9 “Now what I say to you is this: use worldly wealth to make friends for yourselves, so that when it gives out, you may be welcomed into the eternal home. 10 Someone who is trustworthy in a small matter is also trustworthy in large ones, and someone who is dishonest in a small matter is also dishonest in large ones. 11 So if you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who is going to trust you with the real thing? 12 And if you haven’t been trustworthy with what belongs to someone else, who will give you what ought to belong to you? 13 No servant can be slave to two masters, for he will either hate the first and love the second, or scorn the second and be loyal to the first. You can’t be a slave to both God and money.”
14 The Pharisees heard all this, and since they were money-lovers, they ridiculed him. 15 He said to them, “You people make yourselves look righteous to others, but God knows your hearts; what people regard highly is an abomination before God! 16 Up to the time of Yochanan there were the Torah and the Prophets. Since then the Good News of the Kingdom of God has been proclaimed, and everyone is pushing to get in. 17 But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the Torah to become void. 18 Every man who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced by her husband commits adultery.
This is one of those passages that makes the reader despair. There seems to be some internal logic to the sequence of sayings which is unknown to the reader. Some scholars warn that ancient writers had views about relevance which are different from those of contemporary writers. Luke may just be chucking in here anything that seemed to him to be loosely connected with the theme, perhaps by a key word or concept. There are examples of this kind of loose connection in the gospels, but Luke is often very careful, not to say, crafty, in his construction of sequences.
My interpretation of the parable of the dishonest steward, is that it is a defence of those who announce the good news of God’s forgiveness. In the crisis brought about by God’s impending judgement, they make friends through the Gospel. From this story Luke jumps to the topic of how worldly wealth ought to be used. By giving it to the poor, disciples can make “friends” who will speak up for them before God. Luke then goes on to quote sayings of Jesus which refer to the gospel duty of using worldly possessions for the benefit of the Rule of God. Disciples are not to imagine that faith places them beyond this down to earth responsibility. Faithfulness in small matters shows they are ready for greater things. Those who are enslaved by worldly wealth on the other hand cannot serve God. This sober warning is made clear by spelling out the meaning of the Greek doulein, translated often as “serve”, but better as “be a slave to”. Slavery involves complete belonging to one owner. So far the sequence of Luke’s thought is clear enough.
But then we are told that the Pharsisees, who have not been Jesus audience in this section, are scornful of his teaching about wealth because they love it. Jesus responds by characterising them as self-righteous fakes, who cannot deceive God who can see the heart. Hypocritical piety is an abomination to God. Again, Luke’s train of thought seems clearly focused on the sin of pretending to love God and wealth. But then comes Jesus’ references to the Law and the prophets and the difference signalled by the ministry of John the Baptist. What’s going on here?
If we assume that in fact Luke is continuing with his main theme, then we might paraphrase this new material as follows:
“Until the ministry of John the authority of the Torah and the Prophets was clear, and obedience was required. Now since John’s and Jesus’ announcement of the good news of God’s Rule, every disobedient Pharisee thinks he can barge into the kingdom as if the Torah had been annulled! But the Good News is not at all an annulment of Torah, which remains in force.”
Luke is affirming Jesus’ conviction that his teaching is a valid interpretation of the Torah. His warning about serving a false God, for example comes straight from the Torah. Luke adds a further example by giving Jesus’ teaching about divorce, which forbids using women as sexual commodities. Some Pharisees may have held a more liberal view of divorce. In Luke’s logic, and perhaps also in Jesus’, this teaching upholds the Torah as part of Jesus’ gospel of God’s goodness. Forgiveness and rigour are equal parts of the character of Jesus’ God.
If we keep this double focus in mind we’ll more easily understand Luke’s story of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church remains conflicted about Jesus’ teaching on divorce. The difficulty is that three Gospels give fairly similar versions of this teaching. Matthew’s version allows for divorce in the case of adultery, but all three are opposed to remarriage after divorce, and attribute the rule to Jesus. In effect, many reformed churches, including my own, have simply shrugged off Jesus’ explicit teaching, in favour of exercising his compassion to divorced people who want to remarry. I have conducted such remarriages myself, but am less sure than I once was, that I did well. In effect I was saying to people, “Jesus said – and I think wrongly- that remarriage is adultery.”
I believe that disciples of Jesus ought to have the bottle to say such a thing, but it has disturbing implications for the authority of Jesus’ teaching and example. For if I base my rejection of the teaching on the difference between Jesus’ society and mine, how do I justify taking seriously his teaching about wealth? Or about anything?