Sentence: You cannot serve God and wealth (Luke 16:13).
fount of all wisdom, crown of all knowledge;
give us eyes to see
and minds to understand your marvellous works,
that we may know you through your handiwork
and use your creations to your glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
1 Tim 2:1-7
Amos is a prophecy claiming for justice and declaiming against injustice. In these verses we have an expression of the protest against injustice in the land of Israel. The manipulators of the economy, who overcharge for small measures are seen by God and God will not forget (v. 7). Israel will get its comeuppance.
Typically this psalm begins with praise, offering words which lift the hearts and minds of God's people to bless and praise the name of the Lord. But in verses 5-6 the psalm takes a specific turn as it asks 'Who is like our God?' The God of Israel has a preference for the poor and downtrodden, which includes women unable to bear children (vss. 7-9). Thus the psalm fits neatly with the Old Testament reading. Together these readings form a background to the gospel reading, which is about money, potential injustice and shrewd business dealings, though, as we will see, the gospel reading does not specifically tackle the question of injustice.
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Paul urges that all kinds of prayers and thanksgivings are made for everyone but mentions a special group, 'kings and all who are in high positions.' Why? Well, kings etc are not important in themselves but for what they influence, the course of human events. We pray for our leaders so that we may benefit! 'so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.'
Paul the practical giver of liturgical instruction cannot suppress his 'inner theologian' so verse three pivots from (my paraphrase) 'praying like this is good in God the Saviour's sight' to a brief but profound statement which covers (to get technical) soteriology (God's work in saving people) and christology (who Jesus Christ is).
Verse 4 makes the claim that God 'desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth'. Potentially there is a lot to unpack here. God is (for example) universalist in desiring every human being to be saved. (That is not the same claim as God is universalist = God saves everyone). Consequentially, the mission of the church must be open to reaching all.
Verse 5 makes the claim that there is only one God and only one mediator between God and humankind, 'Christ Jesus, himself human.' There is only one mediator because only Jesus has given 'himself a ransom for all' (v. 6). On the one hand this verse underscores the significance of Jesus Christ: the only mediator, the only one to give effect to God the Saviour's plan for salvation open to all, the only one to have paid the ransom price that humankind might be set free to live true godly lives. On the other hand this verses challenges all proposals that there are other mediatorial figures in the purposes of God. Whether such proposals stem from consideration of the claims of other faiths (i.e. religions) or from internal Christian claims (e.g. re human or angelic figures), they are rebutted succinctly here: 'there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human'.
Verse 7 is about missiology (statement about mission) made in autobiographical terms. The stupendous, wonderful and unique claim about Jesus the saving mediator needs announcing to the world: Paul is a 'herald and apostle ... a teacher of the Gentiles' (verse 7).
This passage includes a strong candidate for 'most difficult to understand' parable (verses 1-8a). The commentary on the parable (vss. 8b-9) is only a little bit less difficult! Nevertheless some themes are fairly straightforward to grasp if we stand back from the passage and look for those themes above and beyond the details.
Theme 1: the urgency and importance of being in the kingdom of God rather than outside it. This is the simplest way to understand the parable and its interpretation (vss. 1-9) and it accords with other messages in Luke's gospel about the crisis of deciding for or against God's kingdom.
Theme 2: the connection between daily life and its realities and kingdom life and its responsibilities. Vss. 10-12 teach the importance of handling the things of everyday life well because they provide a clue about how we will handle much more important things in the kingdom of God.
Theme 3: nevertheless the possibility that handling money on a daily basis is preparation for handling responsibilities in the kingdom of God is not permission to worship money/wealth/mammon: one can only serve one master (vs. 13).
If we stop at this point and begin our sermon writing, life is (to be honest) a little easier. But if we press back into the parable and its interpretation, then life is trickier!
1. Simply as a story of human life, the parable makes good sense. The steward is in a spot of bother (in a context without a 'welfare state'). He thinks fast and acts faster in order to save his skin. We get that!
2. Our trouble as readers of the parable is that we long to make sense of the parable as a 'kingdom' parable. How does the steward's shrewd (and immoral) dealings translate into our securing entry to the kingdom of God?
3. The interpretations offered in vss. 8b-9 suggest that from the earliest times this was a difficult parable (but, paradoxically, not deleting the parable from the gospel record implies its genuineness).
