This is continued from the last Bible Study I did on Luke 16. I didn’t bother with the alliterated title this time.
I don’t think you need to read part 1 for the following to make sense; I kind of re-cap the main points here anyway, and I think I probably did a better job this time, but in case you would like to read it anyway, it’s here.
You probably will need to read Luke 16:1-13 though.
Last time I covered 3 points: we are stewards of God’ possessions (they’re not ours to keep), we’re to be shrewd investors of God’s possessions (preparing for the time when we won’t have those possessions anymore, i.e. when we die), and we’re to invest in other people by giving possessions away (looked at passages like Luke 6:35 where Jesus told his disciples to “lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great”).
I ran out of time to finish my 4th point, that we’re to be single-minded in our devotion to God; we’ll get to that this time, but first…
I think everyone’s happy that in this parable, Jesus was saying that we should be prepared for when the time comes for us to leave this life, to make sure that when we die, we’ll have a place prepared for us in heaven. But I think there was some uncertainty about whether there’s really anything to learn from this parable about us stewarding God’s possessions by giving them away, because if we start to think of the steward as representing us and the rich man as God, wouldn’t that mean God was commending the dishonest actions of the steward in the parable?
Where My Bereans At?
I think the points I made about stewardship of God’s possessions by giving them away are supported by other parts of scripture, so I’m not too worried about trying to prove that what I said last time is true, but if I’m going to do Bible Studies, I want to be careful to stick to exploring what the text we’re looking at actually says, I don’t want to be making points that aren’t there.
So I’ve spent some more time considering what I think this text says, and to be honest we might end up having to agree to disagree on it, but I’ll briefly recap what I think, and share a couple of commentator’s views. Then I’ve spent some time looking into the concept of a righteous God commending a dishonest steward, and whether that makes any sense in relation to what we read about God in other parts of the Bible, so I’ve got a few observations to make on that.
Now I think you’d all agree that our theology should be shaped by God’s Word, rather than starting with what we think God is like and interpreting His Word, twisting it and skipping over bits we don’t like so that it fits into our pre-existing ideas, so let’s put what we think we already know about God to one side for a moment and just see if we can work out what this text says about Him.
When I read this passage, in verses 1-8 I see a parable, and I think ok, this is a story with some sort of lesson to be learnt from it, but it’s not necessarily going to be obvious what that lesson is. (In Mark 4:11-12 Jesus says that he tells parables with the deliberate intention that some people won’t understand.) I then notice that starting from the second half of v8, Jesus explains what he meant by the parable, which is helpful. In v8 Jesus indicates that it’s a parable about shrewdness, and in v9, we see Jesus telling his disciples to use their earthly wealth to make friends who will then be able to receive them into eternal dwellings when they die.
Having just read a parable about a steward making friends by giving away his master’s stuff, when I read verse 9, and see Jesus tells his disciples to use earthly wealth to make friends for eternity, it certainly seems to me like Jesus is saying that in this respect the steward was a good example to follow.
We’ll look in a minute at whether this is compatible with what we read about God in other parts of scripture, but at this point I’ll give a quick overview of what some commentators say, to confirm or deny whether I’ve understood this passage correctly, because I don’t know how to read Greek, and there may be things in the text that experienced Bible Scholars see but that I’ve missed. Was I right last time to talk about us being stewards of God’s possessions and God wanting us to give them away to other people, or did I get completely the wrong end of the stick?
Well J.C. Ryle doesn’t share my view on this passage at all. He insists this is a parable about being shrewd in preparing for “coming evil” and nothing else. I thought verse 9 was key to understanding this passage, but Ryle apparently disagrees; he has nothing to say about it.
Next up is David Murray. He’s not really a commentator on this passage, but he knows a bit more about preparing Bible Studies and Sermons than I do; in fact, he’s written a book about it, called How Sermons Work. In his chapter on selecting a text, he describes several different types of text, one of which is a ‘Conclusion Text’: “This might be one phrase or one sentence that gives the moral of a whole parable or the summary of the whole passage.” And it just so happens that the verse he chose as an example of one of these conclusion texts is Luke 16:9, so I’m not alone in thinking verse 9 is important, but Murray doesn’t go on to interpret the passage, so it’s possible he completely disagrees with what I’ve done with verse 9.
Bringing out the big gun: John Calvin does seem to agree with my understanding of this passage. He says: “The leading object of this parable is, to show that we ought to deal kindly and generously with our neighbours; that, when we come to the judgement seat of God, we may reap the fruit of our liberality.”
((Someone helpfully pointed out that the Pharisees’ reaction to the parable in v14 also seems to support this interpretation as being Jesus’ intended meaning. They were lovers of money, so were not impressed by Jesus saying that the way to lay up treasure in heaven is to give earthly wealth away.))
Does that make God unjust?
So does this interpretation of the parable mean God commends the dishonesty of the unjust steward?
Well, no. When I personally read this passage, I never thought for a second that Jesus was recommending stealing from my earthly employer as a way to lay up treasure in heaven. And I think Matthew Poole is right that it’s possible that what might be an evil action in one situation can actually be good in other circumstances.
