Chapter 16 - Commentary on Luke's Gospel

Jesus is still contrasting the love that characterizes his Kingdom with Pharisee religion (15:2, 16:14). He wants disciples who are devoted to God (16:15) but in a way that is totally different from the Pharisee devotion to the god of money (mammon, Matthew 6:24). They thought God could be bribed by what we do for him, and we are then rewarded by the prosperity that he gives us. So again Jesus uses a parable with a very unexpected twist (as in 10:33, 11:7, 11-12, 12:37, , 13:8-9, 14:8, 14:21, 23, 15:20). What went wrong in the parable of the elder son was that he claimed he had worked like a slave (15:29), but he was not at all in tune with the love of his father's heart. In the parable of the unjust steward Jesus is certainly not approving dishonesty. He explains that "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If you then have not been faithful with the dishonest (as in 16:9) wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?" (16:10-11). The unjust steward is approved because he made the best use of his resources in the light of his imminent dismissal. Jesus wants us to be equally shrewd in the light of God's eternal purposes (16:9). Having met our basic necessities, there are many ways we can use our money. Some bury it in the ground (19:20, Matthew 25:25). Others spend it rushing around to avoid getting bored. Money can be used to gain economic or political power. Our agenda can be impress others by the luxury of our home and possessions. The Pharisees gave money to trumpet their spirituality (Matthew 6:2). We could view the church as the place where God makes friends (John 15:15, the Quakers were called the Society of Friends). He makes friends of the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the unattractive, the wise and the simple, even of his enemies. So we also make friends (as Jesus did) who will share with us, not only the joys of this life, but will be joint heirs with us of the Messiah's eternal kingdom.

16:1-3 This parable was addressed to the disciples, but the Pharisees were listening to the teaching (16:14). The steward is contrasted with a "faithful and prudent manager" (12:42). He was left in charge of a big farming operation with wheat fields, olive trees with an oil press (16:6-7), and no doubt other crops and the many servants needed to care for them. It soon became evident that he was appropriating the profits for himself, and the owner was losing money. The manager was summoned (perhaps to Jerusalem, where the owner of the property lived), and he knew that he would be dismissed when the books were audited. He did not have the strength to be a laborer, and he could not face becoming a beggar.

16:4-7 Even more serious than the loss of employment was the inevitable loss of his friends. So before finalizing the books for audit he called the debtors, and got each (called in one by one for secrecy) to sign for a greatly reduced amount that they owed. A hundred jugs of olive oil would be the yield of 150 olive trees, and that debt was cut by half. The one who owed a thousand bushels of wheat had the bill reduced by a fifth. The estate owner would not be able to change these written agreements. But, having done his friends this very big favor, the steward could count on their continuing friendship and perhaps some help in obtaining other employment.

16:8 The owner dismisses his dishonest steward, but he notes how very shrewd he has been. We can imagine him telling his friends "He cleaned me out, but look how cleverly he did it." Now comes the twist in this astonishing parable. Jesus wishes we (the children of light as in Ephesians 5:8) would use as much common sense (the adjective means sensible, thoughtful, prudent) in the work of the Kingdom as people are in the business world (here the word oti introduces a direct discourse, and the translation "for" should be omitted, and replaced with quotation marks, as in Matthew 7:23, Mark 1:37, 2:16, 12:19, etc.). An obvious example is the huge amounts that Christians give to emotional appeals for money which may not be a useful investment in what Jesus the Messiah is doing in our world. A general principle is that it is good to give to reliable people that we know personally, and can follow with prayer and concern as carefully as we monitor our investments.

16:9 Jesus used the same word mammon when he said "You cannot serve God and wealth" (16:13, Matthew 6:24). And the point is the contrast between putting our minds to God's concerns (faith, love, freedom, joy) and what the world considers important. The two spheres must be distinguished, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (20:25, Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17). So, instead of "dishonest wealth" (suggesting wealth that has been wrongly acquired) we might translate "the money of this world" or "the currency of economics." And obviously we cannot live without spending money on the basics of food, clothes, and shelter. It is how we use our discretionary resources that is important. This would include, not just our income and investments, but our house, possessions, car, and our skills. We can use these to make friends who will pander to "the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and pride in riches which comes not from the Father but from the world" (1 John 2:16). Many ostentatious uses of our money will have no eternal significance. Dale Carnegie wrote a bestseller titled How to Make Friends and Influence People. Evangelism is not being friendly to win converts for our denomination, but making friends you intend to enjoy loving for ever. Our money and talents can be used to meet people, enjoy people, love people, worship in the Spirit, support those who are serving in distant places. It would be good to buy a house with hospitality in mind. It is people, not things, that have eternal value.

