. Earlier in Luke, Jesus declares that the poor are honored and divinely favored (makarios, NRSV “blessed”; 6:20), while “woe” is all he offers to the rich (6:24). It seems, at first glance,
a bleak outlook for all who are outwardly prospering. But chapter 14 gives a glimmer of hope. In
14:14, a hinge between the two major sections of teaching, Jesus declares that the host of this
20
21
22

R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New
Interpreter’s Bible (ed. Leander E. Keck; 12 vols.; Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 9:287.
Some commentators suggest that this was perhaps an intentional dishonoring of the host, planned in
advance by the invited guests. See Carroll, Luke, 303–4.
Carroll, Luke, 305.

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upside-down banquet will be blessed (makarios) because she or he extended hospitality without
hope or desire for repayment. This text offers, then, at least one path on which persons of high
status may move from woe to blessing—even if a demanding one that essentially requires forfeiting earthly wealth and status in order to benefit others who lack both wealth and status.
Such is the social and ethical impact of Luke’s picture of the God revealed in the non-elite,
itinerant teacher Jesus. Jesus faces humiliation and eventually death as a result of his challenge to
the boundaries that divide humans from one another. He fashions a different kind of community, in
which his followers recognize one another as sisters and brothers, fellow children of this same God.
He models these values and behavior through his crucifixion, which enacts his mandate in dramatic
fashion (as expressed, e.g., in the petition “Father, forgive them,” 23:34; and in the promise “today
you will be with me in Paradise,” 23:43). Jesus’ followers are called to initiate their own downward
reversal for the sake of the community, in the knowledge that true honor, as defined by God, is
available to all. In the reign of God, “honor is not gained by seizing prominence; it must be given
by others,” and it will differ greatly from what counts as honor in first or twenty-first century
society.23
Jesus’ own life, together with Luke’s presentation of a God who takes care of the humble and
poor, undergirds this central ethical mandate of the Third Gospel. Benefaction and euergetism
restricted to those among the poor who are considered culturally “worthy”—whether given by the
elite or by the non-elite to enhance their own honor and status— is not true charity, and it is not
what Jesus demonstrated for his followers. In Luke’s narrative honor, service, and aid are to be
offered to everyone who needs it by anyone who can provide it (see Acts 4:34–35), with no limitations on who should give or on who ought to receive. Although the scene in Luke 14 is set at a
gathering of retainers and those of higher status, the challenge it poses would not have bypassed
lower-status, non-elite members of Luke’s audience. They too were embedded in the status competition and hierarchy of their social world, and they too hosted and attended banquets in an attempt
to display and to increase their honor. They were no more likely to invite a beggar or a prostitute
into their home for a meal than were the Pharisees depicted in the narrative. Thus the message of
Luke 14:1–24 presents a challenge even to those of us who consider ourselves of more modest
means.
To underline this point, the final section of Luke 14 turns Jesus’ attention explicitly to the
large crowds following him, probably comprising non-elite peasants and artisans, and the radical
commitment he will require from them. The first two conditions for discipleship stated in vv.
26–28 are familiar from the wider Synoptic tradition: a follower of Jesus must be ready to place
commitment to God’s reign above familial obligations, and indeed to face suffering and perhaps
even the threat of death on a regular basis (see, e.g., Mark 8:34; Matt 10:35–39; 16:24). The final
requirement, however, is unique to Luke: a call to all disciples to give up their possessions (Luke
14:33). Literally, the Greek states it in the negative: “So, then, every one [pas] of you who does

23 Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” 287.

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not renounce all [pasin] your possessions cannot be my disciple” (my trans.). The repetition of
the word “all” or “every” (Greek pas) is significant, as it emphasizes the point that economic and
social transformation is just as important for the non-elite crowds addressed here as it is for the
wealthier retainers addressed in 14:1–24. No one is exempt from this aspect of following Jesus.
Christopher Hays calls Luke 14:33 “the ethical highlight of the pericope” and rightly pushes
back against the possibility that this passage demands only readiness to give up possessions; there
is no attempt to perform such hermeneutical gymnastics with other commands like love of neighbor or evangelism.24 This verse on proper use of possessions connects 14:25–35 with the first part
of the chapter and, as Hays says, drives home the necessity for Lukan disciples to renounce earthly
goods and values in a way that benefits the needy.25 It also issues a subtle warning to retainers and
elites about the greater urgency of their position, presumably because of their greater loyalty and
commitment to the status quo. Jesus ends his teachings in Luke 14 with a call and warning: “Let
anyone with ears to hear listen!” (14:35). The next verses ironically narrate tax collectors and sinners coming near “to listen” to Jesus, while the Pharisees and scribes complain about the company
he keeps (15:1–2). Jesus offers all, even the wealthy and elite, a path of blessing through radical
status reversal and renunciation of possessions, but their reaction here demonstrates yet again the
powerful sway that money and status hold over humankind. How followers of Jesus value and use
wealth is a reflection of their relationship with God (cf. Luke 16:13). This ethical mandate is
related, again, to Luke’s theology, specifically Christology and eschatology.26 Renunciation of possessions and other earthly resources—using them for the good of the community (as explicated in
the first part of Luke 14 and elsewhere in the Gospel)—is an integral part of Luke’s presentation of
Jesus. It is thus also at the heart of his disciples’ participation in his ministry, and of their participation in the eschatological reign of God, working even now toward a social, political, and economic
reality shaped by its commitments.

