18. The Entrusted Wealth

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 18. The Entrusted Wealth

Luke 19:11-27:   While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.  He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return.  So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas.  ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’ He was made king, however, and returned home.

Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned ten more.’ “‘Well done, my good servant!’ his master replied. ‘Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.’  The second came and said, ‘Sir, your mina has earned five more.’  “His master answered, ‘You take charge of five cities.’

Then another servant came and said, ‘Sir, here is your mina; I have kept it laid away in a piece of cloth. I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow.’ His master replied, ‘I will judge you by your own words, you wicked servant! You knew, did you, that I am a hard man, taking out what I did not put in, and reaping what I did not sow? Why then didn’t you put my money on deposit, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?’  Then he said to those standing by, ‘Take his mina away from him and give it to the one who has ten minas.’   “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘he already has ten!’ He replied, ‘I tell you that to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’”

Purpose & Context: I have to confess this is one of my favourite parables for a reason I will later explain.  It’s context is obvious from the first verse of it: “While they were listening to this, he went on to tell them a parable, because he was near Jerusalem and the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once.”    It starts with reference to the incident involving Zacchaeus, which concludes with Jesus saying, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10). That was the ultimate call of the Messiah but that was not clear in the minds of many.

It comes quite some way through Luke and there is a sense of expectancy surrounding Jesus because they were back in the south and near Jerusalem. That is where any messianic action was expected. The expectancy of the kingdom coming is really shorthand for expecting Jesus to reveal his power and act against the Romans, their oppressors from who the people thought the Messiah would deliver them. What is interesting about this parable is that it is really all about what is expected of those who are waiting for the messiah – while they are waiting. It is not much about the messiah himself although his authority is made clear within it. After the parable, Jesus makes his way up to Jerusalem for the start of his final week.

Content:

  • a man of noble birth goes to a foreign land to be acclaimed king, before he returns. (as often happened when leaders went to Rome to be made king of their area).
  • before he leaves he gives ten of his servants ten minas (the equivalent of 3 month’s wages: a mina is a unit of weight and thus monetary value) each.
  • in so doing he instructs them to put this money to work.
  • the servants don’t like him and send a message after him for him not to be made king.
  • when he returns he checks what has happened and three servants respond.
  • the first has made ten more, the second, five more, and the third, nothing more.
  • the first two are rewarded with being given authority to rule over 10 and 5 cities respectively.
  • the third servant is rebuked and his money taken from him and given to the first servant.

Significant Parts: There are two significant parts to this parable. The first is the third servant’s response and in explanation he said, “I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man,” and then, second, the punchline: “to everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”   The third servant shows a negative attitude and the punchline shows the principle which the master applies. We should also note in passing, that when he returns, those who rejected him will be severely punished.

What is unusual about this parable is that, although it is often said that a parable seeks to convey one key point, this parable has so many details that are clearly meant to have significance that we have to extend that idea.

Interpretations: Because Jesus does not spell out the meaning of each part we are left to speculate and simply make suggestions, but I believe the following are legitimate:

  • the man who goes away is Jesus who after his death and resurrection will ascend to heaven to rule as king.
  • in his three years ministry he conveys much to his disciples and his listeners. That is the money given to the servants.
  • while he is away – before he returns again – he expects us to use what he has left with us.
  • when he does return there will be an accounting, which implies very clearly that in eternity there will be opportunities to continue ruling in the kingdom for Jesus’ followers.

The Message version paraphrases the punchline rather quaintly as, He said, ‘That’s what I mean: Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag,” while the Living Bible puts it, but it is always true that those who have, get more, and those who have little, soon lose even that.”  The point being made might be put, what Jesus gives us, he expects us to use fruitfully and if we don’t, it is likely to just fritter away to nothing.

My ‘Minas’? Now what is it that Jesus leaves with us? For some it may be talents and abilities, intellectual, creative, compassionate etc. that enable us to step out and achieve things that will bless this world – IF we do step out. For some it may be good family background or affluence, often which we take for granted but which many lack. One of the things that should be implied here in the light of wider scripture, is that what we achieve is not merely for our benefit but should be for the blessing of others. God is a giver and He wants us to give out of the abundance of all these things we have been considering. In a day of moral and ethical decline where, from Government and a multitude of other institutions, the message (by behaviour) is get for yourself, Jesus’ teaching is radical in its opposite approach.