16:10 Jesus compares faithfulness in the work of the Kingdom with business people who become rich by watching every penny and taking every opportunity to make more. It is the end in mind that is different. "Tell me how a person spends his money, and I can guess the priorities in his life." Here the word "dishonest" does not mean dishonesty in keeping accounts, but the opposite of a heart that is aligned with God's purposes. And in making friends for business or in the work of the Kingdom it is the little things that count.

16:11-13 But this does not mean that we can serve the Lord while being careless in our financial responsibilities in the world. "Give to the emperor what is the emperor's" comes before "Give to God the things that are God's" (20:25). Many Christians have made shipwreck by failing to provide for their family, pay their taxes and their debts, misusing their credit cards, not minding their insurance, and failing to make alimony payments. People who are not faithful in their use of money should not be employed in Christian service.

16:14-15 The Pharisees kept ridiculing (a Greek imperfect tense, literally "kept turning up their noses at") Jesus' otherworldly approach to the Kingdom, as they did all the way to cross (23:35, Matthew 27:41, Mark 15:31). The root problem was their concern to impress others with their religious zeal while their hearts were far from God (12:34, Matthew 6:21, 15:7-9, 18-19).

16:16-31 The Law and the Prophets - The words "the law and the prophets" comes three times in this section (16:16, 29, 31). Jesus is explaining how his teaching about the Kingdom relates to the law (the books of Moses called the torah) and the writings of the Old Testament prophets (see Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, 9:30). John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus made clear that the good news of his Kingdom (4:43) was quite different and superceded what had gone before. It was like new wine that could not be contained in the dried up old skins of the old religion (see comments on 3:16, 5:37). John the Baptist was a very great man "yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he" (7:28, Matthew 11:11). The freedoms Jesus brought from heaven were as different as a wedding dance from a funeral dirge (7:32-34, Matthew 11:16-19). Luke gives us examples of the difference in emphasis in 16:18-17:19).

16:16 The good news of the Kingdom was radically different from the interpretation of Jewish laws until the time of John the Baptist. Jesus' sixfold "But I say to you" in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44) makes it clear that many of the Old Testament laws needed radical reinterpretation. And Jesus totally dumped the Jewish kosher food laws (Mark 7:18-19, though Peter only grasped the full interpretation of this a few years later (Acts 10:12-16, 34, 11:6-12). His own sacrifice of himself as the Lamb of God (Luke 22:19-20, John 1:29, Matthew 20:28, 26:28, Mark 10:45, 14:24) soon resulted in the termination of the Old Testament animal sacrifices (Hebrews 8:13, 9:12-14, 23, 26, 10:12. And as Paul made clear, Jesus totally replaced the Old Testament patriarchal model of marriage with a loving mutuality of men and women in marriage (1 Corinthians 7:1-16). This was very appealing to ordinary people. Rather than the unhelpful translation "everyone tries to enter it by force" Jesus is referring to the fact that huge crowds are pressing into the kingdom. "The crowds gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another" (12:1, see notes on 4:42, 5:15, 6:17, 7:11, 22, 8:4, 11:29).

16:17 Jesus introduced his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with "Do not think I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law till all is accomplished: (Matthew 5:17-18). One interpretation of this is that every verse of the Old Testament has some symbolic or prophetic interpretation in the ministry of Jesus. But in view of the above (note on 16:16) we should translate "till all is brought to full expression"or "given its full meaning" (the meaning of plyroo in John 3:29, Galatians 5:14, Philippians 2:2, Revelation 3:2). That suggests that in this verse the meaning is that nothing of the Jewish laws and traditions should be let fall (dropped) as unimportant, but must be seen in the light of the good news of the Kingdom. Applying this to the culture of every nation, Christians should not despise anything of what was valued in the past but its full expression should be seen in the new life of the Spirit in Jesus' Kingdom. A previous generation of missionaries demanded a total rejection of a nation's past as a condition of baptism. A better emphasis is not to reject their values wholesale, but begin where they are and let the Spirit guide them into all truth (John 16:12-13).