Bridging the Chasm Today, Eliminating the Chasm Tomorrow
What, then, are we in the twenty-first century to do with Luke’s ethic of reversal and repurposing
of wealth and honor? When studying the Roman Empire and its socioeconomic system, it would be
irresponsible to ignore obvious parallels with the United States today and its broad reach of global,
cultural, and economic influence. New Testament scholar Warren Carter asks the vital question:
“How might Christians—whether they live at the center of the world’s most powerful empire ever
[or . . .] know the impact, reach, and power of such empires—engage these realities?”27 In this time
24
25

26
27

Christopher M. Hays, “Hating Wealth and Wives? An Examination of Discipleship Ethics in the Third
Gospel,” Tyndale Bulletin 60 (2009): 47–68 (57–58).
Hays further emphasizes this conclusion in a study of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke
16:19–31); see Christopher Hays, “Beyond Mint and Rue: The Implications of Luke’s Interpretive
Controversies for Modern Consumerism,” Political Theology 11 (2010): 387–402 (393).
Hays, “Hating Wealth,” 66–68.
Warren Carter, The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abingdon,
2006), 137.

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of rapidly growing income inequality, this question and others raised by conscientious study of
Luke 14 and similar texts deserve careful consideration by communities of faith. Despite Luke’s
clear call for disciples of Jesus to use their economic and social resources in radically different and
countercultural ways, the consumption practices of Christians are usually indistinguishable from
people without any religious affiliation.28 Although there are no easy answers to these complex
issues, we have a responsibility to keep exploring them and to attempt to bring Jesus’ vision of
justice closer to reality.
One of the most arresting images of poverty and wealth in the Gospel of Luke is the parable of
Lazarus and the rich man (16:19–31).29 At the end of Jesus’ story, the rich man is eternally separated
by a great and immovable chasm from Abraham, Lazarus, and anyone who might desire to come to
his aid (v. 26). The only words of hope Abraham can offer are for the man’s still-living brothers, and,
on another level, for those of us who are overhearing their story through Luke’s Gospel. These words
command us to listen to Moses and the Prophets (v. 31)—in Luke, typically cited in support of practices such as feeding the hungry and poor, loving God and neighbor, and sharing goods with the
needy.30 This parable echoes the teachings of Jesus in Luke 14: earthly resources must be put in
service of justice for those who are denied it by the systems that dominate this world.
The real problem in the parable, though, is the chasm, and not only the chasm in the afterworld.
That chasm exists only because of the separation that the rich man perpetuated within this world,
the chasm between himself—with his lavish banquets and rich, high-status, reciprocity-offering
guests—and Lazarus at the gate to his mansion, starving and covered in sores and without any
mercy or aid. Although Luke 16:19–31 speaks about the afterlife, its message is for the present.
Luke issues an invitation, a warning, and a command to bridge the chasm in our lives today by
building true community among people who are different from us and different from one another.
In this way, there will be no impassable division among God’s people, either before or after death.
In the words of Felipe, a Nicaraguan peasant from the community of Solentiname, “What I think is
that neither the rich nor the poor ought to suffer the fate of those two guys in the Gospel. The rich
man damned for having squandered selfishly, the poor man screwed all his life even though afterwards he’s saved. Which means there shouldn’t be rich or poor, nobody should be screwed in this
life, nobody should be damned in the next life. All people ought to share the riches in this life and
share the glory in the next one.”31
The ethical obligations of following Jesus, as presented in texts like Luke 14:1–35 and 16:19–
31, have the potential both to challenge and to inspire. Unlike the communities first reading Luke,
28 Hays, “Beyond Mint and Rue,” 383–84.
29 For a full exploration of this parable as a text of status reversal and resistance to the status quo, see ch.
5 in Amanda C. Miller, Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of
Luke (Emerging Scholars; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014).
30 Hays, “Beyond Mint and Rue,” 392.
31 Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname (trans. Donald D. Walsh; rev. ed.; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis,
2007), 422.

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many today worship primarily with people from a similar social milieu, in congregations that are
comfortably ensconced in the cultural status quo. Many of us live in the wealthiest nations in the
world and benefit from that fact whether or not we wish to, and whether or not we are aware of our
privilege. There is challenge, then, simply in acknowledging this reality, and even greater challenge
in recognizing the warning Luke issues to us if we do not do our part to upend this status quo that
provides us with wealth and comfort. Hays draws a perceptive analogy between the quest for honor
undertaken by Pharisees and other first-century retainers and the pursuit of identity through material consumption in contemporary Western cultures.32 Our communities of faith would be enriched
by turning away from cultural markers of success and instead pursuing banqueting (both literally
and figuratively) with those forgotten by society. This sort of fellowship, as advocated by Jesus in
Luke 14, is not just about providing money or food for the needy. It is about partnering with those
who are different from us and being humble enough to learn and receive “alms” as much as (or
more than) we give them.
This is one way in which the capacity for inspiration alongside challenge enters into the conversation. Luke 14 and, less explicitly, 16:19–31 reflect the theological and practical significance of
table fellowship in the early Christian communities. As Alan Culpepper observes, one of the lessons of Jesus’ banquet teachings is that “the community and sharing of life and bread that takes
place at table is too sacred to be perverted for our private advantage.”33 It is an entirely different
experience, for example, to eat a meal at table with homeless women, men, and children than to
hand them groceries once a month. We might also be motivated to examine our personal, communal, national, and global financial practices and determine how well they align with Luke’s account
of the goals of God’s reign. Another vital part of this type of community is allowing ourselves to
be held accountable by the words of Jesus and by the experiences of other children of God. We are
blessed when we have (and listen to!) “sisters and brothers who remind [us] that the church is about
power of a different sort. . . . we are blessed, every last one of us, in that . . . we have a brother and
Lord who will not leave us alone until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.”34 May we
make this vision a reality in our world!

32
33
34

Hays, “Beyond Mint and Rue,” 395.
Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” 287–88.
Thomas Kleinert, “The Bishop and Lazarus,” n.p. Online: http://www.vinestreet.org/blog-thomas-kleinert.
Accessed December 17, 2013.

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