It is readily apparent to any biblical interpreter worth his or her salt that the social context of a biblical text is an important factor in its interpretation. For a text like Luke-Acts, it is just as important to consider the economic factors as it is to consider the social factors, and in fact they are inextricably linked. It is exceedingly necessary then, if we as present day Westerners are to understand the text, to think in economic terms that are foreign to our experience and essential to those of the writer and audience. Our experience in the West is of a tightly controlled money-based economy that operates off of more or less modified free market principles. Furthermore, our Western economies have created a burgeoning middle class that would be inherently foreign to the writer of Luke and his audience. If we are to get anywhere with the text, we must properly envision a world more sharply divided along the lines of haves and have-nots. The gap between the rich and poor is more properly called an ocean, a nearly insurmountable expanse of social and economic factors that kept the poor at the bottom of the ladder and the rich comfortable. It is almost difficult as a Westerner and moreover as an American to fully envision this world where most people were not just poor, but at or below the amount of income needed to survive. Luke writes to a peasant audience that has clawed its way towards subsistence and often comes up short. These socio-economic factors thus form the backdrop of Luke’s Gospel, which would in my opinion rightly be called a gospel to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized.
I intend to talk more about specific factors and principles related to this , but let us briefly look at an example where such a line of thought can illumine a text. Consider the Widow at Nain in Luke 7:11-17.
11 Soon afterward Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.
12 As he approached the town gate, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother (who was a widow), and a large crowd from the town was with her.
13 When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.”
14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and those who carried it stood still. He said, “Young man, I say to you, get up!”
15 So the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.
16 Fear seized them all, and they began to glorify God, saying, “A great prophet has appeared among us!” and “God has come to help his people!”
17 This report about Jesus circulated throughout Judea and all the surrounding country.
(Luk 7:11-17 NET)
A cursory examination of the text might lead one to conclude that what is presented here is a presentation of Jesus’ power over life and a death. Jesus’ action has been interpreted by some as merely a precursor to his own self-resurrection albeit borne out of pity. Yet, if we look closely, and consider the context of the widow, we quickly see that the focus of the story is not her son, but it is indeed the widow herself who is at the center of its meaning. It would be quite easy to conclude that the miracle of resurrection is key to the interpretation of this text, but I argue that it is not. Consider the information we have about the widow: she is a widow, she had only one son, that son is dead. The implications of her situation when considered through the lens of the socio-economic factors of her day were quite dire. On an economic level, she is left without any means of support having no living family and being a woman of some age. On the social level, she has become an outcast, being viewed by her neighbors as cursed by God as a childless widow. With the death of her son, she has become nothing. She has no prospect of a future, and she has become unworthy of the time of those around her. If we consider the level of her degradation, it is no wonder the Lord was moved with compassion to her cause. If we look closely, other than the Lord’s command to the corpse to return to life, the widow herself is the focus of his attention. The supernatural act of her son’s resurrection is not the primary focus of the pericope, rather it is only secondary as the means of Jesus’ true action: overturning the wretched condition of this woman. What is certainly an amazing demonstration of Christ’s power over death is even more a powerful demonstration of Jesus’ care for the poor. With the restoration of breath to her son’s lungs, so also did salvation from that pitiable future come for the widow.
In following posts, we will look at specific examples of important economic factors like reciprocity, patronage, and bartering.