Concluding Warnings: Underlining this parable, and much other scripture, there are severe warnings. There WILL be a time of accounting when all will have to give account to God for what we had and what we did with it.  There is also the greater warning of judgment on those who rebel against God. Both that rebellious attitude and the way we use what God has given us, reveal the state of our hearts and our feelings about God.

The ‘Hard Man’ Syndrome: The reason I said earlier this is my favourite parable (or the other versions of it in the other Gospels)  is that this description of God as a ‘hard man’ more than any other description elsewhere in scripture portrays, I believe, the state of many Christians who have never fully taken on board the truth that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8,16) which means that everything He thinks, says or does is an expression of love. The greatest change that can take place in a believer is, I think, coming to this understanding as a reality. It impinges on every aspect of the Christian life and experience. Without it we are vulnerable to accept the lies of the enemy that God is a ‘hard man’ who is out to get us, looking to slap us down, looking to highlight every fault and failing, when the exact opposite is the truth.

And So? As we come to the end of this fairly short series on the parables that are unique to Luke, how do we leave them?

  • Fully aware of the wonder of our salvation? (Studies 1,4,11,12A,12B)
  • Aware of the needs of others around us? (Studies 2 & 14)
  • Persevering in prayer? (Studies 3 & 16)
  • Alert for Jesus’ return? (Studies 5,6,9)
  • Wise in making the most of what we have been given? (Studies 7,13,18)
  • Maintaining an attitude of humility? (Studies 8 & 17)
  • Fully committed in my discipleship? (Studies 10 & 15)

May we be those who are not merely hearers but also doers.

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17. The Pharisee & the Publican

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 17. The Pharisee & the Publican

Luke 18:9-14:  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Purpose & Context: We seem to be in a part of Luke where rather than consequential flow being the style he uses, he instead simply picks up on a variety of, dare we say, bits and pieces of the things he has been told. I say this because there seems no direct flow into this parable from the previous one about not giving up on prayer. The only link, and it is a good one, is that both parables involve prayer but in this one, prayer is the channel for revealing the heart and not the heart of the parable itself.   The point is made very obvious from the outset: “To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable.”   That’s it, it is about humility before God and how that is revealed through the way different people pray.

Content:

  • there are two men who go to the temple to pray.
  • one is a Pharisee who distanced himself from other people, exalting himself in declaring how righteous he was, fasting and giving tithes – certainly different from that tax-collector over there!
  • the other was the tax collector, who came in humility, not daring to look up to God, and just simply prayed for forgiveness and mercy, acknowledging he was a sinner.

The punchline that follows is clear: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.”  That is the conclusion from the parable, but what brings that about?

The principle behind it is obviously stated: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Application: Again, this is one of those parables that are so obvious that we wonder whether any comment is necessary. Yet it is worth dwelling on the nature of the two men in the parable. First, the Pharisee. This is a man who is clearly very religious. The Pharisees were known for their knowledge of the Law and their zeal for upholding it. This man at least expresses piety through the standard ways, fasting and giving tithes. However, it is his attitude that brings censure. Because of his piety he thinks he is better than other men, certainly better than obvious sinners, like the worldly and often corrupt tax-collectors. He comes before God displaying his pride openly.

Second, there is the tax-collector who, yes, is possibly worldly and corrupt – be he knows it and is not proud of it. He still has a desire to pray but he doubts his standing before God and all he can do is ask for mercy. In this he is being utterly real. This is not to condone his lifestyle but it is to acknowledge the humility with which he comes.

For us who are Christians of long-standing, this can be an uncomfortable parable if we are willing to be honest with ourselves, for after years of seeking to remain righteous before God, it is so easy to slip into an attitude of superiority when we look at other people who are not believers, those who are not bothered about righteousness.

Even more it is so easy to become complacent about prayer and, as I have commented elsewhere, especially public prayer. How easy we pray mechanically, just saying the right words, with little consideration to the thought that God – almighty, holy God – is there, is the one we are addressing. How rarely it is that people ‘out front’ pause before the Presence before they utter the words, how rare that they come with humility. I am sure that most of us would look at this very simple and straight forward parable and denounce the Pharisee without realizing that in many ways we are more like him than like the other man.

It is a difficult balance to hold, this realization on one hand that we are children of God, with a loving heavenly Father and all the familiarity of years of teaching and experience that has blessed us, while at the same time remembering that actually we ARE still sinners, redeemed yes, but still prone to sometimes getting it wrong (see 1 Jn 2:1) and we are what we are because of what Jesus has done and what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. As Paul said, we have no room to boast (Rom 3:27, Gal 6:4, Eph 2:9) just room for humility. May we remember that.