It took me a while to think of an illustration for this, I’m not sure how I ended up imagining this situation, but say I was at home one day, and somehow broke my arm and needed to go to the hospital, dad’s out somewhere, and mum’s car’s at the garage, so mum has to drive me in my car to get me to the hospital. I’d say that would be good of her to drive me to the hospital in my own car. However, if some random stranger broke into my car and drove it off without my permission, that would be stealing, and I would not be at all pleased. (I hope I don’t have a gift of prophecy :-p)
To use Matthew Poole’s words on this parable, “What was knavery in this steward, is honest enough in those who are the stewards of our heavenly Lord’s goods…”
So I think it’s possible for Jesus to say, “even though in this parable the steward was dishonest, I want you to do something similar in your stewardship of the things God has given you to use for his glory”.
Is God Impossible To Please?
But this also raised the question in my mind whether our obedience has to be perfect in order to please God… Can God commend someone because He’s pleased with one aspect of their behaviour (in this case, shrewdness), while disapproving of another aspect of it (in this case, dishonesty)? Does our obedience have to be perfectly pure to please God?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to really love God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength for as much as a second, so although I may be wrong on this, it seems to me like if the answer is yes, God is indeed only pleased with absolutely perfect obedience, then there’s no point me trying to please Him, because I will never succeed.
I mean, I believe that I’m saved by grace alone, not by my efforts to please God. “There is… no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1), but as a result of being saved, I want to make an effort to please Him by obeying His law, but I know full well that my attempts at obedience fall far short of perfection, so if God is never pleased with any of my less than perfect attempts, I might as well give up and “continue in sin that grace may abound”. But that’s exactly what Paul tells us not to do in Romans 6:1, so I think there are two other options: either it is possible to obey perfectly, and I need to work out how I can achieve that (it’s not possible, see 1 John 1:8), or alternatively it must be possible for Christians to please God with imperfect attempts at obedience.
On this subject I found Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole In Our Holiness helpful. He has a chapter on The Pleasure of God and The Possibility of Godliness, where he points to examples in scripture of God being pleased with the righteousness of people other than Jesus, such as Job “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8), and Zechariah & Elizabeth who “were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). These people didn’t obey God perfectly, yet God’s Word commends them.
I found this encouraging because it means my efforts to please God are not a complete waste of time. I may not be able to obey Him perfectly in this life, but it is possible for me to please Him with imperfect yet sincere obedience.
However, this knowledge that it’s really possible for us to please God can also be really depressing, because if we start analysing how well we’re doing at pleasing God, we’ll inevitably realise how much more we could be doing to please Him, so our feeble attempts at obedience won’t look very pleasing at all.
So I think there’s a few things to bear in mind…
Firstly, (and this is also pointed out by Kevin DeYoung) in 2 Corinthians 13, when Paul told the Corinthians to examine themselves to see whether they were in the faith, he didn’t mean for them to dwell on how sinful they still were and work out whether someone who did such awful things could possibly be a true Christian; he expected them to find positive evidence that they were in Christ. In fact, he staked the credibility of his ministry on them proving to be true believers; in verse 3 Paul says “you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me”, and his response to the Corinthians is that they themselves are his evidence that Christ is speaking in him, because Paul was the one that ministered to them, and if they examined themselves, they would find that they were in Christ, so Paul must have ministered faithfully. So when we examine ourselves, we don’t always have to look for the worst in ourselves, sometimes it’s good and encouraging to examine ourselves for positive signs of Christ being in us.
Secondly, if we’re feeling hopeless about how few signs of Christ we can find in ourselves, perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten how bad we used to be. We used to be dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Without faith it really is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6), so in comparison, even the tiniest bit of obedience accompanied by faith is infinitely better than being completely dead in our sins.
Matt Chandler illustrates this by describing when his daughter was first learning to walk. He reckons that to start off with she kind of did it by accident. She would be standing still, and then her big head would cause her to start to lose her balance and fall forwards, but she stuck a leg out in front of her, and then again and again, and after a few steps she’d fall over. Now when that happened, the mum and dad didn’t think their daughter was a failure because she fell over. They celebrated those first few steps she did manage to make. Obviously they did expect her to gradually get better at it, and so should we expect to see improvement in our obedience to God over time, but even a few baby steps are worth celebrating when compared to being completely spiritually dead.
And thirdly (the part that allowed me to sleep last Monday night), we should remember that God’s glory is more important than what we think of ourselves. In Romans 5, Paul explains that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. God is glorified by showing grace to us (see Ephesians 2), so when we sin and God shows grace to us, He’s glorified. Obviously Paul immediately goes on to make it clear that that doesn’t mean Christians ought to deliberately go on sinning, but if our goal is really to glorify God rather than ourselves, then we don’t need to get too depressed by our failures, because God is still glorified. He’s still working all things together for good and for his own glory.
Paul describes himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), yet he also says in 1 Corinthians 4 that he doesn’t judge himself. “It is the Lord who judges me.” I think this tells us that although there is a time for the right kind of self-examination, we’re not to focus on ourselves, trying to work out whether we’re good enough. Tim Keller has written a very short book on that passage in 1 Corinthians (I think it’s actually a transcript of a sermon), called The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness, and he refers to C.S. Lewis’ description of true humility: “humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less”. It’s not humble to wallow in self-loathing because of how sinful we are. Truly humble people don’t pay much attention to themselves at all; they’re too busy loving God and other people.
