by Ed Gallagher
On Saturday I went to the gym to get on the elliptical machine. The place was packed. I spent thirty minutes working out. A lot of the people who were there when I showed up were still there when I left. It won’t be the last time I go to the gym; if you really want it to do any good, you’ve got to go back pretty frequently. But isn’t it all pretty ridiculous? We have a culture in which we eat so much and move so little that we regularly have to schedule time, significant amounts of time in our week, to work off the calories we refuse to stop consuming. The point that I’m driving at is not about gluttony, though I definitely need to hear that lesson. But I’m talking about money. We actually pay money to join a gym to counteract the fact that we eat so much. That’s just one example of the fact that a lot of American Christians have money (and calories) to burn.
We tend to think of Jesus as talking to an audience without a whole lot of money. Sometimes he talked to the Jewish leadership, and they probably had a bit of money, but for the most part he directed his comments to the poor and outcast. Let me just say, if that’s true, he sure did talk a lot about money to these people without any money—especially in Luke. “Luke’s Gospel is renowned for having a large amount to say on the topic of riches and poverty,” says scholar Christopher Tuckett (p. 94). Now, it may be that Jesus wanted to fire up his base by condemning other people; that is, maybe he talked about the evil One Percent to a bunch of poor people. That doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing Jesus would do. And as we look at his audience of outcasts, we might notice that they are not necessarily outcasts (I’ve mentioned this before), and they weren’t necessarily poor. Remember the folks that Jesus is talking with at the beginning of Luke 15? It’s the tax collectors and sinners, along with the scribes and Pharisees. Everything we know about tax collectors suggests that these are people with money, who are friends with other wealthy people. So maybe Jesus’ audience was more diverse than we usually imagine.1
At any rate, we also are a part of Jesus’ audience—or, at any rate, the audience of the Gospel of Luke. Surely Luke chose the particular stories and episodes for his portrayal of Jesus because he intended, in part, for wealthy people to hear Jesus’ teaching on wealth. So let’s listen closely.
Money in Luke
Luke 16 is our focus here, and it is a chapter about money (and a little bit extra, vv. 16–18, which we won’t discuss here). The chapter is dominated by two parables, one at the beginning (vv. 1–9) and one at the end (vv. 19–31), that both start the same way: “There was a rich man.” When Jesus talks about wealth, he usually has some pretty annoying things to say about it—annoying for someone who likes money.
Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.Luke 12:33–34
Or remember this one?
How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.Luke 18:24–25
And, no, sorry, the “eye of a needle” was not a reference to a short or narrow gate in Jerusalem that a camel could go through only with difficulty. That interpretation is no earlier than Medieval, and it was probably developed by someone with money, or someone who wanted to win the favor of a patron.
And Jesus even says the same thing another time.
So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.Luke 14:33
There are more annoying passages in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6).
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.Luke 6:20–21
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.Luke 6:24–25
A little later Jesus repeatedly tells his followers to give their stuff away without expecting anything in return (6:30, 34, 35).
There’s also the rich fool, who builds storerooms for all his stuff but is not rich toward God (12:13–21). Speaking of the rich fool, some people today actually have so much stuff that they literally rent out storage units in order to store their stuff. I’m glad I don’t do that. (I have a detached garage where I can put my junk.)
Even in contexts that shouldn’t have anything to do with money, somehow money comes up. Like when Mary is rejoicing about God’s mercy upon her in the form of her pregnancy—which seems to have nothing to do with money—Mary talks about how God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:53).
The Gospel of Luke, more than the other Gospels, seems to be against rich people. One rich guy who comes off pretty good is Zacchaeus, but that’s only because he (more-or-less) does what Jesus commands and gives away his money (19:8).
I’ve tried to paint the picture as starkly as possible so that we will get as uncomfortable about our wealth as I think Jesus wanted us to be. But, actually, I have painted the picture more starkly than even Luke painted it. Not everything in Luke’s Gospel that concerns money is wholly negative.2 Some wealthy women are credited with providing for Jesus and his followers during the Galilean ministry (8:1–3). Joseph of Arimathea, who seems to have money, is represented positively as giving Jesus an honorable burial (23:50–53). And, of course, the Good Samaritan (10:30–37) provides an example for our imitation because he used his money on behalf of others. And then if we look ahead to Acts, there’s not really an emphasis on giving away all possessions but instead on using those possessions for others (and, of course, not lying about it; Acts 5:1–11).
