[September 27, 2009] At first chapter 16 of Luke is hard to grasp. I always found the first parable about the unrighteous steward particularly difficult and the sayings between the two parables disjointed. The fact of the matter is that the chapter is not so obtuse. It is simply a continuation of chapters 14–15.
In chapter 15 we heard the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. The beauty of the Gospel is that it glorifies the grace of God to sinners. Each parable emphasizes the joy in heaven over a single sinner who repents, a joy that we all should share. Jesus told these parables to answer the Pharisees who complained that He “welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
In chapter 14 He is invited by one of them to a meal, and there the Pharisees test Him to see if He would heal a sick man on the Sabbath. He exposes their hypocrisy, showing that they interpret the Torah to their own advantage. Then He goes on to show that when it comes to the “feast of salvation,” they again are only concerned with their own advantage—getting recognition from others—and because they are only out for themselves, they only invite their friends. In fact, Jesus warns them, the invitation is going out now (Jesus is the Messiah in the midst of Israel) but because they are refusing the invitation (because they are preoccupied with their own things—property, business and family), the invitation is going out to others who welcome it, namely “the poor and crippled and blind and lame” and sinners and even pagan Gentiles. In chapter 15 Jesus describes these lost ones and how they are found, and chides the Pharisees for not rejoicing at this.
Chapter 16 is a continuation of this. It is an accusation of the Pharisees for using religion to their own advantage and not caring about the interests of God. They do not share the interests of God because they are preoccupied with their own gain, primarily with wealth. As a result, their eyes are blind when they interpret the “Law” (the first five books of the Bible, called the Five Books of Moses or the “Torah”) and the Prophets. They read it to see what they can get out of it; and so consciously or not, they twist its meaning to suit them.
Interpreting the Torah to One’s Own Advantage (Luke 16:14-18)
An example of this is how certain Pharisees interpreted the allowance for divorce. Brad H. Young, Professor of Biblical Studies in the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University, says that in verse 18 what Jesus probably meant was that everyone who divorces his wife in order to marry another commits adultery, and a man who marries another man’s wife, whom he divorces so that the marriage can take place, is also committing adultery. If I am married and I see another woman whom I desire, I can divorce my wife and marry this other woman. Or if someone else no longer desires his wife but I would like to have her, he can divorce his wife so I can marry her. In other words, the Pharisees interpreted the Torah’s allowance for divorce in such a way as to trivialize marriage and women. (Of course, not all Pharisees interpreted divorce this way.)
Likewise, people then and now read the Bible as a recipe for material prosperity. In this chapter Jesus speaks particularly to them. They skew the interpretation of the Bible to their own advantage without any real interest in the concerns of God. They deny this, but Jesus answers, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.” So stop fooling yourselves. Your motives are not what you think they are.
The Pharisees sneered at Jesus, imagining that He was doing away with the Law and the Prophets. “The Law and the Prophets were until John; from that time the Kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone forces their way into it.” Yes, the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is new, but that does not mean that it does away with the Law and the Prophets. The New Testament does not abrogate the Old Testament—as both Jewish opposers and Christian friends (including the “Dispensationalists”) have often said. Not at all. “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one serif of the Torah to fail.” “I came,” Jesus says in Matthew 5:17-20, “not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them,” which means to give them their true interpretation. I read the Torah, He says, with clear eyes, because My motives are the same as God’s. It is certain Pharisees who are abrogating the Law and the Prophets by misreading them.
This is not to say that Gentiles are obligated by the same obligations as Jews. When we believe in Jesus as the Christ (the Greek word for the Hebrew “Messiah”), we become heirs of the promise by virtue of being “in Him.” To try to justify ourselves by becoming Jews would deny the grace of God that saves us. But that means that we have to be all the more careful not to allow our interpretation of the Bible to be skewed by unconscious motives. We must not interpret the Bible to our own advantage! Just like the Pharisees, we too can be lovers of money. This is why Jesus warned us in 14:25-33 that we must “count the cost” and “forsake all [our] own possessions,” hating “even [our] own soul.” Jesus Himself, as God’s self-revelation to us, becomes the only key to the Christian’s interpretation of the Bible that frees us from misinterpreting the Bible to suit ourselves.
The Unrighteous Steward’s Drastic Action (16:1-8)
So we want to understand the first parable. A steward is a manager of someone’s household or estate. This manager has proven corrupt. The owner has called him to account and has found him wanting. He fires him. We can consider the owner of the estate to be God and the property of the estate to be the material creation. God created humanity (Adam and Eve) in His image and put them in the Garden of Eden “to work it and to keep it,” in other words, they were to be good stewards of God’s creation. But through the rupture in their relationship with God, humanity is accused by God of radical mismanagement, indeed, with destroying the earth (Revelation 11:18). We’ve been fired. (If we were Jewish, we could apply this in particular to the people of Israel and the Promise Land.)