Hopefully that all makes sense and you can see the relevance to the application of Luke 16. I think as we come to try to apply Luke 16v13, we’ll find we really need that knowledge that it’s possible to please God with only baby steps in obedience, because I for one find it very convicting…
One and Only
“No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”
I think people normally interpret this as saying “God has to be the most important thing in your life. If you ever find yourself having to choose between watching sport or going to church, or reading a novel vs. your daily Bible reading, then God must come first. Not that you can’t watch sport or read novels or whatever else you may enjoy doing, but you mustn’t let those things infringe on God’s time.”
I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. It’s saying you have to choose one master to serve: God, or money, or indeed anything else; you can’t pursue God and anything else at the same time. God doesn’t just have to come first, ahead of everything else; He must be our one and only goal in life.
Considering we Christians claim that Christ is the most important thing in the world to us, to the point where we sing that his “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”, we spend a surprisingly large amount of the time and money God’s given us in this life faffing around with all sorts of other things… sport, music, films, books, going on holiday, decorating our houses and gardens…
In 1 Corinthians 10:31, Paul says “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” When we eat or drink, or watch football, or rugby, or cricket, or listen to music, or watch a film, or read a book, or go on holiday, or do anything, are we doing those things to the glory of God? Are we serving God, or some other master? Do we try to serve God at certain times during the week, but do our own thing with the rest of our time? If all those things we spend our time and money on don’t help us to serve God, at some point we’ll find there’s a conflict and we have to choose between serving God or serving something else, and at that point we realise we’ve been trying to serve two masters. We’ll have to devote ourselves to one and despise the other. Sometimes we might feel like we’d prefer to obey God anyway, but other times we might resent God asking us to give something up in order to serve Him. So in v13 Jesus is telling his disciples not to try serving two masters. Make your decision: will you serve God, or will you serve something else?
Of course, none of the things I’ve mentioned is necessarily sinful. 1 Timothy 4:4 says “everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving”. So I guess the question is do we receive all these things with thanksgiving?
We’re in the habit of giving thanks before a meal; perhaps we should get into the habit of giving thanks before we do anything else as well. What do you think? Before the match starts? As we open the newspaper? When we turn the TV or computer on? Could we thank God for all those things? I reckon if we tried this, one of two things would happen, either we’d gain a greater appreciation of just how much God has blessed us by giving us these things so we can glorify Him in our enjoyment of them, or in some cases (perhaps rather a lot of cases) it would make us think about whether there’s something better we could be doing with our time, some way we could invest our time more wisely. If we can’t thank God for whatever we’re about to do, why are we doing it?
Glory or Dung?
In Phil 3:8 Paul says “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
Now I said the parable of the unjust steward was about investing in treasure in heaven. In case anyone wasn’t sure up to this point, this is the treasure we’re aiming at: “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ”, to “gain Christ and be found in him.” And Paul thinks that anything that doesn’t gain him more of Christ is a loss, or you might say a bad investment, not good use of his time or money. When we settle down to watch TV or browse the internet or when we go shopping or whatever, I won’t repeat a whole list of examples again… whatever it is, does it gain us more of Christ? If not, what does it gain us? We can’t serve God and earthly wealth or earthly pleasure. We have to choose one.
It bothers me when people talk about “legitimate pleasures”; what are they? I think you could fit all pleasures into one of two categories. The first category would be “pleasures that gain us more of Christ”, and the other category would be “pleasures that don’t gain us more of Christ”. I think it would be fair to call the first category “glorious pleasures”; to call these Christ-gaining pleasures only “legitimate” pleasures would be kind of insulting to Christ. But Paul would say that any pleasure that falls into the other category, any pleasure that doesn’t gain us more of Christ, is rubbish, or if you’re using the AV, dung. (Another translation calls it sewer trash.) There are no “legitimate pleasures”, either you seek pleasure in Christ, or you seek it in earthly dung. You can’t serve two masters; you can only serve one or the other. So as we go through our daily lives, let’s not ask “is it ok for me to do this? is this a legitimate pleasure for a Christian?” instead, let’s ask ourselves “is this a glorious pleasure, or is it dung?”
As Augustine put it “He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” If we don’t love God with ALL our heart, soul, mind and strength, we don’t love him enough, but the point is not to try to scare us into trying to love God more otherwise he’ll punish us, it’s more like “C’mon, invest wisely or you’re gonna miss out on these true riches!”
And to relate back to what I said from verse 9 about using what God has given us with the aim that we will make friends that will end up in heaven too, this is not just a question of whether it would be better for me to read a Christian book rather than a secular one, or listen to Christian music rather than secular music, I think we should ask ourselves “is whatever I’m about to do going to help me bring other people closer to God?”
Let’s not mess about, trying to invest the minimum amount we can get away with in the kingdom of God while also trying to enjoy a nice comfortable life here on Earth, let’s invest everything God’s given us in laying up treasure in heaven that will never fail.