Financial giving, discipleship and power

I have to admit that I find Professor Joel Green’s reading of Luke’s Gospel exceptionally useful. In his The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), there is a really helpful analysis of discipleship and the kingdom of God in Luke. Here are some excerpts.

[E]conomic sharing was embedded in social relations. To share with someone without expectation of return was to treat them as though they were kin, family. Conversely, to refuse to share with others was tantamount to relating to them as though they were outside one’s community. (p. 114)

In such a context, “almsgiving” cannot be understood according to modern lexicons as “charity” or “missionary giving.” Rather, giving to the poor was a signifier of social relations with the poor. For this reasons, the Pharisees and scribes are soundly reprimanded for practise of non-sharing practices that give way to acts of greed and wickedness (11:39–41; 20:46-47) … (p. 114; emphasis added)

[I]n insisting that giving takes place in a context where one retains no expectation of return, Jesus strikes at the root of one of the most prevalent models of friendship in antiquity, the patron-client relationship. In this environment, a potential patron possessed some commodity required by a client. In exchange, the client would provide appropriate expressions of honor and loyalty to the patron. The point is that, having received patronage, the client now existed in a state of obligation, of debt. The possibilities for exploitation and the exercise of controlling, coercive power are high. (pp. 114–5)

In each case, those whose goodness grows out of the system of patronage — give to those who give to you, in order to build up a series of claims over others — are said to be no better than sinners. Jesus thus challenges his listeners not to act like outsiders, but like God’s people. In doing so, he urges them to refuse the coercive, control-dominated system of relationships characteristic of the wider world. (p. 115)

Luke’s material on the rich and poor, then, is woven into a larger fabric than talk of money and treasure might at first suggest. Wealth is intricately spun together with issues of status, power, and social privilege. For this reason it cannot remain long outside the purview of the gospel. Entry into the way of discipleship raises immediately the question of possessions, with Luke calling for an economic redistribution in which the needy are cared for and the wealthy give without expectation of return. (pp. 116–7; emphasis added)

The message of Jesus in Luke violates the sacred political order of the Roman world. What is more, it does so on the basis of a clash of kings and kingdoms. Luke has consistently presented Jesus as Son of God, God’s own agent, whose life and message embodies God’s own purpose. (pp. 120–1)

The new community being established by Jesus is thus counter-cultural in the deepest sense. Their practices as a community, if they are to follow Jesus, would deviate radically from the Roman ethic and disavow its divine origin. Importantly, this denunciation of Rome is not characterized by violence, according to Luke’s theology. To take up arms, to exert coercive force, would be to adopt a style of life consistent with the Roman way, not with the way of this new kingdom breaking into the world. (p. 121)

Joel Green theology of Luke

Discipleship, wealth and poverty: Some ordinary stories

In a recent discussion with a class of theological students, we talked about the incarnational nature of Jesus’ ministry on earth. By “incarnational” we simply refer to the fact that Jesus became a human being and lived among us, so that we could see him, touch him and talk with him. Our question was, for example, should we live among the poor and oppressed like Jesus? The students asked valid questions. For instance, “surely God doesn’t want everyone to become poor?” “Is it a matter of God’s specific calling for some people to become poor and reach out to the marginalised?”

I suggested that the starting point should be Jesus’ call to discipleship and to seek first his kingdom. The fact is that Jesus lived among us and we are called to embrace his way of life. No matter how we read the Gospels, we cannot deny that Jesus spent a lot of time with the poor, the social outcasts and sinners.

It’s not for me to prescribe what the individuals should do. Nor should we be judgmental of people when their form of discipleship differs from ours. Here I want to share the stories of three friends, and hopefully they can serve as examples of how we may follow Jesus in Australia today.

Rikk, Dave and Jess are all medical doctors. For privacy reasons, I will not use their real names and I will change the details of certain events below.

Here are their stories.

(1) Rikk became well known internationally when he was still a young doctor. His research was a major breakthrough and he became famous worldwide. He lectured around the world every year. Thousands of lives were saved because of his academic and clinical works. He published in academic journals frequently, and was respected by his peers. Not only that, he was known to be a committed Christian. He was actively involved in Christian activities in the medical circle, his own church and denomination.

But he felt that he needed to do more in his response to God’s call to discipleship. So, he went to Bible College and completed a postgraduate qualification (with flying colours). Eventually he took early retirement and is now a minister in an inner-city church in Australia.

