Monday, November 19, 2012

Don't Be Homeless in Heaven!

Many view the story of the dishonest manager as one of Jesus' most puzzling parables, but Luke 16:1-13 contains a simple truth which is profoundly important for the modern church in the West.
 
He also said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions.
 
Note that the steward’s fault was not stealing, but spending the wealth foolishly.
 
“And he called him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.' And the manager said to himself, 'What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.' So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He said, 'A hundred measures of oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.' Then he said to another, 'And how much do you owe?' He said, 'A hundred measures of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, and write eighty.'
 
These debts are enormous. Some have proposed explanations that justify the manger’s actions, but all such explanations seem to be forced on the text for theological reasons. Based on a straightforward reading, it seems undeniable that the manger’s actions are dishonest, and indeed, he is identified as dishonest in the very next verse.
 
“The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.
 
Apparently, the master happened to identify the last minute changes that the manager had made to the financial records. It seems unrealistic that he would commend the manager for swindling him, but of course the parable is not intended to give a story that is necessarily probable, but instead to give a story that illustrates a certain truth. The point is not that the steward’s actions were legal or moral; the point is that they were very shrewd. The fact that the master was so impressed that he praised the steward for his cleverness even though it was he who was swindled emphasizes this point. In the beginning the steward was rebuked by his master for wasting wealth, but now the master praises him, seeing that the steward has learned how to use wealth effectively.
 
“For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.
 
Jesus explains that the actions of the manger are typical of the sons of this world, that is, those who do not belong to God’s heavenly kingdom. Clearly then, the manager is not intended to represent a wise Christian, nor for that matter is the master intended to represent God, or Satan, or anyone else. Like all parables, this story should not necessarily be interpreted as a strict allegory, in which all of the characters and events have a direct parallel to something in the real world. Rather, the interpreter should seek to find the central truth that the parable is intended to illustrate, which in this case is simply that a shrewd man or woman will use wealth to secure future benefits. The “sons of this world” demonstrate this shrewdness, and Jesus desires that the “sons of light” would demonstrate the same. The fact that such wisdom and foresight are found even in the wicked gives added force to the exhortation. Therefore, forcing an interpretation on the parable which justifies the manager’s dishonesty ultimately weakens its message.
 
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.
 
Here Jesus is essentially teaching the same truth that he taught his disciples before in 12:33: “Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys.” There is nothing to indicate that reception into the eternal dwellings is the same thing as entrance into heaven itself. According to the very next parable in 16:19-31, entrance into heaven is not something that can be granted by even the greatest of the saints (16:25-26). As 12:33 implies, it is possible to be poor in heaven; according to 16:9, it is apparently possible to be homeless as well! Of course, the language is at least somewhat figurative. It seems highly unlikely that some will carry literal purses with literal currency in heaven, just as it seems unlikely that others will be wandering through golden alleyways looking for a place to sleep. Jesus is simply teaching that if you use your money to help others, you will receive blessing, honor, and status in heaven. That the saints who were poor on earth should have the authority to deal out such blessings in the heavenly kingdom should not surprise us; according to Luke 6:20 (and Mathew 5:3), they own the place.
 
"One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
 
These verses further support the idea that it is wealth in heaven (“true riches”), and not entrance into heaven, which Jesus has in mind. The teaching here that faithfulness in small things will result in more responsibility is one that is repeated several times in Luke. In 8:18 Jesus stated that “whoever has will be given more,” apparently in reference to spiritual understanding. Later in 19:26 he states that “to everyone who has, more will be given,” in reference to authority in the kingdom.
 
“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."
 
Though our use of money has a bearing on one’s condition in the afterlife, perhaps more importantly, it reveals who one really loves; thus Jesus’ last statement gives a fitting climax to his teaching. Love of God and love of money are mutually exclusive. Serving God means relinquishing money.

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