A collection of parables in Luke’s gospel that focus on the nature and challenges of discipleship have been the focus of recent Lectionary texts.
With good help from Tony Cartledge’s excellent commentary material in the Nurturing Faith Journal, our Sunday School class has been reflecting on these passages.
In particular, the parables and their application in chapters 14-16 point to a variety of challenges, notably the spiritual poverty of material affluence.
Luke’s gospel portrait is well known for its advocacy of the poor and marginalized. Unique and sometimes subtle features, such as Mary’s “Magnificat,” extols the Lord, who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (1:52-53, NRSV).
Luke’s beatitude from the “sermon on the plain” – “Blessed are you who are poor [in contrast to Matthew’s ‘poor in spirit’], for yours is the Kingdom of God … [and] Woe to you who are rich, for you have your compensation” (6:20, 24).
Luke also records in Acts a memory of the earliest days of the movement, when participants “held all things in common … and there was not a needy person among them” (see Acts 2:44-45 and 4:32-37). Of course, this is easier to do when a group is small and similarly focused.
By the time of the gospel’s writing in the last quarter of the first century CE, the community of Jesus followers had gotten more expansive and complex, and the stewardship of worldly possessions seems to have become an issue.
The unique focus of this assembly of the remembered parables of Jesus underscores the “cost” of discipleship, the challenge of grace gladly received but resentfully observed when it is offered to the “less deserving,” and the overall challenge of living the life of faith in a monetized world.
We can only assume from what we see here what was taking place in the life of the community that prompted this focus on the conditions of discipleship.
The hints are there: the scribes and Pharisees “murmuring” about the inclusion of those who had not paid their righteousness dues; the resentment of the older brother in the prodigal son story who couldn’t share the joy of his brother’s return and recovery from bad decisions; and the general passion for accumulating wealth and the building of bigger barns to store it.
If there is a place where we can find commonality with our ancestors in the faith, this might be one of the clearest choices.
The economic dimension of our common life has been a “given” for as long as we can know. Its arrangements and its tools have changed through the ages, but its priorities reflect a close correlation to the values of its culture, whatever the period.
We might ask in our time, “How well do we manage the necessary material aspects of life in light of the faith we claim as followers of the one whose teachings we have recorded in the testimony we claim to be the ‘Word of God’?”
In particular, how does a faith that is “grace-based,” as Paul would insist that we have as a “treasure in earthen vessels,” function in a culture that verges on being totally “monetized”?
Think of how we speak of value and worth: One’s “net worth” is measured in dollars; the “value” of a property (whether inflated or deflated) is expressed in monetary terms; a decision that involves some aspect of cost may be made on the basis of “it’s not worth it.” One who has suffered a loss at someone else’s liability is “made whole” by a certain amount of money.
For direct application, it was interesting to notice the various responses to the recent plan to forgive some of the burden of student loan debt carried by so many who had used the availability of loans to finance their higher education.
The recipients of this grace celebrated the relief from what for many was a crippling burden of accumulating interest that prolonged repayment.
For others who had been able to pay off such loans by disciplined and admirable effort, the response was often (and understandably) that of the older brother in the Luke 15 parable: “It’s not fair!”
For still others, the response was, “Who’s going to a pay for this? It will mean higher taxes for all of us.”
A grace-based faith that lives and functions in a monetized world faces what seems to be a perennial challenge of grace: it is easy to affirm and celebrate when it is personalized and relegated to the spiritual side of life – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.”
When it is brought into our collective and communal life, it seems harder to embrace without seeing it through the lens of our monetized culture.
The application of one of the parables (Luke 16:10-13) suggests that we can use our wealth in the service of our love for God, or we can use God in the service of our love of wealth.
It is a perennial choice, it seems.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).