Luke Week 8
By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 16–18:30
Mark Twain once quipped, “It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand.”
As we listen to Jesus tell these remarkable “stories with intent” called parables, there are things we may not fully understand. But we should not allow this to trouble us unduly; there is plenty for us in Jesus’ parables that we can readily understand. Jesus really got under the skin of those who first heard these pointed stories. He slipped under their defenses, and called for response and change. He also does so with us today.
This week’s Lectio covers a lot of territory, including stories about Jesus and stories Jesus tells. The seemingly disparate material appears to be only loosely held together, and does not respond to well-meaning efforts to outline it neatly. This can lead linear people like me to be frustrated.
Luke is difficult to outline, and some sections are more difficult than others. I suggest, however, that in today’s Lectio there are two broad themes that unfold:
Luke 16: Money and Our Responses to It
Two parables about money anchor this section. Both of them are introduced by, “There was a rich man who …” (16:1, 19).
The first parable, often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Manager,” is one of those that may make us scratch our heads and say, “I wonder what in the world Jesus means by this?” A woman once came to a preacher after hearing a sermon on this parable. Obviously troubled by the sermon, she asked whether Jesus’ parable meant that any and all shady financial practices are all right if they succeed in getting us out of trouble. A Roman emperor, sometimes called Julian the Apostate, used this parable to claim that Jesus’ followers were liars and thieves, and that noble Romans should reject all such corruptions.
Though we don’t have space to summarize all the interpretation options in this parable, here are a few highlights to observe:
- The parable clearly focuses on money, represented by debts of oil and wheat, and on how that money is used. A “manager” responsible for caring for a rich man’s resources is accused of misusing the master’s money.
- Rather than being an end in itself, or something we should abstain from using as much as is possible, in this parable money is used for something important. When called to account for his mismanagement, the servant used money for the good purpose of lowering the indebtedness of many who could ill afford to pay. [Author’s Note 1]
- This manager, however, is not congratulated for what he does when accused of mismanagement. Helmut Thielicke observes, “Jesus never depicts anybody with a halo.” [Author’s Note 2] Certainly not in this situation. The manager who acts “shrewdly,” or “cleverly” (CEB), is commended not for dishonesty but for using money to produce a benefit for himself and his master’s debtors. ”By so doing, he performs a work of mercy and makes friends.” [Author’s Note 3]
- If this is so with a dishonest manager, how much more should it be so with disciples of Jesus! Rather than abstaining as much as possible from spending money, we are to use financial resources wisely and well.
In between the two parables about money, Jesus teaches his disciples to use money in faithfulness to God. If we fail to regard money as a trust from God rather than as a personal possession, we will become torn between two masters. Declares Jesus, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (16:13).
This doesn’t sit well with Pharisees, who, as Luke describes them, are “lovers of money.” They ridicule Jesus’ words (16:14). These religious leaders are setting aside calls from the prophets of old to care for the poor and needy. Another “setting aside” of God’s concerns involves the relative ease of divorce, which was accepted in Jesus’ day by all but the strictest of Jewish religious leaders (16:18).
The second parable about money (16:19–31) is also introduced with the phrase, “There was a rich man who .…” Some see in it a description of the afterlife for both the wicked and the righteous. But the parable’s context indicates that its intended focus is again money. Parables are not the same as allegories, in which every detail may mean something. Instead, a parable usually has one primary focus.
This parable is the kind of “pearly gates” story well known in the ancient Near East. These stories frequently contrasted adversity in this life with reward in the next. Jesus’ parable, however, is not limited to an interpretation that simply says, “This life may be a bear, but take heart! All will be righted in the next life.”
The poor man in the story is named Lazarus. The rich man is never named. Today we see “Lazaruses” panhandling on street corners or sleeping in homeless shelters at night. We see Lazaruses at a greater distance from us in the billions of poor in our world. But do we see the rich man in us? Even modest, middle-class Americans, who in our troubled economy are not feeling very well off, are nevertheless the affluent of our world.
The rich man in Jesus’ story does nothing for the Lazarus at his gate, who tries to survive on scraps from the rich man’s table. Are not Pharisees, these “lovers of money” (16:14), behaving the same way toward people like Lazarus, whom Jesus graciously invites to the heavenly banquet (14:10, 13)? Could the rich man in Jesus’ parable also be like the older brother of an earlier parable of grace (15:11–32), who wanted to keep unsavory folks out of sight and certainly not celebrated?
When Lazarus dies, like the prodigal son who was graciously received home by his father, the poor man is “carried away by the angels to be with Abraham” (16:22). When the rich man dies, however, he ends up in Hades. This is equivalent to “Gehenna,” or a place where the wicked dead are tormented. [Author’s Note 4] The rich man’s attempts to negotiate for himself and his family are futile. God has offered grace and communicated through “Moses and the prophets” (16:31). But when there is no human response to God’s grace, eternal consequences follow.
In this parable, misuse of money betrays unfaithfulness to God’s concerns and to Jesus’ kingdom mission. Such misuse of resources has eternal consequences. Money, while neither good nor evil in itself, is hazardous. The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy, his ministry protégé, about the danger of seeking to be rich.
Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:9–10, emphasis mine).
Our use of money may express good judgment and faithfulness to God — or exactly the opposite.
Luke 17–18:30: Faithfulness and Forgiveness
The second broad theme that unfolds in this section of Luke is faithfulness and forgiveness. This section begins with short, direct teachings, leading into two parables. The parables are followed by more teaching, as Jesus and his disciples continue on the road to Jerusalem. Here are brief summaries of seemingly disparate warning-filled teachings of Jesus:
- Beware of causing others to stumble in their faith (17:1–2). Especially beware of causing “little ones” to stumble. “Little ones” may be children, or they may be social outcasts, who are being welcomed by Jesus. The consequences of tripping up another are truly severe (17:2)!
- Be willing to forgive without keeping score (17:3–4). To repeat an offense seven times in one day may lead us to call into question the genuineness of an offender’s repentance. However, this is not the believer’s concern. Forgiveness must, in fact, become habitual. This call to forgive must have seemed so radical that the disciples call out, “Increase our faith!” (17:5–6)
- Be dutiful in fulfilling responsibilities (17:7–10). In our day, when duty as a motivation tends to be downplayed, we would do well to listen again to Jesus. “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” (17:10).
- Let faithfulness include gratitude for healing blessings received (17:11–19). Have we thought of “remembering to be thankful” in the context of faithfulness? The expression of gratitude is not just a pleasant and good-mannered option, but a duty of faithfulness. Here’s a sidelight again pointed to by Luke, the Gentile. The one who did return to give thanks was a foreigner, a Samaritan. And to this Samaritan, Jesus affirms, “Your faith has made you well.” Could faith also be expressed in remembering to give thanks?
- Be ready for the kingdom’s revelation, both “among you,” or in your grasp, and “on the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (17:20–37). These verses’ apocalyptic vision was fulfilled in A.D. 70, when Jerusalem was defeated and destroyed by Roman armies. Jesus’ call is to be faithful in the midst of such tribulation.
- Don’t disregard children, for their helplessness points to the way we should be before God. “It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. [W]hoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (18:15–17).
- Be willing to give up anything that stands in the way of following Jesus (18:18–30). Have we not been amazed at Jesus’ radical words to this rich young ruler? In classic hyperbole, Jesus comments on this man’s attachment to money. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (18:25). That statement certainly set the disciples scratching their heads. “Then who can be saved?” they ask. Jesus responds, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God” (18:26–27).
Having looked only too briefly at the varied warning-filled sayings of Jesus, we move now to the two parables in the early part of Luke 18.
Broadly speaking, both parables are about vindication in the eyes of God. One is about vindication in response to persevering prayer. The other speaks of vindication in response to casting oneself humbly on God’s mercy. N.T. Wright comments, “These two parables together make a powerful statement about what, in Paul’s language, is called ‘justification by faith.’” [Author’s Note 5]
The first of these two parables is another puzzler. A persistent widow “wears out” an unsympathetic judge with her “continually coming” to seek justice for herself (18:5). It’s only to get rid of her that the heartless judge grants her request. But is prayer really our attempt to wear down a God who doesn’t want to be bothered with us?
No, instead this is one of the “how much more” sayings of Jesus. If even an unjust judge will give the persistent widow justice, how much more will a just and compassionate God do so in response to persistent prayer! “Jesus told them this parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18:1). Be faithful and be persevering in prayer.
In the second of this pair of parables, a tax collector, low in the religious and social pecking order, and a highly regarded Pharisee are both in the temple to pray. The outcome of this story is expressed not in liturgical language having to do with temple worship, but in legal-sounding terms of justification for one rather than the other:
I tell you, this man [the tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted (18:14).
When we stand before God, we do not beat our chests and celebrate our worthiness, as does the Pharisee. Rather, we acknowledge our absolute dependence upon God’s mercy, as does the tax collector. Vindication, or being set right before God, comes through persevering, faithful praying, and humbly casting ourselves on God’s mercy.
A Look Ahead
The journey to Jerusalem is coming to its climax. In the opening verses of the next Lectio, we read Jesus’ words to the 12:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished (18:31).
This “training journey” for the 12 disciples is coming to an end. Now, what they have learned will be tested. Sadly, Luke reports, “They understood nothing about all these things” (18:34).
Our journey with Jesus continues. Are we watching and listening and understanding?
Questions for Further Reflection
- Ponder how you use money. Do you use it wisely and for the benefit of others? Do you use it to care for the needs of the Lazaruses at your door?
- How do you respond to Jesus’ urging his followers to declare, “We have done only what we ought to have done” (17:10)? What should be the place of fulfilling our duty or responsibility in the life of following Jesus?
- How willing are we to forgive and not make the offender pay when that person repeatedly offends us? Does Jesus’ teaching seem radical to us? How can we come to the place where forgiving one another is habitual?
- Do you see yourself in the nine lepers who failed to return to give thanks for their healing, or in the one who did? Why is gratitude such a key part of faithfully following Jesus?
- What should persevering prayer look like in our lives? Why should such perseverance in prayer be necessary? How can we take heart from the puzzling parable of the unjust judge?
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