But the parable focuses on the steward’s response. He takes drastic action. He calls to him each of his employer’s debtors and “tells them each to write a new debt on the ledger books that reduced each debt by an amount of the interest charges levied for goods supplied on credit. Since it was illegal for Jews … to charge interest, at least to their fellow Jews, the bookkeeper could make himself righteous by removing these Torah-forbidden interest charges from the debtor’s accounts. In doing this, the steward pleased his master’s debtors and made his master look like a generous man in the debtor’s eyes, all at the same time” (Allen J. McNicol in Luke’s Use of Matthew, page 220). By having the owner of the estate praise his manager for acting prudently, Jesus commends the steward’s action to His disciples, that is, to us. It is a story with a moral.
The steward had mismanaged the estate, but now by acting in this way he approves himself to his master. In the same way, even though as part of humanity, alienated from God, we are all guilty of the mismanagement of God’s creation, we can make up for it now by acting drastically but with prudence and righteousness.
Being Faithful and Making Friends (16:9-12)
Money itself is unrighteous (Jesus calls it “the mammon of unrighteousness”). It did not exist in Eden and will not exist in the Kingdom. It is a product of the world alienated from God and tends to define the world, and it has an influence that Jesus equates with Satan. Thus, you cannot serve both God and Mammon.
Nevertheless, we cannot live without it. So what are we to do?
We are to “make friends with it” in preparation for the day “when it fails.” We are also to “become faithful in the unrighteous mammon,” “faithful in the least,” that is, in the finest details. Money is “that which belongs to another.” We are to be faithful stewards of God’s creation by being faithful with how we use money. If we are unfaithful or unrighteous with money in little things, how will God “give to you that which is your own?” This is the language not of salvation but of the kingdom, which is supposed to be our inheritance as saved ones. By turning to Jesus in faith, we are liberated from the judgment of God’s nature and from our slavery to the world. But if we disregard our salvation by acting unfaithfully, we can lose our enjoyment of it, our reward in the kingdom. We will not enjoy that which is our own until we are disciplined and refined by fire (1 Corinthians 3:15). If we are “approved” (1 Corinthians 9:27; Philippians 3:12-14), we will be “received into the eternal tabernacles” of the kingdom.
How are we to do this? How do we practice good stewardship with money—which is what Jesus is talking about? Instead of clinging to money as if it were our own or as if we had a right to it, we ought to release it from ourselves, and thus release ourselves from its power, by giving it away to help the poor and needy. By giving to the poor we are giving to God. Only by giving money away do we overcome its enticement. But money also should not be wasted. It should be managed and spent prudently to help others.
While the church needs money to function, it should not spend more money on itself than is necessary, for we are accountable to God for what we do with the money that we have. We should do things for the work of God well, but not reward ourselves with any excess. It is far more important to help those who are needy among us—something we need to begin to do much more seriously by establishing deacons among us. It is also important to help those who do not participate in the life of the church, even those who reject the Gospel, if we can do so “blindly” (Matthew 6:3) and thus avoid being self-righteous about it. “As we have the opportunity, let us do what is good toward all, but especially toward those of the household of the faith” (Galatians 6:10).
Examine yourself: how much of your income do you give to others? What percentage? Many Americans feel entitled to what they have “earned” and do not see why they should help those who are needy. No Christian should think this way for no Christian should be so stupid as to ignore the injustice of the world. The gap between rich and poor has nothing to do with the righteousness of the rich. We who have are privileged and are thus responsible for those who have not.
The Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31)
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes the point that wealth is no indication of God’s approval. In fact, it often indicates unrighteousness. The parable reveals the rich man’s sense of values. The story takes place before the resurrection. Both men have died and are in Hades waiting for the resurrection, but Hades is divided by a great chasm. On one side is “Abraham’s bosom” or Paradise. On the other side is a place of anguish, torment, thirst and flames. The beggar Lazarus is comforted in Abraham’s bosom while the rich man is tormented. The point of the parable is not that the poor are rewarded with Paradise and the rich are punished with torment. It is more like how you cannot tell the righteous apart by their wealth. Indeed, the beggar is righteous and the rich man unrighteous. What makes people righteous, however, is not their wealth or lack of it, but rather their obedience to “Moses and the prophets” (verse 29-31). In this case, the rich man’s wealth blinded him to his unrighteous behavior. Indeed, he was still blind even in Hades. For he still expects Lazarus to serve him even there. “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.” If he cannot do that, “Send him to my father’s house.” The poor exist for the sake of the rich, he thinks, even in Hades! This is a pathetic way of thinking, but it exposes the reality of how people who are better off think of those who are poor. Wealth blinds people so that they become unrighteous and do not even realize it. Jesus is speaking of the Pharisees, but we need to be wary of ourselves! Wealth tends to blind us.
This warning is already in the Torah and the Prophets, only wealth has blinded those who hear the Scriptures. Because of the blinding power of wealth, miracles only further delude people. Apart from the grace of God operating through the power of the Holy Spirit, even the resurrection of Jesus does not persuade people who are seduced by the enticement of money.
Let us not fool ourselves about money. It blinds us unless we can learn to be drastic in how we handle it, like the steward in the first parable.