Rikk and his wife live in a big house, with a tennis court and a swimming pool. But we should not judge them according to their material possessions. If you meet them in church, you will find that they are a humble couple who want to serve God with all their hearts.

(2) Dave grew up in a Christian family and he loves Jesus. He worked very hard to become a psychiatrist. It is common for a psychiatrist to work in a private practice, for that’s where one can earn a lot of money. But Dave opted to work in the public sector. In fact, he chose to work in a hospital in a low socioeconomic area in Australia. At present, Dave holds a senior position in the hospital. While his peers have mostly gone on to earn a lot of money, Dave continues to work in the public hospital, for that’s where people’s needs are the greatest. Day after day he treats patients who are impoverished, and this is how he serves God as a follower of Jesus.

Dave and his family have, what we may call, a middle-class lifestyle. Their children go to a private school, and socioeconomically they have as a relatively privileged status. But we should not judge them according to their lifestyle. They love God and they are journeying as disciples of Jesus like all of us.

(3) Jess is a General Practitioner. She loves Jesus and believes that we don’t need a lot of money to live an abundant life. She works about 10 hours per week as a GP. But her actual hours of work exceed that, for she spends a lot of time on her patients. I talked with one of her patients, Paul (not his real name), some time ago. Paul has suffered a number of nervous breakdowns, and is still living with mental illness. He is poor economically, and he struggles everyday because of his poor health. Jess sees Paul weekly, and provided the best professional care that he can get in our medical system.

Jess runs an outreach community program at church. Every week, dozens of people (mostly non-Christians) in the neighbourhood come to church and share communal life together. Jess loves it.

Jess and her young family live in the local area where she practises as a GP. At the end of the street are families living in public housing. Needless to say, these families have gone through many hardships. Jess and her husband love their neighbours. They have good relationships with them, and some of them come to church with them. Jess’ humble house is a constant reminder that we can engage in discipleship in the way Jesus did. We can live in God’s shalom without much money or material possessions.

Rikk, Dave and Jess are all committed Christians, learning to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. Of course, it is quite obvious that Jess and his family’s lifestyle matches that of Jesus more than the others. I myself have experienced a measure of poverty in Asia. (Relative to many Australians, we were indeed quite poor!) I have to say that the life of Jess and her family speaks loudest to me. In fact, many years ago I met someone from Asia who was much poorer than me. We both knew Rikk, and we shared the feeling that he could hardly understand what it meant to be poor. But again, who am I to judge him? We are fellow disciples who are trying to find our way to follow Jesus in the best way we can.

I hope the above stories can help us to see how discipleship works in practice in Australia today.

Finally, of course one can be even more “incarnational” in serving God. I know people who have moved into some of the poorest suburbs in Australia, in order to share the lives of the disadvantaged there. I know others who have moved into some remote places in Asia, serving those living with poverty and/or a disability. They have given up their comfortable professional lives in Australia to follow God’s call to be disciples. All of them seek to be faithful followers of Jesus. They have my deep respect.

The call to discipleship as an invitation to align ourselves with Jesus

I think that discipleship is more profound and down-to-earth than we think. If we believe that we are followers of Jesus, we must take discipleship seriously.

Here are some quotes regarding Luke’s view of discipleship from Joel B. Green’s The Gospel of Luke. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997. They are excellent!

For Luke, then, the call to discipleship is fundamentally an invitation for persons to align themselves with Jesus, and thus with God. (p. 23)

Genuine “children of Abraham” are those who embody in their lives the beneficence of God, and who express openhanded mercy to others, especially toward those in need. (p. 23)

Jesus thus calls on people to live as he lives, in contradistinction to the agonistic, competitive form of life marked by conventional notions of honor and status typical of the larger Roman world. Behaviors that grow out of service in the kingdom of God take a different turn: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Extend hospitality to those who cannot reciprocate. Give without expectation for return. Such practices are possible only for those whose dispositions, whose convictions and commitments, have been reshaped by transformative encounter with the goodness of God. Within the Third Gospel, the chief competitor for this focus stems from Money–not so much money itself, but the rule of Money, manifest in the derive for social praise and, so, in forms of life designed to keep those with power and privilege segregated from those of low status, the lest, the lost, and the left-out. (p. 24)