4.1 In 8b, it is possible that we are being offered an interpretation in which the point of the parable is that 'children of light' are ordinary Jews who miss the present opportunity to enter the kingdom of God, not realising that entry to it is secured differently to normal expectations (e.g. keeping the law).
4.2 Alternatively, 'the children of this age' points to the people the 'children of the light' (i.e. Christians) do not expect to be in the kingdom. But, in fact, and as other stories in Luke make clear, the unexpected are precisely those who do enter the kingdom.
5. Verse 9 reads like an attempt to explain the parable in its own terms ('dishonest wealth' ... 'welcome you into ... homes') with respect to the kingdom ('eternal homes'). In this case the explanation involves the absurd: 'dishonest wealth' actually has nothing to do with entry to the kingdom which cannot be bought - 'you cannot serve God and wealth'. But it involves the absurd in order to make a hidden point: Jesus urges his hearers to make friends with God by any means that one can make friends with God in order to enter the kingdom. In the absurdity lies a challenge to think differently about what the kingdom is about, how we enter it, and what is different about the kingdom and the normal way of Jewish life.
Here is a much longer attempt to engage with the passage, prepared by me earlier this year for a course on preaching on Luke in 2013:
The parable of the Unjust Steward (16:1-8, 9-13) 22 September 2013
An exercise in listening to the text, or, if you prefer, closely reading the text.
In this passage we have a parable (16:1-8a, or 1-8) and a remainder which is a follow up to the parable. The least controversial observation we can make about this passage and the whole of Luke 16 is that it is mostly about the use of money.
Many have observed that Luke appears to like linkages or connections between stories, sayings, and similitudes (i.e. parables). That is, we find in Luke a number of sequences of material connected by either subject matter or catchword. But we need to be cautious: Luke does not always follow through consistently on this sequencing approach!
This observation helps to make sense of the larger framework in which Luke 16:1-8 is present.
In Luke 15 three parables, linked by the common subject matter of ‘lost then found’, also include references to money in two of the three parables. This leads into further talk about money (which previously has been talked about in the sequence of story, similitude and sayings in Luke 12:13-34) so that Luke 16 ends with the long story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. For the rich man, his wealth has been a burden which has led to Hades or hell rather than to heaven. It’s no surprise then that Luke 17 begins with a saying about things which cause people to sin, which act like millstones around people’s necks.
(In passing, note that 16:16-18 sticks out like a sore thumb. It is very difficult to find a connection between these verses and the theme of money which is followed before and after their occurrence. Is the connection that broken marriages nearly always affect the wealth of each partner to the marriage?).
Once we start to think about connections and catchwords, aspects of the placement of Luke’s material open up to us. Luke 16:1-8, for example, is about a shrewd steward who uses money to escape from a difficult situation.
Negatively we can see that this story would not sit well back in Luke 12:13-34 where the themes include the dangers of accumulation and the blessedness of trusting God for supply.
Positively we can recognise that shrewdness connects the Prodigal Son with the Unjust Steward: in a difficult situation the Prodigal Son shrewdly estimates that even his father’s servants are better off than he is.
Another preliminary observation could be made. It goes like this. When we find parables in Luke not in Mark or Matthew, and we presume that Luke’s gospel is later than Mark (at least) and possibly later than Matthew (as well), we may be tempted to wonder if Luke himself has composed these unique-to-Luke parables. Well, we cannot rule that out (so some scholars will keep offering speculative proposals that this was the case), but we could ponder this: is Luke 16:1-8, despite its difficulty, included precisely because Luke received it as a genuine parable of Jesus? If so, was Luke on other occasions a careful preserver of genuine parables rather than a brilliant inventor of parables?[i]
The parable itself
He also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. (1)
Note that Luke does not use the word ‘parable’.
Is Jesus’ telling a familiar story from the surrounding culture but using it for kingdom purposes, or does he create this story?
“And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ (2)
‘And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. (3)
I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ (4)
So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ (5)
He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ (6)
Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat. He said to him, ‘Take your bill and write eighty.’ (7)
The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. (8)
Where does the story end? After the first sentence of this verse, or at the end of the verse?
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (9)
Here is the application of the story – the sting in the tail which troubles commentators: how can the use of ‘unrighteous wealth’ lead to salvation?
