< August 11, 2019 >

Commentary on Luke 12:32-40

 

We expect the gospels, perhaps Luke especially, to reassure us that we find security in Jesus Christ.

What we sometimes neglect is that the gospels also speak about our condition and obligations in ways that make us fear for our security. Luke is no exception to this.

Such is the case with Luke 11-13, which interweaves teachings about the way of discipleship, the certainty of divine judgment, and the transformative yet divisive character of the salvation Jesus provides.

To understand the urgency and volatility of this part of Luke, think back to the upheaval that Mary and her fellow prophets spoke about in Luke 1-2. The promise and terror embedded in their declarations about a God who remembers God’s people and turns the status quo on its head continue here as Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem. We may react with similar joy and concern when we read this week’s gospel lesson.

Sorting the passage

There are a number of movements in the passage. They are not disconnected, but neither are the transitions smooth.

The passage begins with a delightful statement found only in Luke: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). While some congregations will appreciate a preacher who can apply nuance to the verse’s paternal God-language and the reasons why speaking of a “kingdom” sounds a little antiquated, no one should miss a larger point: these words speak an unqualified promise about God. They root God’s generosity in God’s desire. Jesus has just spoken (in 12:22-31) about trusting God while also seeking (or striving for) the “kingdom”; now he reminds everyone that the point isn’t to coax a grumpy or frugal deity into being nice to us. Rather, God eagerly wants the “kingdom” -- a whole new set of affairs reflecting God’s intentions for human flourishing -- to take root in the real, lived experiences of Jesus’s followers. Why? Because that’s God’s good pleasure. This good news and reassurance set a context of confidence before Jesus moves on to the more disquieting material in 12:39-40 and in next week’s lection (12:49-56).

The second piece of the passage appears in Luke 12:33-34 -- compact teachings about cashing in one’s possessions, giving alms, and securing treasure in heaven. Parts of these verses have parallels in Matthew 6:19-21, but the emphasis on selling possessions and using the proceeds to give alms is distinctively Lukan (see also Luke 11:41; 14:33).

Third, Jesus tells a parable about slaves who wait vigilantly for their lord to return home (12:35-38). This is not passive waiting but assiduous preparation.1 Imagery in this parable resembles what we find in Matthew 25:1-13 and Mark 13:34-37, but it goes too far to call those other passages parallels or versions of the same teaching. Luke has its own points to make. Jesus’ basic point is that faithfulness demands diligence, but the parable also accentuates the surprise of a master who chooses to serve dinner (diakoneo) to his slaves (see Jesus’ description of his own behavior as “one who serves” in 22:27). Normally the opposite would be expected. Even the slaves in the parable appear to be caught unaware by their master’s hospitality, since presumably they have done what Jesus tells his audience to do: gird their loins in preparation for service (12:35).2 The inversion of social roles between lord and slaves illustrates the new relationships envisioned through the almsgiving mentioned in the preceding verses (and explained in greater detail below).

In the final movement, Jesus continues to discuss the need for readiness, but the imagery shifts dramatically from what came immediately before. Jesus speaks of a householder who needs to remain alert because a thief will not let him know when the break-in will occur (see a parallel in Matt 24:43-44; also 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4; Rev 3:3). If anyone has grown too complacent with Jesus being compared to a lord who serves dinner to his slaves in the preceding movement, now something about Jesus’ return resembles an act of breaking and entering. Surely Jesus’ emphasis here is on the surprise of a theft and not the violence attached the image of a thief, but that does not scour all the frightening connotations from the metaphor. This isn’t a surprise like walking into your favorite restaurant to discover all your friends gathered to throw you a fortieth birthday party. There is risk involved. Jesus doesn’t calm every fear. Some things remain fearful, theologically speaking. Security therefore remains elusive in this passage, at least if we define it as egocentrism or try to measure it by our usual terms and self-promotional logic.

Security, possessions, and solidarity

There’s a lot happening in this passage, but I think Jesus’ focus on wealth and generosity (Luke 12:33-34) deserves additional attention, especially since this is such an important topic in Luke, most notably throughout chapters 12-19.

At least Jesus is not very ambiguous in 12:33-34. Relinquishing possessions and giving alms results in security -- an escape from the deterioration (see the image of worn out purses) that is part of our perpetual economic anxiety. This escape correlates to depositing “treasure in heaven” that is securely held.

When Jesus declares “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he says that we can train our wills and our ways of thinking (for that is what the heart symbolized in his culture) through the ways we use our money. Spend it all on yourself, guess where your heart will go. Give it to those in need, your heart will go where God wants it to go. Moreover, your heart will find God in the process. For there is a sacramental aspect to charity, in which God becomes present to givers through those who receive and need their gifts.3

Church people fret about how to connect with God in their daily lives. The answer isn’t so complex, according to these verses. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Yet why do we reject Jesus’ plain answer and seek other ways?

To appreciate the difficulty, it is also vital to note that Jesus is speaking about more than writing checks. According to him, “almsgiving” involves more than charity in a condescending or transactional way, in which the wealthy half give their excess to the poorer half. Almsgiving is an expression of true solidarity with others. This is a solidarity that refuses to turn let inequalities stand, even if kind people might try to soften the razor-sharp edges of our economy’s systemic inequalities with their regular generosity. Jesus is not interested in correcting abuses or disadvantages that tend to pop up in the current world order. His vision is much more radical -- in the sense of elemental -- than that. Jesus wants his followers, in their radical dependence on him (recall Luke 12:22-31), to enact nothing less than “a reversal of the world as it is presently known and legitimized.”4

In other words, Jesus calls for a shift away from a world in which some people survive only because more privileged people chose to act morally from time to time. He has in mind, instead, a different world -- or “kingdom.” With Jesus, that kingdom has arrived. If indeed “the kingdom of God is among [us]” (Luke 17:21), then that reality entails the destruction of old categories and demarcations. Almsgiving isn’t about offerings that help those with less money; it must be about sharing power and advantage. Such transformative solidarity creates “unfailing treasure in heaven” (cf. 18:22).5


Notes:

  1. Justo L. González reminds his readers that keeping a large home illuminated the first century required tending multiple lamps that needed oil replenished and wicks adjusted (Luke [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010], 163-64). It’s active work.
  2. “Gird your loins” or “belt up your waist” is a more literal translation than the NRSV’s “be dressed for action.” The image here is active effort to serve another.
  3. Gary A. Anderson, Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).
  4. Halvor Moxnes, The Economy of the Kingdom: Social Conflict and Economic Relations in Luke’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 168.
  5. These views on almsgiving require us to take account of the social stratification and patronage systems that characterized life and economic relations in Jesus’ time. Those dynamics are very much on display in how Luke portrays Jesus’ teachings on hospitality, status, and wealth. For a deeper dive, see Moxnes, Economy of the Kingdom and Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 113-17.