The sixteenth chapter of St Luke contains a couple of stories that Jesus told: odd, quirky stories that are easy to misconstrue.
In the first, he tells of a crooked businessman. The guy realises that he is about to be fired from his job and so falsifies the accounts of his firm’s books in the favour of clients who presumably will, in return, offer him a position when he is finally sacked. Then it says “The owner [of the business] commended the dishonest steward….” What’s that? Is Jesus commending a crook? No, he’s commending someone with a bit of foresight: the guy knows he’s going to be canned, so he takes appropriate action: he looks ahead, he sees the cut-off day approaching and takes appropriate action: he gets ready for the evil day.
A modern version puts Christ’s explanation like this: “I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behaviour.”
Now this is a paraphrase. The original seems quite tough to understand: “Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
One commentary explains thus: “Jesus used the parable of the shrewd manager to give us lessons about managing the money God gives us, the value of true investments, and a warning about becoming a slave to money.” OK so, but don’t glide over the obvious point that this verse would seem to say that there is a connection between how you handle money in this life and your welcome into the next.
But where does the discussion of “the next life” come into it?
At the end of Chapter 16 comes the answer. Jesus tells a second story, this time about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had it all: he was “clothed in purple” and “feasted sumptuously” but he failed to notice the poor man at his gate, struggling in his poverty.
And then the cut-off point comes. Both die, and the poor man is comforted “in the bosom of Abraham” and the rich man is thrown into a “place of torment.” In a neat reversal, the rich man who enjoyed worldly fame and success is not named, whilst the poor man is: Lazarus.
So do you see the connection? The businessman, in the first story, knew what was coming and planned for it. The rich man, in the second story, disregarded what was coming and paid for it. In the story, Abraham admonishes the rich man: “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.” So once again we see the connection between present life and future life, and how you use your money now.
And, with all respect to Rob Bell, whose book Love Wins I found very stimulating and refreshing, there are some things said here about this future state which must be simply stated. This state is described as “torment” and “agony”. It is also a hopeless place: “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.” And yet the conclusion of the story would remind the listeners that whilst there is still life there is still opportunity to change one’s perspective: to start caring about the poor. The story insists that a reading of the Old Testament should make this crystal-clear: “They have Moses and the Prophets” and the Covenant spelled out in careful detail how the stranger, the widow, the dispossessed, were to be cared for by the community.
So don’t forget that the powerful challenge that Jesus makes here is against economic disparity and the unfeeling self-righteousness of the religious leaders. The rich man is not criticised for being rich but for being uncaring. This was the background for Dicken’s familiar story A Christmas Carol and the character of Ebenezer Scrooge: a rich man is forced to revisit the story of his own life’s choices and to face their ultimate consequence, and is offered the chance to make amends.
A book that made a tremendous impact on me was Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. I’ll close with three quotes:
“God’s Word teaches a very hard, disturbing truth. Those who neglect the poor and the oppressed are really not God’s people at all—no matter how frequently they practice their religious rituals nor how orthodox are their creeds and confessions.”
“We need to make some dramatic, concrete moves to escape the materialism that seeps into our minds via diabolically clever and incessant advertising. We have been brainwashed to believe that bigger houses, more prosperous businesses, and more sophisticated gadgets are the way to joy and fulfillment. As a result, we are caught in an absurd, materialistic spiral. The more we make, the more we think we need in order to live decently and respectably. Somehow we have to break this cycle because it makes us sin against our needy brothers and sisters and, therefore, against our Lord. And it also destroys us. Sharing with others is the way to real joy.”
“What an ironic tragedy that an affluent, “Christian” minority in the world continues to hoard its wealth while hundreds of millions of people hover on the edge of starvation!”
The principle is: “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.”
Pic by James Janknegt