16. The Unrighteous Judge

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 16. The Unrighteous Judge

Luke 18:1-8:  Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Purpose & Context: The purpose of this parable is there in the first verse: “they should always pray and not give up.”   Now that is very obvious and this is one of parables that addresses a problem we face regularly in the Christian life – my prayers don’t seem to be getting answered and so the temptation is simply to give up. Again it is one of those parables that doesn’t say what you think it is going to say but the end result is still quite clear and as Jesus clearly thinks that prayer is an integral part of a life of faith, the final punch line is challenging: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Content:

  • there is an unrighteous judge – didn’t fear God and didn’t care what people thought of him.
  • a woman comes to him to demand justice for her situation.
  • he clearly takes no notice for she has to keep on coming to him, and he refuses to hear her.
  • eventually he gives way and gives her justice.
  • his thinking is that although he doesn’t fear God or care about what people think, he is eventually worn down by her coming and even fears that in her frustration she might attack him; for this reason alone he will hear her.
  • Jesus’ teaching concludes that if this unrighteous judge eventually hears this woman – and he is unrighteous, unfearing of God and man, won’t God who does care for us (implied) hear us and respond to us when we keep on praying.

Reasons for No Answers: In the 3rd study, the Parable of the Good Friend, we faced this same situation and I noted there the following reasons why sometimes we have to pray and pray and pray: First, sometimes constant and continual prayer is an indicator of the urgency and reality of the person praying and the Bible indicates that God looks for such reality (Deut 4:29). Second, I believe spending time in God’s presence deepens our relationship with the Lord and so He holds back a while to ensure this happens.  Third, I believe sometimes we have to pray and pray before we get to the point of realizing what God’s will really is and we ask for it (and then get it) in his name (Jn 14:13). Fourth, there is clearly spiritual opposition sometimes (see Dan 10:13) and we don’t always get what we want (see 1 Thess 2:18)

Why God Answers: The obvious first reason is that He loves us and loves to talk to us, and that must always be our starting point, but reversing the reasons above for no answers:

  • first, He will surely answer when He sees our urgency. When the Lord spoke to Moses at the burning bush He said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” (Ex 3:7) The Lord does feel with us and for us as a loving heavenly Father.
  • Second, even though we may not be receiving an answer, He is attentive to us, appreciates us and loves to hear from us, just like any father loves to hear from their child in need.
  • Third, when we have caught His heart, He will answer: And I will do whatever you ask in my name,” (Jn 14:13) which the Message version paraphrases, “whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it,” e. when the Father sees we are in line with the Son’s guidance, He will answer.
  • Fourth, we just have to recognize that we are often in spiritual warfare and the enemy seeks to hinder us. Perhaps more for this one than any of the others, as we saw in Luke 11, Jesus says ‘keep on badgering heaven, don’t give up’, and now says the same thing. It is like he is saying, if you think you’re on the right track, don’t be put off, keep at it, keeping praying, keep asking. Not wanting to be depressing, it appears that Isaac prayed 20 years (Gen 25:20,21,26) for Rebekah to conceive (either that or it took him nineteen years to get around to praying!)

I don’t know: Prayer, I believe, is the most mysterious part of the Christian life. It is amazing that we can talk to Almighty, all-knowing and all-wise God. We can come up with suggestions such as above but at the end of the day all we can say is that the Son of God encouraged us to pray and keep on praying. That is at the heart of two of these parables we have considered. Put aside intellect and engage heart – and pray.

15. The Unprofitable Servants

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 15. The Unprofitable Servants

Luke 17:7-10:  “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Context: We have said a number of times in this series that the context of the parable should help us understand it, understand how Jesus was using it in the context of current circumstances or current teaching. However when we come to this parable, the context, at first sight anyway, doesn’t seem very helpful. Now we have to add that of course it may not have been exactly the chronological flow of talk that came from Jesus’ mouth, but it may be that when Luke was collecting his resources, he put them in an order that seemed to make sense to him, so one way or another we would hope there is a continuity of thought that would make it clearer to us.

In the verses before this parable, Jesus had spoken about things that can act as hindrances to the faith of his disciples, to which they responded, “Increase our faith,” (v.5) to which he then spoke about how just tiny faith can achieve great things. Now my feeling is that instead of making this comment about achieving great things through faith something spectacular, it seems that Jesus, in this parable, is showing that faith is simply getting on and doing what you are told to do. I will say more after the parable.

