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Notes Regarding Poverty and Wealth in Luke-Acts from Luke T. Johnson, Walter E. Pilgrim, and Mark A. Powell

[This post continues the theme of poverty and economic ethics with some select notes from: Luke T. Johnson, Walter E. Pilgrim, and Mark A. Powell.]

Luke T. Johnson, The Literary Function of Possessions in Luke-Acts.  Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 39 (Missoula, MT: Scholar’s Press, 1977).  See also Sharing Possessions.  [My notes, covering Johnson's comments on Acts more than Luke.]

1.       Johnson draws attention to the motif of possessions in Luke-Acts and finds it fulfilling symbolic roles.  Possessions point to power and to personal or community identity. 

2.       Luke: There are different symbolic roles for possessions in Luke.

a.       Lk. 15.11-32: the Prodigal Son: dividing property symbolises alienation; the father’s attitude towards his wealth (‘all I have is yours’) points to the possible unity.
b.      The most important role they play is determining acceptance or rejection of Jesus.  The ‘poor’ accept Jesus and renounce possessions; the ‘rich’ renounce Jesus and hold onto their possessions.  E.g., Lk. 6.20ff.

3.       Acts 9-28:

a.       9.36: Tabitha or Dorcas: piety described in terms of good works and almsgiving
b.      10.2, 4, 31: Cornelius: piety described in terms of good works and almsgiving
c.       19.19: Christians burn their costly magic books
d.      18.3: Paul worked for a living.  Also noted in 20.33-35.  Indicates lack of greed and leaders should follow suite, thus being able to help the needs of the weak.  Paul is asked to pay the fee for a purification rite for others, and thus show amity to presbyters (21.24).  Felix hoped for something from Paul (24.26).  In Rome, Paul dwells by his own wages (28.30).
e.       The Collection for the Jews: Only mentioned in Acts 24.17, it indicates this is why Paul came to Jerusalem.  Acts 11.27-30, 12.25 involve Paul in a collection for Jerusalem from Antioch for famine relief.

4.       Acts 1-8:

a.       1.12-26: Judas’ use of money intertwined with abandonment of apostlic office.  He buys a field, whereas the apostles left all.
b.      2.42f: Community life: cf. Lk. 3.11—sharing with others.  Good community is described here.  After 3.1-9, the conflict, rejection, centring around the 12’s authority, enters the picture.
c.       3.1-9: healing of lame man: neither silver nor gold, but power to heal
d.      4.32-7: community life.  Now disciples are rejected, pray for power which comes in greater force.  Community of possessions shows spiritual unity.  4.33b-34//Dt. 15.5: believers enjoy times of refreshment from God (p. 200).  4.36f: Barnabas’ donation.
e.       5.1-11: Anonias and Sapphira (cf. Josh. 7.1ff). mock the unity of the Spirit.  Reject apostles as prophets by thinking to hold something back.
f.        6.1-7: Appointment of the Seven: also have prophetic ministry.  Spiritual authority again shown in power over possessions (213).
g.       8.9-24: Simon Magus wants to buy apostolic power.  Giving his goods not to acknowledge authority of the 12 but to get an equal position for himself.  In Acts 11.27-30; 12.25: Paul’s collection for Jerusalem acknowledges the authority and so he has mission validated (p. 220).

5.       Johnson sees these stories playing a part in the pattern in Acts of acceptance/rejection, a pattern also found in the story of Jesus (and of Moses as paradigm).  He refers to this as the pattern of the Prophet and the People (e.g., p. 121).  Israel in large part rejects the Gospel, which is increasingly accepted by the Gentiles.  But some of Israel, in particular the 12 who are the apostles and leaders, accept the Gospel.

6.       The language of possessions is used symbolically for (pp. 125f; Johnson offers his proof in chs. 3 (for Luke) and 4 (for Acts)):

a.       the identity of God’s people
b.      acceptance and rejection to God’s people
c.       authority over God’s people
d.      the transmission of authority within God’s people.

7.       The poor may be rejected by men but receive the promise of the final, future reversal.

Walter E. Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor, Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1981).

1.     An emphasis on the symbolic role of possessions in Lk.-Acts can detract from a more literal understanding of this theme.
2.     The ‘poor’ include those who are truly poor in social and economic ways.  Jesus is their advocate; God is on their side.  While they will one day experience a great reversal in God’s final judgement, they may already experience compassion and justice in the community of Jesus.
3.     The ‘rich’ do not receive God’s salvation (Lk. 12.13-21; 16.19-31; 18.18-25).  Stories of those making financial sacrifices are to inspire the rich (5.11, 27f; 19.1-10).
4.     Lk. gives no specific rules for the use of possessions.  Christians are at the very least to be responsible stewards of their wealth through almsgiving (12.33), remitting debts (6.27-36), and promoting fellowship (14.7-24).

Mark A. Powell, What are they saying about Luke? (New York: Paulist Press, 1989).

Luke is concerned to ‘foster a community in which rich and poor alike can hear the word of Jesus and respond appropriately’ (Powell, p. 100, with reference to Robert Karris, ‘Poor and Rich: The Lukan Sitz im Leben,’ in Perspectives on Luke-Acts, ed. By Charles Talbert (Danville, CA: Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, 1978).  How should they respond?  Powell says that ‘the consensus seems to be that Luke’s concern over the use of possessions is just that: a concern.  He does not have a definite answer.  Still, he is quite sure that treasure on earth and treasure in heaven are incompatible (12.33) and he wants every Christian to consider what, therefore, is to be done.  Jesus’ disciples (5.11, 28), Zacchaeus (19.1-10), and the Jerusalem Church (Acts 2.44-45; 4.32) provide examples of what some have done, but none of these is made the paradigm for all.  Others exemplify the disaster that can befall those who do nothing (12.13-21; 16.19-31; 18.18-25)’ (Powell, pp. 100f).