16:18 An example of this is Jesus' attitude to divorce. Here "commits adultery" should be translated "causes an adulteration" (as in Jeremiah 3:9, 9:1-2, 13:27, Ezekiel 16:32-33, Matthew 12:39, 16:4, James 4:4). When Jesus said, "Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery" (Matthew 5:32) he cannot mean that divorce causes the innocent partner to commit literal adultery. But every divorce is an adulteration of what the partners hoped would be a beautiful marriage. And when a man divorces his wife her hopes are adulterated, and the children inevitably experience the adulteration of what they had assumed was a permanent family relationship. This is very different from the old Jewish and modern Arab practice of divorce for trivial misdemeanors merely by saying "I divorce you, I divorce you" (in Dubai men can now do this on their cell phone!). It is also very different from the fundamentalist interpretation that a divorced person is tainted for life - there are still denominations and missionary societies that will not accept a divorced person for ordination or overseas service.

16:19-21 Religious people often assume that being rich is a sign of God's blessing, and poverty is a sure sign that the person is lazy or irresponsible. To correct this Jesus describes a wealthy man dressed in purple (a rich dyed woollen garment or the color appropriate for royalty, ) and fine linen (imported from Egypt and worn only by the rich and powerful), who feasted happily (as in 12:19, 15:23, 32). At his gate there is a poor man named Lazarus (Hebrew elezer meaning God is my help), the same name as Lazarus of Bethany, who was obviously from a rich family). His sores indicate he could not afford medical treatment, and he looked longingly at the scraps that fell from the rich man's table. This earthly scene of the difference between the rich and the poor is easy enough to picture in that day, and it is still the situation in many places today. It is the eternal reality in the next verses that is problematical.

16:22 When Jesus was speaking sheol, Hades (the abode of the dead) was still in existence. It was only emptied of its contents at the resurrection when the Lord's first act was to free those who were imprisoned there. (Matthew 27:52-53, John 5:28-29, Ephesians 4:9, 1 Peter 3:18-19). There is no evidence that Abraham was already resurrected, or that people were tormented in Hades. Abraham's bosom and the great chasm (16:26) are therefore metaphorical of the fact that God sees very differently from the way we evaluate people.

16:23-26 We therefore need to choose between explanatory models of the hereafter. Here are three alternatives : Rich people all burn in hell (16:24), and poor people go to heaven. Both rich and poor go to heaven if they repent and have faith, but those without faith suffer eternal damnation. The model adopted in this commentary (and throughout this web site) is based on the verses that follow John 3:16 : "This is the judgment (Greek krisis) that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light . . . but those who do what is true come to the light" (John 3:19-21). It is illustrated in C.S.Lewis' Great Divorce, 1945, which suggests that no one will be in hell who could somehow be happy in the perfect love of heaven. There is therefore an eternal choice between the eternal life of those who love the Messiah's light and the eternal death (John 3:16) of those who choose the final suicide of eternal darkness (as set out in Pinnock and Brow, Unbounded Love chapter 8 on this web site). In this model it is inconceivable that our loving God would delight in the eternal torture of most of humanity. Jesus' parable is therefore designed to give a shocking picture of the awfulness of the Pharisaic love of money (16:14). It is not a blueprint of the eternal state.

16:27-28 The details are obviously metaphorical. Abraham is still awaiting his resurrection (see 16:22) and he is called Father (as in the Pharisees saying "Abraham is our father," John 8:33, 39). Also the rich man burning in hell is pictured as having compassion for others, and being able to ask for Lazarus to be sent from heaven to warn his own brothers who are still free to choose on earth.

16:29-30 Abraham is pictured as saying that these relatives know the Old Testament writings, which should be sufficient for them to believe in God. But the rich man burning in hell is able to argue with Abraham that a person coming from the dead would persuade his brothers to repent.

16:31 Abraham's answer is that even if a resurrected Lazarus were to come and talk to them they would not turn to God. There might be a connection with Lazarus of Bethany who did indeed rise from the dead, as everyone knew, but that did not persuade the religious authorities to change course (John 11:47-53, 12:10-11). The point is that faith can be helped by reading the Scriptures, and come into focus by the resurrection of Lazarus in Bethany, and Jesus' own resurrection (predicted in 9:22), but it cannot be produced by a logical proof alone. Faith is a heart direction to God the Creator of our world (Hebrews 11:1-2) and it begins with thankfulness (Romans 1:21, Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 2:7, 3:15, 17, 1 Thessalonians 5:18, 1 Timothy 4:3,4, see the many reference to thanksgiving in the Psalms).

Chapter 17   .....