Salvation comes to a rich house

Unpacking first-century management practices for the 21st century

January 18, 2012 | Feature | Number 2
By Bruno Dyck | Special to Canadian Mennonite
“The Conversion of Zacchaeus” by Bernardo Strozzi, 1581 – 1644.

Money, business, salvation and the kingdom of God. You won’t often find these words sharing the same sentence, but they do belong together in the Gospel of Luke. It turns out Luke has a lot to say about how we manage organizations that produce goods and services, and about how this is very closely related to salvation and God’s kingdom.



Luke’s passage about Zacchaeus provides an excellent example of this, although it may not be obvious at first for many modern readers. In this passage Jesus visits the house of a rich chief tax collector named Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus says that he will give half his money to the poor, and repay fourfold anyone whom he has defrauded, Jesus responds by saying: “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).



To unlock how passages like this one are exploding with meaning for management, it is helpful to examine three key words—“house,” “rich” and “salvation”—in the larger context of Luke and first-century Palestine.





House



Consider the word “house.” The Greek word for “house” is oikos; the Greek word for management, oikonomia, is the source of the English word “economics.”



It is a travesty that the word oikos is translated as “house.” The modern word “house” has a very different meaning than the first-century word oikos. Today we take “house” to be the place where we live with our families, and from which we go to our jobs in organizations that produce goods and services.



In contrast, in the first century, an oikos referred to the goods-and-services-producing organization of the day. An oikos was where you lived and where you worked. A husband and wife and their children formed an important part of an oikos, but it also encompassed other people who were not relatives, such as slaves. For example, the Roman Empire was sometimes called the oikos of the emperor. In the first century there was no equivalent word to what we call “family” to refer to a biological-kinship unit.



The Gospel of Luke mentions the word oikos more than 50 times! And it refers to 50 additional goods-and-services-producing organizations without using the word oikos.



Consider what happens if, rather than translating oikos as “house,” it was translated as “goods-and-services-producing organization,” or perhaps as “company.” Greater awareness of its meaning helps readers to see that an oikos is key to understanding how the kingdom of God is put into practice. An oikos is the location for 10 of the 12 passages in Luke that describe how the kingdom of God is enacted by followers or outcomes associated with the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is evident when you have a banquet and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; when people come from the east and west and north and south; when people are willing to leave the oikos of their parents and siblings to join a new kind of oikos.



An important part of the message in Luke is that conventional first-century oikos structures and systems were not working well. In fact, Luke consistently challenges classic ideas about oikos management regarding the nature of husband-wife, parent-child and master-slave relationships. In particular, in first-century Palestine there was growing disparity between rich and poor, and about 10 percent of the population did not belong to an oikos. This included many of society’s sick people, who were cast out due to their leprosy or other conditions. Without the security that comes from being a member of an oikos, the average lifespan of these social outcasts was between five and seven years. One of the consistent and dominant themes in Luke is that new forms of oikos should be developed that are inclusive of the 10 percent of the population who are outcasts, who do not belong to a conventional oikos.



This message is certainly as pertinent today as it was two millennia ago, since there is now also growing disparity between rich and poor within organizations and countries, and between countries.





Rich



Zacchaeus is about as close as we get to a rich businessman in Luke. He was sort of like a district manager of tax collectors in the area around Jericho. And because of this, he was despised by just about everyone. The crowds did not want Jesus even to visit the oikos of Zacchaeus because Jesus would be guilty by association.



There are 18 passages in Luke that talk about money, wealth or possessions. Nine of these passages do not use the word “rich.” In these nine passages, the use of money is seen as normal and a non-issue: the Good Samaritan pays the innkeeper, women provide resources for Jesus, and soldiers are to be satisfied with their pay.



The other nine passages about money that do use the word “rich” are very different in tone: The rich will be sent away empty, woe to the rich, the rich should sell all their possessions. When read as a whole, the message in these passages is pretty clear: The kingdom of God is about reducing the disparity between rich and poor.



And the passage about Zacchaeus is one of the two passages in Luke that both uses the word “rich” and describes how the gap between rich and poor is actually being reduced. This is a special passage. Rather than condemn the rich, the passage ends with salvation coming to Zacchaeus’s oikos because of the way he manages it.



Zacchaeus essentially turns conventional management thinking on its head. Instead of using money to make more money, or instead of following the increasing first-century tendency towards conspicuous consumption, Zacchaeus institutes organizational structures and systems that decrease the gap between rich and poor, and that promote social justice.





