Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 3

The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 1
The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 2
The Message of Jesus Has Nothing To Do With Material Poverty - Part 3

In the previous two posts (here and here), I have argued that the message of Jesus was not about social justice in general and the alleviation of poverty in particular. In essence, if the Kingdom of God is the elimination of poverty then Jesus failed. In the last post, I highlighted most of the explicit references in the four Gospels to poverty and the poor. I broke those passages into three categories. The first category consisted of passages that have no relation to our discussion. The second category related to poverty but ought not to be used by social justice Christians (and non-Christians). The third category consists of passages most commonly used and will be given fuller treatment in the next post.

In this article I want to explain briefly why most passages where poverty and the poor are explicitly mentioned are rejected (categories 1 and 2). The reason for rejecting most passages comes down to a proper hermeneutic of narratives. In reading the Bible we must separate descriptive passages and prescriptive passages.

Often people read the narratives as if every detail should be applied. That is to say, we read descriptive details as prescriptive truths. But this is impossible. We read in the Old Testament a number of examples of polygamy, but clearly the Bible is against plural marriages. The same is true, I believe, regarding tongues/languages and immediate baptisms in Acts. Luke is not making a theological point, only a historic one.

Apply this same principle to the many passages classified in categories 1 and 2. In John 13:29, for example, we are given the plot information that Judas left the Twelve in the upper room, and being the treasure, the other disciples assumed he was going to give money to the poor. This is a description of what the disciples thought. There is nothing prescriptive here. Similar to this is Matthew 26:9-12 (parallels in Mark 14:5-7 and John 12:5-8) where Judas complains about the waste of the expensive perfume. If we take the social justice Christians seriously, Judas has a point. What a waste!  The narrator, especially John, explains that Judas' heart was empty. 

Consider also the passages in the second category. Luke 16:20 and 19:8 are good examples of this. Luke 16:20 is a descriptive verse in a parable. We are introduced to the two characters, an unnamed, unrighteous rich man and Lazarus, a poor beggar. Jesus is clearly drawing two extremes for the purpose of clarity and emphasis. The original hearers would have been shocked to read the rich man was in Hades and the poor beggar was not. Most assumed at this time wealth was connected to God's favor. This is descriptive detail. The rich man's unrighteousness bore fruit in ignoring Lazarus. The unrighteous bear unrighteousness. The rich man is not in Hades because he is rich or because Lazarus was poor, but because he was unrighteous. That's the point of the detail. Nothing prescriptive here.

The same is true regarding the story of Zaccheus. Unlike the rich man in the Luke 16 parable (and it is a parable), Zaccheus first comes to Christ in repentance and immediately bears the fruit of that repentance. He returns the money to those he had defrauded four-fold. This is what repentance looks like. Zaccheus, a rich man, is righteous not because he surrendered his wealth but because he came to Christ.

The details in both of the Lukan narratives about the poor are descriptive, not prescriptive. Thus, righteousness should not be defined as "giving to the poor," but coming to Christ. Repentance bears fruit which may involve charity especially for the rich. Jesus never demanded Zaccheus donate to the poor, but as a result of a change of heart, charity naturally replaced greed.

In the next posts, we will discuss the more difficult passages in category 3.
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