Friday, June 1, 2012

Interpreting Luke 16

The oldest manuscript of Luke 16
(Click here to read Luke 16)

I'll cut to the chase. I think Luke 16 is hard to understand. Even when it seems straightforward, it is hard to take at face value when seen in the light of other similar passages.

So, after reading it several times, over a few days, consulting several commentaries (most of which also mostly just say "I don't know"), and considering many years of teaching and reference to these difficult passages, I wrote this:

(See my last entry, or click here to read what I wrote.)

Unfortunately, that still isn't me fulfilling my challenge to write about every chapter of the New Testament this year, so I still have Luke 16 in front of me, and I still need to write about it.

So I'm going to write about it. But my intention is to focus on what is the easiest and clearest to understand, and to try to allow the passage to interpret itself as much as possible.

Also, since I find the chapter difficult, I'll write as little as possible.

Luke 16:1-13 - The Parable of the Dishonest Manager


"You cannot serve both God and money." Luke 16:13

Let's begin with the clear interpretation. Jesus tells us what he's trying to illustrate in this story in verses 10 to 13. He says if we are faithful or dishonest in little, we will be the same with much. Therefore if we are not faithful with "unrighteous wealth", we will not be given true riches. Verse 13 is the most clear. Jesus says we cannot serve both God and money.

The problem is that this seems dissonant with the story that precedes it. Verse 1 introduces the protagonist as having "wasted" his masters money, the same description used of the prodigal (wasteful) son in the story right before this one. In Luke 15:13 the son "squanders" his father's wealth.

But the son repents. This servant doesn't appear to do the same. In verse 8 Jesus explicitly calls him "dishonest" and "shrewd". He is commended for being both because he changed his master's books to gain favour with people so that he could later manipulate them into allowing him to couchsurf after he loses his job.

So, Jesus clearly says dishonest use of wealth is bad. Yet the person described as dishonest in the passage is commended.

My best understanding is that Jesus must be employing irony in the story. I only conclude this based on the clarity of verses 10-13 as my foundation for understanding.

But mostly, I have to just say I don't know.

Luke 16:14-16 - Forcing our way into heaven

The response by the Pharisees to the parable shows us that it must have been a teaching that viewed the shrewd use of or desire for money negatively. It specifically says that they "ridicule him" in response to the parable *because* they love money.

Jesus then says that what people exalt is an abomination to God. Does he mean corrupt use of money? The love of money? Probably something like that.

Jesus assures the Pharisees that the Law will not become void or pass away. It is still valid. The whole of the gospels describes this more fully in that Jesus himself has fulfilled the Law.

As for people forcing there way into heaven, I don't know. There is another passage in Matthew 11:12 that says "the violent take (the kingdom of heaven) by force". The similarity of these two passages is what gives me pause. When so much of what Jesus says in his teachings is clearly about his disciples not using physical force or violence, passages like this don't quite seem to fit.

Luke 16:18 - Divorce

Jesus seems to be illustrating here that the Law won't become void. But his stringent rules about divorce and remarriage equaling adultery are far more carefully described in other passages. Whole books have been written about the teaching of Jesus and divorce, and most conservative scholarship considers his full teaching in all the gospels to be far more nuanced than this passage suggests.

Luke 16:19-31 - The Rich Man and Lazarus

A few problems arise with this passage. The first is that Jesus himself does not follow up the story with an interpretation, as he does with the first parable in this chapter. Nowhere does the text explicitly define what this passage means. Secondly, this parable is very controversial because many disagree that it is a parable at all.

Consider the last two parables, the dishonest manager and the prodigal son. In both, none of the characters are named, and no specific points of doctrine are explicitly stated within the story. They are universal stories with universal stock characters. This is the same in all of Jesus' parables.

This story is the only exception. The protagonist is named Lazarus, the same name as a man Jesus raises from the dead (John 11). This seems even more significant when v31 actually suggests resurrection. But Jesus doesn't say that he means a specific Lazarus, and the name may be common. Abraham is also mentioned by name. There are two place names, "Abraham's Bosom" and "Hades", to which each of our main characters goes after death. This hardly seems a universal story or experience, unless Jesus is drawing upon some sort of universally well known cultural belief or folk story. Nothing in the text suggests this is so.

This I do know: Jesus has an intention in the context of this passage to condemn the love of money. Also, one of the main themes of the book of Luke is justice for the poor. Luke describes a great reversal where the poor are rich and the humble exalted. This story certainly does seem to illustrate Jesus' blessings and woes of the Sermon on the Plain:

 Luke 6:20-21, 24-25 (ESV)
20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
21  “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
24  “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

Also, in describing someone returning from the dead, Jesus may be foreshadowing his own death, and suggesting that if his testimony after his resurrection I not accepted in someone's lifetime, they've received as much of a chance to believe as they will ever get.

I have no trouble believing that this is most, of not all, of what Jesus means to teach in this story.

But beyond this, I'm very cautious.

The difficulty here is that because of the question of the literalism of the story, many have used this passage to support complicated details regarding eschatology, the end of time, and life after death.

My caution is due to the difficult nature of the passage, combined with the lack of any evidence elsewhere in the chapter that Jesus is at all intending to teach specifics about those things. I prefer to tread lightly, read what is most clear, and leave my eschatology to the myriad other passages in scripture that clearly intend to teach it, and upon which there is less Christian controversy and more scholarly agreement.


The parable of a shrewd manager. Again, evidence suggests he is writing to urban people.
v9 - ?
v13 – You cannot serve both God and money.
v14 – The Pharisees loved money.

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