One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. (10)
Matthew 25:21, 23. Here and below Luke appears to continue Jesus’ speech with familiar teaching on faithfulness and on wealth.
If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? (11)
And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? (12)
No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money’ (13)
The story in itself, verses 1-8a or 8b, is unproblematic: it’s a story of how someone in trouble faced his troubles, albeit in a clever-but-dodgy way. The problem for us is determining its meaning in relation to life in the kingdom of God since the general stance of life ruled by God is that it is honest, truthful and fair!
The sentence in 8b, ‘For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light’, could mean that Gentiles are better at facing up to the claims of the kingdom than Jews presuming upon their own righteousness. But ‘sons of light’ could be referring to Jesus’ disciples, so the interpretation remains difficult!.
Verse 9 as the ‘official commentary’ on the story causes head-scratching!
‘And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.’
What does this mean in respect of salvation? What is ‘unrighteous wealth’ in terms of salvation? What is making ‘friends for yourself by means of unrighteous wealth’ as a means of securing salvation?
Can we make sense of this?
It could be difficult. Looking up a commentary or two does not necessarily help. As always with Scriptural puzzles, back to the text: we find there, considering all of 16:1-13, words which speak to us about three things:
(1) Facing a crisis (so the parable, like some others, can be called ‘a parable of crisis’)
(2) Handling wealth
(3) The idolatrous power of money (or ‘Mammon’)
In the parable the man faces a crisis: he is about to be dismissed into a bleak future. What to do? Shrewdly he does something which provides him with a satisfying future. As readers we are intrigued because that future, in v. 9, is described in terms of ‘eternal dwellings’. Sounds salvific!
But therein lies a problem for most Christian commentators: salvation is generally speaking a gift from God, but in this story not only has the manager secured it for himself, but he has used a morally ambiguous means to do so. (To make matters worse, so to speak, for the commentator or preacher, the master commends the manager’s shrewdness – so it looks like God/Jesus is commending shonky business dealings).
On the one hand, we should not lose sight of the parable as a parable of salvation, just as the proceeding parables in Luke 15 have been, and as the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man at the end of Luke 16 will be. On the other hand we should take care not to seek to convert the story into a method of salvation.
The key salvific message is this: humanity faces the dismissal of God into a bleak future unless receiving salvation. Urgent action is required. The action actually taken in the parable is of no importance if we are trying to match it to how we can be saved (i.e. by repentance and faith in Christ).
But what the man does is very interesting in respect of a related issue to ‘salvation’ namely ‘the kingdom of God’, and it is this which drives forward the mixture of advice re handling money which follows in 16:9-13. As 16:13 highlights, everyone is ruled by something or someone, characterized here in terms of being ruled by ‘God or Money’. Thus, what the manager does is to utilize money (albeit immorally) in the cause of something other than Money and thus he begins to remove himself from the rule of Money over him. This is something we all need to do (i.e. break the power of Money over our lives) if we are to have a kingdom of God future when the kingdom of Money fails (16:9).
When we are not managers with clients whose accounts we can rearrange on terms which make them our friends, what does it mean to ‘make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth’?
We find in verses 10-12 the occasion is developed into some advice which is about living in the kingdom of God, rather than about salvation: verse 10 being a commonplace observation onto which verses 11 and 12 are built.
Mammon/Money may be ‘unrighteous wealth’ but it has its divine purposes, including providing opportunity to demonstrate care and responsibility in the discharge of duties, an opportunity which mirrors the care and responsibility in the discharge of kingdom duties which God requires.
A final question: in 16:1-8 does the master represent God? See below for an answer!
The point, recall, of this exercise is not merely to offer some insight into a difficult parable. It is that preachers might mimic the ‘close reading’ of the text which is exemplified here in the preparation of their sermons on the parables of Luke’s Gospel.Incidentally, if preaching on Luke 16:1-13, note that the above approach yields a multitude of applications. Please select one or two for a punchy sermon rather than drown your hearers in a plethora of lessons!
[i] It goes without saying that many kinds of explanations of the source of the parables is possible, so additionally we could reckon with (e.g.) Luke as an improver of parables original to Jesus; Luke as preserver of some parables and inventor of others; Luke as preserver of parables from mixed backgrounds (e.g., as Jesus told them; or, invented by a master story teller after Jesus’ ascension; or, originals of Jesus which were improved in the process of oral handing down from one to another).