McQuien’s Musings: Luke on Lucre

Among the four Gospels, Luke is the favorite of many. Perhaps one reason is that Luke, having been an educated Gentile physician, is easier for modern readers to identify with than the other three Gospel authors, especially Matthew, who reflected a more traditional Jewish perspective. One of Luke’s themes having special relevance in the 21st century is his emphasis on money and wealth.
Luke sometimes used money and wealth in a positive—or at least neutral—sense. One positive example is the “Good” Samaritan giving money to the innkeeper to take care of the bruised and beaten Jew. Another parable, concerning the lost silver coin that a woman finds, provides a positive application to the kingdom. Even Jesus’ shrewd reply to the spies sent from the chief priests and teachers of the law to question him about paying taxes to Caesar portrays money neutrally: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (20:25 NIV).
On the other hand, Luke’s Gospel contains some stern warnings about the dangers of money and wealth in general. As early as Chapter 9 Jesus asked his disciples, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (9:25). I remember sharing this passage with my own daughter before she went off to law school.
Similarly, Jesus used a parable of a “certain rich man” whose agricultural wealth increased so much that he tore down his barns and built bigger ones, assuring himself that many years of pleasure and ease would follow. Yet he was condemned by God to an early demise because he stored up wealth for himself but wasn’t rich toward God (12:20-21). He could almost be the rich man in the parable who ended up in misery because of his love of wealth and his mistreatment of Lazarus (16:19-31).
One of the most interesting treatments of the money-wealth theme in Luke’s Gospel is the contrast between the rich young man and Zacchaeus in Chapters 18 and 19. When the wealthy young “ruler” of Chapter 18 asked how to attain eternal life, Jesus replied that he would need to sell his possessions and give to the poor in order to become Jesus’ disciple and gain treasure in heaven. Giving up his wealth was simply unacceptable to the young man.
In complete contrast, the tax-collecting, rich Zacchaeus of Chapter 19, once he met Jesus and heard his message, vowed to donate half his possessions to the poor and pay back four times what he owed to those he might have cheated. Jesus’ metaphoric comparison of a camel passing through the eye of a needle to a rich person entering the kingdom of God certainly applies to the young ruler but surprisingly not to penitent Zacchaeus.
Appropriately, Luke’s final anecdote concerning money and wealth ends on a very positive note, contrasted to a very negative one. In Chapter 21, Jesus observed a poor widow who gave all the money she possessed to the temple treasury, and He publicly commended her for giving all she had to live on. In the very next chapter Judas conversely (and perversely) betrayed his Master to the chief priests and their cronies for 30 silver coins.
In the final analysis, the bottom line concerning wealth is driven home in Jesus’ conclusion to the parable of the shrewd steward: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (16:13).

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