This portion of Luke is routinely divided by the Revised Common Lectionary among Propers 13, 14, and 15, in Year C. Verses 21-32 are skipped, in favor of the version in Matthew 6:25-34 (Propers 10 and 11, Year B). The result, as these commentaries continue to complain, is that Christian dogma is preserved at the expense of biblical integrity. Like other portions of Luke, this sequence has its own theme: Don’t be greedy; don’t worry about how you will live, and be ready for the kingdom when it finally comes. The Jesus Seminar Scholars point out what might be a thematic progression from wealth and possessions to watchfulness and alertness, and ultimately judgment against those who get tired of waiting. All of it was put together for Luke’s early Christian community. Brief portions are believed by the Jesus Seminar to reliably be attributable to the historical Jesus (12:16-20, 22-25, 27-28).
It is easy to accuse Luke of conventionality. After all, he always adds his own pious commentary at the end of the sayings from Jesus that were part of the oral tradition. It is impossible to know why he did this. One theory is that his editorial additions deliberately took the edge off Jesus’ radicality so that the Way could be practiced under Roman imperial noses. For example, in 12:16-21, Luke uses a saying lifted from Thomas 63:1-3 (see The Five Gospels p. 508). In Luke’s hands, the concern is what will happen to the stuff the rich man has collected. Luke implies that God will demand the rich man’s life because he has saved up for himself, and therefore is really not rich in God’s terms.
Luke then has Jesus go on to explain, “That’s why I tell you: don’t fret about life – what you’re going to eat – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. . . .” He lifts this nearly verbatim from Matthew’s great sermon on the mount. But he intersperses this discourse with his own comments. Regarding Jesus’ question, “Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it?” Luke’s Jesus says, sarcastically, “If you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest?” Luke ends this part with his own heavily veiled challenge to imperial society: “These are all things the world’s pagans seek, and your Father is aware that you need them. Instead, you are to seek God’s domain, and these things will come to you as a bonus.”
But Luke has not yet finished his sermon. He goes on to reassure his readers: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it has delighted your Father to give you his domain,” yet he means no challenge to Rome. He tells the people to sell their belongings, donate to charity, and pile up wealth in heaven where it cannot be stolen or destroyed. He further diverts attention from radical, distributive, kingdom-realizing justice by delivering a warning about what happens to faithless slaves who are not prepared for the master’s return.
Then Luke summarizes four other well-known parables: the parable of the leased vineyard (Mark 12:1-13 [skipped by the RCL]); the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8a); the money in trust (Luke 19:12-27 [skipped by the RCL – stay tuned]); and the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:23-35). He misses or softens the point of all of them, including the parable of the shrewd manager, which is the one that he alone reports. The concluding warning that Jesus came to stir up conflict appears to apply to internecine squabbles either between traditional Jews and fledgling Christians, or within Luke’s community of believers.
Roman spies would have slipped out the door, to report that these Christians pose no threat at all to the status quo.
But in the saying from the Thomas collection, which is probably closer to the original than Luke’s expanded version, the existential and subversive joke is clear. We can imagine Jesus’ company around the campfire one night, perhaps griping yet again about how unfair it is that the rich have everthing and they (the itinerant poor) have nothing. Jesus says, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money. He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce that I may lack nothing.” These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died! In the blink of an eye, Jesus has leveled the playing field. No matter how much anyone has, everyone dies.
In Luke’s hands, Jesus’ defiant joke has been bastardized: “You can’t take it with you.” New age psychologists, self-help gurus, yoga instructors and interior decorators advise that spiritual health includes getting rid of the clutter. It’s good feng shui. Jesus’ discourse on trusting God to provide food, clothing, and shelter has become the foundation for the “prosperity gospel,” which is nothing more than a new name for a very ancient attitude: God intends for believers to be prosperous. The corollary is, prosperity is a sign of God’s favor. The secular form is, if you give, you will get. The social assumption that governs conservative politics is, people are poor because they are guilty of sin: sloth, gluttony, pride, wrath, greed, lust, and envy. In the midst of the worst global economy since the Great Depression, the hapless unemployed are told to get off your duff and get a job. And if you want unemployment benefits, we’re going to test you for drugs first.
Luke has Jesus continue speaking without transition until 12:54, making the paragraph on fire and conflict really part of the preceding sermon. Luke’s Jesus expresses some frustration with the progress of establishing the kingdom. “I came to set the earth on fire,” he says, “and how I wish it were already ablaze!” He voices the complaint of every leader advocating change: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and what pressure I’m under until it’s over!” Then he warns that did not come to bring peace, but conflict.
The entire speech reflects upheaval among the followers of Jesus as they began to organize themselves. They were often in conflict with Jewish communities who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and were unwilling to replace Torah with the story and teachings of Jesus. Luke’s Jesus expresses impatience with the difficulty of finally establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
A major theme in Luke’s gospel is the unfolding of the divine plan, beginning with Jesus, and continuing in Acts with the early church. Civilizations since Rome have been highly suspicious of language that implies a divine plan other than the one put forth by whatever powers that exist at the time, so Luke is careful to put the prophecy in ambiguous terms. When has there not been conflict among members of families? But Jesus’ words as reported in Thomas are much more provocative: “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.”
For 21st Century followers of the Way, this part of Luke’s gospel is testmony to the continuing struggle for distributive justice-compassion. Despite the claims of the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party faction of the current “conservative” movement, being rich is not a guarantee of a place in the Kingdom. Having said that, however, “a great deal is required of everyone to whom much is given; and even more will be demanded from the one to whom a great deal has been entrusted” (The Five Gospels, p. 341). In today’s economic conditions, those with the means to redistribute wealth have the moral obligation to do so, whether it is recognized or not. Perhaps this is how to read 12:42-48, about slaves who know what their masters want and don’t do it, and slaves who don’t know what their masters want, but at least make an attempt to act properly. This seems to be a non-sequitur in the 21st century. But when financial corporations and the top 1% of the population continue to stockpile their wealth in treasury bonds and gold instead of investing in viable business, they have only themselves to blame when the system crashes.
Are you ready?