Salvation



Which brings us to the third keyword in the Zacchaeus passage: “salvation.” Two insights are particularly helpful to understand what Luke says about salvation:

  • First, in the first century salvation usually meant either being saved from something, or being saved for something. The former meaning was associated with the Jews, who were waiting for a saviour to save them from their oppressive Roman overlords. The latter meaning was associated with the Greco-Romans, and referred to the advent of a new blessing. So, for example, the Roman emperor was called a saviour because he provided Pax Romana for the people.

     
  • The second insight that is helpful for understanding what Luke meant by salvation is that Luke uses the verb form of salvation differently than the noun form. Luke uses the noun form eight times, which includes references to “salvation” or a “saviour.” And Luke uses the verb form 17 times, which refers to people “being saved.”

This is where it gets interesting, and a bit complicated. Seven of Luke’s eight references to the noun form of “salvation” occur prior to Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21); in each case it refers to a group of people—house of David, Gentiles, all people—receiving both dimensions of salvation (saved from/saved for).



All 17 subsequent references use the verb form of “salvation,” and each refers to individuals being saved. In passages where specific people being saved are identified, they are usually being saved from something, from being social outcasts, for example, when they are healed. In passages where people being saved are not specified, they are being saved for something new, which usually involves establishing a new, more inclusive oikos.



There is only one time in all of Luke where Jesus uses the noun form of salvation, which is this Zacchaeus passage. And this passage is also the only time Jesus refers to salvation coming to an oikos, rather than to a person.



Why did Jesus not use the same phrase he used on four other occasions: “Your faith has saved [verb] you [person]”? Why use a strikingly different phrase in the Zacchaeus passage: “Today salvation [noun] has come to this oikos [goods-and-services-producing organization]”?



Is this merely a case of adding some variety in word choice to keep things interesting? Or does it underscore the fact that salvation is something that happens in community? And, more to the point, does it suggest that salvation is something that happens in the goods-and-services-producing organizations of the day? Perhaps salvation is something that happens when managers enact organizational structures and systems that decrease the gap between rich and poor, and that foster social justice.



Reading the Bible through a first-century lens helps to see it in a new way. In regard to what Luke says about management, there are three implications for the church that may be especially important:

  • Don’t overlook the role of organizations that produce goods and services. Such organizations are an important part of everyone’s lives today, just as they were in biblical times. To ignore them is to do a great disservice to understanding the Bible, and to do a great disservice to people who seek to integrate their faith in their everyday lives.

     
  • Don’t overlook management, which plays an important role in all organizations that produce goods and services, whether they are businesses or church-based organizations. Failing to deliberately think about what a biblical approach to management looks like makes people vulnerable to follow mainstream management practices, perhaps thinking they are value-neutral. Because there has been very little research on what the Bible teaches about management, we are left with books with titles like Jesus CEO and Jesus on Leadership, which have been criticized for doing little more than citing Bible verses to “bless” mainstream business practices.

     
  • Don’t ignore people who manage goods-and-services-producing organizations. Don’t ignore the Zacchaeuses in your church. Don’t treat them as outsiders, as people who do not have much of a role in the church or in the kingdom of God. Don’t dismiss them as a necessary nuisance. They have an important role to play in the kingdom of God. Indeed, if the Gospel of Luke is any indication, they play a much more central role than any religious leaders. It is Zacchaeus, not a Jewish leader or someone in Jesus’ inner circle, whose managerial actions prompt Jesus to say: “Salvation has come to this oikos.” It is a Roman centurion of whom Jesus says: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9). And it is the Good Samaritan, who was probably a trading merchant, whose actions prompt Jesus to say: “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

Call for volunteers

May we all become more like Zacchaeus, and do our part to help salvation come to the organizations of our day. Go and do likewise in deed.



Bruno Dyck is a business professor at the University of Manitoba; his research contrasts and compares mainstream management, which focuses on maximizing the financial well-being of owners, with multi-stream management, which is based on balancing financial, social, ecological, spiritual and physical well-being for owners, employees, customers, suppliers, competitors, neighbours and future generations. This article is based on meditations given at a Mennonite Economic Development Associates event, Eastern Mennonite College and Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., in October 2011, and draws from a book Dyck is completing, tentatively entitled Luke on Management: A First-Century Analysis for 21st-Century Readers.

“The Conversion of Zacchaeus” by Bernardo Strozzi, 1581 – 1644.

Bruno Dyck

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