Saturday, 21 September 2013

Jesus makes a joke!

by Rev Peter Lockhart
Luke 16:1-13

I find myself again and again saying that it’s all about the context and today is no different.  Reading the first 13 verses of Luke 16 in isolation I believe leads to confusion; so we need to look a bit more broadly to wrap our heads around what appears to be quite an obscure parable that is followed by a set of quite terse sayings about the place of money.

I am not going to drag us back too far in Luke’s gospel just a little way to the beginning of Luke 15 which determines the context in which the words of Luke 16 are spoken.

At the beginning of Luke 15 we hear that the Pharisees and scribes are grumbling and saying: ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus initial response to this grumbling is to tell 3 stories to the Pharisees and scribes: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son.

Each of these stories infers the way in which God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into community, which is a cause for celebration.  The parables are about mercy and love and forgiveness and grace and the extent and effort to which God would go to restore people in their relationships.

These parables are meant to serve as a corrective to the negativity of the Pharisees and scribes which would exclude the tax collectors and sinners.

After telling these stories Jesus then turns to his disciples and tells them a parable.  Now we know the Pharisees scribes are still and listening so I have a sense that Jesus is in a way sharing a bit of an in joke with his disciples whilst allowing his detractors to eavesdrop on the conversation.

And Jesus tells this parable, and I’ll just briefly recount it.

There is a rich man who had a manager who he thought was not doing a good job so he decided to sack him.

The manager said oh no what will I do I am too weak to dig and I am certainly not going to beg.

So he went off and called together everyone who was indebted to his master.

He said to one who owed 100 jugs of olive oil, make it 50.

And to another who owed 100 containers of wheat, make it 80.

Now when the rich man found out he commended the manager for his cleverness.

I just want to explain a little about why the master might have commended the manager and it is tied up with the honour and shame aspects of the culture.

By forgiving the debt of the 2 tenants the manager would have brought honour to the master whilst at the same time providing an opportunity for the tenants to restore their honour within the community.

Now I suggested a moment a go that I think that what Jesus is doing by telling this story is having an in-joke with his disciples about the behaviour of the Pharisees.

So firstly what if we think for a moment that Jesus is placing the Pharisees and Scribes in the place of the master in the parable, which is quite logical as the Pharisees and scribes were at the top of the religious heap in the society.

If this is the case then Jesus is saying to the disciples hey these guys who think they are my master want to give me the flick because they think I am managing God’s affairs and message badly.

And this is where I think is using a real sense of humour.  Oh no what will we I do I can’t dig or beg says the manager, says Jesus...  no Jesus has a better plan and Jesus plan is God’s plan for dealing with the tax collectors and sinners that the Pharisees and scribes had been grumbling about.

“I am going to forgive; I am going to forgive the debts; I am going to forgive the sins; I am going to restore relationships which have eternal implications; and, he says to the disciples, I want you to do the same.”

“These Pharisees and scribes might want to give me the flick but they can’t because I am doing God’s business and you are part of that too.”

Now just as in the story the masters commends the manager I think Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and scribes who see themselves as his master, “what i am doing brings honour to all of us, to you as well and rather than grumbling you should be commending me who is doing God’s will.”

Paired with the 3 stories told to the Pharisees and scribes about what had been lost and found this parable is a continuation on the same theme of the way in which Jesus was behaving in relationship to the tax collectors and sinners.

But we haven't finished yet because hanging off the end of the parable is a group of sayings about faithfulness, dishonesty, true riches and money which all culminate in Jesus declaring, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Now if you look for a moment at this $50 bill you may or may realise that physical this piece of plastic is only a symbol.  It does not actually contain $50 worth of material.  In fact it is far less.

But we all know it does symbolise $50 but I would argue based on what Jesus is saying here it is symbolise far more than $50.  It symbolise choices I can make; it symbolises how much I value a person; it symbolise a level of power and authority that I have.  Let me share a few examples:

First, I recently saw a list of contributors to political parties – money has authority because I believe there is a reflection of the policies developed by the parties which is responsive to who gave them money.

Second, the amount of money that we are paid is in our market economy in direct proportion to how we as a community value the contribution being made and the person doing it. 

Money is a symbol of power and authority and as Jesus implies we can easily be enslaved by the power and authority inherent in currency.

Now whilst I have given this part of Jesus a contemporary spin the reality is that when Jesus said this he was having a pretty sharp final jab at the Pharisees.

Basically saying, you guys might want to have a go at me about who I hang around with but let’s have a look what you think is important and it isn’t God’s people it’s your own power and authority.

Why do we know that this is what Jesus was doing?  The context which we don’t hear read this morning but is the very next line of Luke’s gospel.

“The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all of this, and they ridiculed him.”

Luke is reminding us that whilst Jesus had been speaking to his disciples that the Pharisees were still there and Jesus words were pointed just as much at them as they were at the disciples.

The drama that had unfolded through the Pharisees attack on Jesus was Jesus declaration that God’s purpose in him was seeking the lost, was identifying with the lost, was showing them mercy, bringing them home and celebrating God’s grace with them. 

And Jesus had gone on to say you guys think you are my master well you can’t get rid of me that easily because I am bringing God’s forgiveness into to the lives of many and this will bring you honour to even though I can see you are not serving God as you ought but rather are pursuing your own wealth as lovers of money.

Jesus is all about the love and mercy and forgiveness of God and this is indeed good news and the early community later described by Luke in the book of Acts tried to free themselves of the hold money over them by selling everything that they had and sharing it in common.

As we know this way of being Christians whilst tried many times and in many ways through the centuries has never really taken hold but regardless of our ability to free ourselves from the hold of money over our lives, Jesus continues to stand declaring I forgive your 50 jugs of oil and I forgive your 20 bushels of wheat, I forgive your sin and let us be friends eternally.


  1. Thanks! This was the most useful commentary I found on this passage. Chapel attendees at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, USA thank you too!

  2. I've read at least a hundred explanations of the passage over 35 years of preaching, and I think yours makes the most sense of all. Thanks!

  3. I like this commentary, though I think it does go too far in portraying the Pharisees is a stereotypical negative light. the message is certainly directed at them, but not in a derisive, but instructive way, I think. They were good people who had to learn to see beyond the Law, as they had learned it.

    1. Thanks, anonymous (?), for the comment. There is a difficult balance with the Pharisees. I agree they were 'good people who had to learn to see beyond the law.' The polemical nature of first century debate within Judaism may mean that we overplay them in a negative light at time. This passage has a level of hyperbole about it. Jesus was being instructive and this certainly the sense of what I meant. I often find a level of irony in that Jesus' appears more tolerant of the disciples lack of understanding and questioning. Nonetheless, I am glad you found this helpful.

  4. This was MOST helpful. I echo "Laird's" reply.