Content:

  • someone pays (assumed) a servant to work them.
  • that may involve looking after sheep or plowing.
  • now that service is all-embracing and doesn’t stop when the servant comes in.
  • indeed the employer expects the servant to continue his duties which includes making the evening meal.
  • thanks are not going to be handed out because the servant simply does what he is employed to do.

The punchline of the parable is, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Application: I suspect in this modern world of individualism, we don’t like talk of being told what to do, even if we are Christians.  Nevertheless, when we talk about coming to Christ and letting him be both Saviour and Lord of our lives (because anything less than this puts a question mark over whether you are a Christian), when it comes to the ‘Lord’ part, it means that we acknowledge that God knows best for our lives and as one of the reasons for coming to Christ is to straighten out and put right our lives, then that surely has to involve him telling us what to do. Now that may happen as we read the New Testament and realize what we are called to be, to do and to become, or as we hear it preached, or as the Holy Spirit speaks God’s will into our hearts and minds.

Now this doesn’t make us special as far as our own achievements are concerned because prior to coming to Christ we were both helpless and hopeless and our salvation is all of his work. All we can do is surrender to him and then go along with what he declares over our lives and calls us to do. There is a sense whereby, to maintain a right perspective of ourselves, that we are to see ourselves as ‘disciples’ – those called to learn and to change to conform to our master’s image (2 Cor 3:18) – and ‘servants’ – those called to serve God in His mission to bless His world and draw to Himself all those who will hear and respond.

Faith & Servant-hood: We sometimes seem to make a big thing of faith but it is simply responding to what we hear God saying (Rom 10:17). Thus if we hear the Holy Spirit saying to us, “Tell that mulberry bush to move,” (v.6) when we do, that is faith and God will respond by moving the bush. It is that simple. Or perhaps not. It is the hearing God bit that is sometimes not so easy, but the good news is that God is not put out when His children step out ahead of His wishes. Coming to the point of being open to God for whatever – and not taking the credit for it and allowing pride to hinder – is what growing up in the faith is all about. Yes, we are servants, no big issue! We do what God says because He knows best and whatever He says is for our good and for the good of others, no big issue. If He calls for a miracle to be performed, no big issue because He’s the one who will do it; we’re just called to announce it, so to speak, on earth.

So that punchline contains so much truth: “say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”  In myself, I am not special (as a child of God, I am!) I’m just a servant in this context. Duty? Just what God calls me to do. Because so much modern-day Christianity does not contain faith, we see these things as big issues whereas the point of the parable is that we should see them as normal and not special, just part of our everyday lives, living by faith not by sight. Amen? Amen!

14. The Rich Man & Lazarus

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 14. The Rich Man & Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31:  “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’  “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Comment:  I confess I find this one of the most uncomfortable of Jesus’ parables because it has a variety of challenging facets to it, and also because the way Jesus tells is, with historical names being used, it feels almost like history (although it isn’t) and that somehow seems more challenging as well.

Content:

  • there was a rich man who lived in luxury.
  • there was also a beggar named Lazarus, who was physically a mess because of ill-health, no doubt from under nourishment.
  • eventually he died and was taken to the underworld where Abraham now dwelt.
  • the rich man also died and was carried to the fire of the underworld, yet he was able to look up and see both Abraham and Lazarus.
  • he cried to Abraham to let Lazarus come and bring him ease from his agony.
  • Abraham reminded him of how it had been on earth and is now reversed.
  • He pointed out that there was a great divide so here was no crossing over.
  • so the rich man pleaded that Lazarus be sent back to the rich man’s family to warn them so they would not end up here.
  • Abraham simply points out they have the Law and the Prophets.
  • The rich man says this is not enough; if someone from the dead goes to them, they will believe.
  • Abraham challenges that; if they won’t listen to God’s provision already they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.

Elements for consideration: Because of the strange nature of this story, we perhaps need to try and understand the various parts of it.

  1. i) Pre-death: a rich man who cares little for the beggar at his gate,
  2. ii) Death: Abraham, the father of faith is surely, we would say, in heaven with God. The alternative, where the rich man ends up, is what is called Hades or Hell. However, Jewish understanding was that there were divisions within Sheol (see below).

An Aside: Hell: It is worth pausing to consider definitions. Sheol, a Hebrew word used in the Old Testament, is normally simply defined as ‘the state or resting place of the dead.’ When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, ‘Hades’ was substituted for ‘Sheol’. Hades is similarly ‘the state or resting place of the dead’. Gehenna, a Greek word used in the New Testament, is ‘the destination of the wicked’, and derives its name from a deep ravine south of Jerusalem, the “Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom” (Hebrew ge hinnom). Some point out that this was an ongoing rubbish dump where rubbish was burned but, please consider, it could only continue burning as long as material was thrown in. As such it was not eternal. It is more a picture of destruction. In the case of all three, origins and usage are NOT clear.

Sheol Divided: The New Bible Dictionary states, “In the later Jewish literature we meet with the idea of divisions within Sheol for the wicked and the righteous, in which each experiences a foretaste of his final destiny (Enoch 22:1-14). This idea appears to underlie the image of the parable of Dives and Lazarus in the New Testament.”

  1. The book of Enoch is described as an ancient religious work that predates Jesus and would be known by the Jews of Jesus’ day. Jesus’ use of the parable mentioned above may therefore simply be using Jewish understanding of the day to convey certain truths:
  • We end up in a place determined by our present lives
  • That ‘place’ is really somewhere to be avoided.
  • Once we die there is no swapping over.

The Bigger Picture: In Revelation, references to the lake of fire (believed by many to represent Hell) are interesting. In Rev 19:20,21, The two of them (the beast & false prophet) were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse. i.e. with the coming of the King of Kings, Jesus, the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake but their followers (humans), rebellious people, are killed by the word of God!

In Rev 20:9,10, “they marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

i.e. The human armies are killed by fire from heaven but Satan is cast into the fire where he joins the beast and the false prophet – for ever.

Now, in Rev 20:13-15 we read, “each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Note it does NOT say ‘where they suffer for eternity’.

Fire: Consider, fire is an element that utterly destroys what it engulfs. The fire in the Valley of Hinnom burnt up and completely destroyed the rubbish thrown there. Wherever fire comes down from heaven it destroys. The only exceptions that specifically go against that are ones we have already seen involving Satan, the Beast and the False Prophet – all demonic spirit (fallen angel) beings.

References to “weeping and gnashing of teeth” is simply used to convey how abhorrent this destruction should be to us where those who are destroyed miss out on all the wonder of eternity with God that the New Testament conveys. Similarly The few references to “where the fire never goes out” e.g. Mk 9:43 simply says the risk of that judgment is always there waiting for the rebellious. The emphasis is on the fire (the means of destruction) not the punishment (effect on people).

Back to the Parable: So it is probable that Jesus is using Jewish understanding of these things. The previous parable, of the shrewd manager challenged ethics. This one likewise challenges behaviour – concern for the poor – and both suggest that the ongoing behaviour indicates a set heart that precludes a person from entering heaven. The parable brings a strong warning to ensure that whatever relationship we claim to have with God, is shown to be real in the way it is worked out expressing the love, care of compassion of Christ for those around us, and that we cannot do without his grace expressed in and through us. May it be so.

13. The Shrewd Steward

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 13. The Shrewd Steward

Luke 16:1-8: Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ “‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’  “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “‘A thousand bushels  of wheat,’ he replied. He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Comment: This is an unusual passage in that, first of all, it is a strange story with questionable ethics and, second, it is followed by as much teaching and application, almost as long as the parable itself. The context is difficult to understand until we remember that before the previous three parables about lost things, we saw that it was the Pharisees who questioned about Jesus meeting with ‘sinners’. We will see at the end of this present teaching, in verse 13 a challenge about allegiance – money or God – and that is followed by, “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.” (v.14,15) It thus becomes a parable and teaching that is directed at these men who purported to be religious but in fact were worldly in their materialistic outlook.

Content:

  • the manager of a rich man’s property is called to account for dubious dealings
  • because his job is under threat he wonders what to do.
  • he fears being jobless and homeless and wonders how to win friends.
  • he gets each of his master’s debtors and reduced their debts.
  • The master commended him for acting shrewdly

Applications: The teaching that now follows is a combination of lessons and principles that come out of the parable with two challenges interweaved within it.

Lesson: For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. That was shown in the parable – or at least ‘the man of the world’, the manager, and so Jesus says he was wiser in his worldly dealings than many religious people are.

Application/Challenge: I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The implication is use your worldly wealth for long-term kingdom purposes, don’t just sit on it.

Principle:  Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. This is the real ethical point here, how you administer what you have in small ways, will show how you can be trusted (or not) in big ways.

Application/Challenge:  So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? These things have very practical outworkings and there is a link between your material world and your spiritual world – how you use your money is an indicator of how you are likely to be in your spiritual world.

Principle:  No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”   This is the real punchline – the truth is your heart will go with that which is more important to you and what is more important will be revealed by how much time and energy you give to God or to money; you can’t give your heart to both.

Summary: The parable reveals a shrewd manager – not necessarily to be copied in actually what he does – who is praised for taking worldly steps to provide for his future when he has messed up in his job. He is an example of the wisdom of the world. Having said that, the teaching goes on to challenge how believers use their material wealth or possessions and we are challenged to use it, not just to get more or sustain us in daily living, but in extending the kingdom. That, for those who have it, perhaps requires a lot more thinking. The final challenge is to see where your heart is. We live in a material world and therefore have to deal with material things, but the most important issue is what captures our hearts – materialism or God? In the West we live in the most affluent time in history. Moses warned Israel (Deut 8:7-14) once they entered the Promised Land and became prosperous, not to forget the Lord and (implied) rely upon their new prosperity. It is a warning that is particularly applicable to many of us in the West today. May we heed it.

12B. The Older Brother

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 12B. The Older Brother

Luke 15:25-32: “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’  “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Purpose & Context: So we have a continuation of that most famous parable about the ‘prodigal son’ but there is this addition to it that goes beyond the younger son and picks up the negative attitude of the older son of the family. Remember we noted that the starting point of these three ‘lost’ parables was, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (v.2) In the three previous parables Jesus makes the point that God is concerned for the lost and there is great rejoicing in heaven when that which was lost is found. That sought to show the value God placed on reaching out to these lost ones in their society, but that still left the Pharisees and teachers of the law with a bad attitude towards all this, and it is towards that attitude that Jesus now directs this story.

Content:

  • the older son, working in the fields, comes in and sees what is going on (see previous parable).
  • this upsets him and so his father goes out to him and pleads with him to come in and join in the celebrations.
  • the older son pours out his feelings: he has always worked hard for his father, always obeying him, yet he had never received any reward, and yet when this wastrel comes back he gets this amazing reception – it is unfair!
  • the father defends what had happened: the older son always had what was the father’s and it had been as if the younger son had died but was now alive again. Wasn’t that worth celebrating?

Two Applications: There are two things to be observed here, first our attitude to ‘wastrels’ repenting and then, second, our attitudes towards our relationship with God.  I use the word ‘our’ here several times because surely the older son represents the established Christian community. Having said that we perhaps need to see a further two applications of this: first the older brother representing the Pharisees etc. and then, as I have said, how he represents us, the established Christian community. Both the former two issues apply to both of the applications.

Jesus and the Pharisees: First the attitudes towards the ‘wastrels’ as I have called them. Jesus showed concern for the tax-collectors and sinners. Later Jesus was to declare, the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk 19:10) Matthew records, While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mt 9:10-13)

The other side of this particular coin is that the Pharisees clearly were not concerned about the ‘sinners’, in fact they felt hostile towards them.  I have used the word ‘wastrel’ several times to describe sinners because I believe that is often how we think of such people, they are profligate, spendthrifts, wasteful – all of which describe the younger son away from home. The Pharisees saw them as the ‘opposition’ to God’s kingdom, Jesus saw them as potential citizens of the kingdom, potential children of God.

The other aspect is that of their attitude in respect of their relationship with God. They saw themselves as ‘good people’, people who would surely be approved of by God and they were not getting any praise from Jesus for being like that. In fact he was constantly finding fault with them. Their relationship in respect of God was hard and legalistic, based on law-keeping. Love did not come into it, only duty. It was a relationship that fell far short of that which was on Gods heart.

Jesus and Us: In this day when boundaries are falling and there are early signs of society crumbling, it is easy for us who are Christians to feel very negative towards those who are around us. I keep hearing stories of young people misbehaving on the streets and ‘the flesh’ in me wants to rise up and organise vigilantes to do what the police are obviously not up to doing with their shortage of numbers. But as I do that I recognize the ‘older brother attitude’. Yes, this behaviour is wrong but why are they acting like this (dysfunctional families where love is absent) and how can we help them? The first step is to stop being defensive and where there is hostility, get the grace of God, smile and say, “How can I help?” That needs a lot more thinking about but this is not the place for that.

But how do we feel about the ‘low life’ of our towns and cities? Older brother attitude or Jesus’ attitude? And when they turn to the Lord and the Christian world celebrates and makes heroes of them (which does them no good in the long run) do we feel gritty from our righteous high ground – after all I have sought to be a righteous child of God for the last forty years! What is all the fuss about? The fuss is about one who was lost but now is found, one who was dead but is now alive. That IS worth celebrating!