What I think we can say, then, is that Luke’s Gospel tends to present a very provocative and negative impression of the value of money, but when we try to reconcile everything in the Gospel, and especially when we add in Acts, it seems that Luke’s view would not be very far from what we read in 1 Timothy.
As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.1 Timothy 6:17–19
The Unrighteous Steward
This parable is one of the most difficult in the Gospels. Is the unrighteous steward an example for us to imitate or an example of what not to do? And what is going on with his telling the people to reduce their bills? How does that help him? And why is the master happy about it? These are hard questions that I don’t have the answers to. But I’ll offer a possible way of understanding what’s going on.
The parable begins by noting that the unrighteous steward had been squandering his master’s money (16:1), just as the prodigal son had squandered his inheritance (15:13). Just last night I saw a commercial on TV—one of those AT&T commercials about how it’s not okay to be okay—and this commercial involved a financial advisor who had several pictures showing the nice vacations he enjoyed, with the implication that he was using other people’s money for his own enjoyment. (I guess it was this tax professional commercial.) I imagine this unrighteous steward was doing something like that—putting personal expenses on the company credit card or something.
The manager gets fired (v. 2) and develops a plan “so that, when I am dismissed as manager”—which apparently hasn’t quite happened yet—“people may welcome me into their homes” (v. 4). So it looks to me like his idea is to use his quickly expiring power to get some of his master’s clients to owe him a favor (like a lame duck President pardoning his friends). The manager wants them to “welcome me into their homes”—maybe to offer him a job as their house’s manager. So he calls them and reduces their bills (vv. 5–7). It seems a little sneaky, but the manager’s desperate. The weird thing is that the master ends up praising the manager (v. 8), which seems odd since the manager has just apparently cheated the master out of some significant income. My guess at why the master views this as a good thing is that he will come off as generous and a benefactor, and these clients will view the master even more highly. They will be loyal to him. So even though the manager was working in his own best interests, he ended up serving his master’s interests, as well. So is the manager still fired? Who knows.
I’m not sure I’ve interpreted the parable correctly. If you look in some Luke commentaries, you’ll probably find a different interpretation in each commentary. But Jesus is explicit about the point he wants to derive from the parable.
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.Luke 16:9
In that way, the unrighteous steward is an example for us. Maybe we shouldn’t imitate exactly his methods, but he did make friends with “the mammon of unrighteousness,” as the KJV puts it. The point is: use your unrighteous mammon to “make friends”; use it on behalf of others.
Faithful with a Little
The parable of the unrighteous steward leads immediately to Jesus’ more explicit teaching on money (vv. 10–13), culminating in the familiar statement, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (v. 13; cf. Matt 6:24). Here the main thing I want to stress—and I think it’s also what Jesus wanted to stress—is (1) that our unrighteous mammon is a “very little thing” in the grand scheme of things (v. 10) and (2) our unrighteous mammon doesn’t belong to us (v. 12). We are in the same position as that unrighteous steward, taking care of what belongs to someone else.
Listen, the fact that we have a bunch of money has almost nothing to do with our own wonderful qualities as human beings. Well, yes, it has something to do with those things. If we were stupid and lazy, we probably wouldn’t have money. The book of Proverbs talks about that. But there are a lot of relatively intelligent people who also work pretty hard who do not have anywhere near as much money as many people in America have. I know; I’ve met some of these people. They certainly work harder than I do. But the reason I have more money than them is because I happened to be born in America and they weren’t. Or I happened to be born to the right set of parents, who trained me in how to navigate opportunities and made sure I got plenty of them. I can’t really claim that the reason I have money and people in other places don’t is because I’m a better person than they are. No, it’s just that somehow I got the assignment to manage some of God’s money. I don’t see how we can interpret Luke 16:10–13 in any way other than that the money we have is not our own. It belongs to another. So unless we use it the way our Master wants us to use it, we’re going to get fired like that unrighteous steward—by which I do not mean that we won’t have the money anymore (well, we won’t), but rather that we’ll be expelled from our Master’s presence (see Luke 13:27; Matt 7:23).
The Rich Man and Lazarus
This parable is more familiar and more straightforward than the one at the start of the chapter. I’m just going to highlight a few aspects of the parable here. Earlier Jesus had pronounced a “woe” upon the rich (6:24) in these terms: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” Here we have a parable illustrating this woe. Abraham says to the rich man: “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony” (v. 25). This is the great reversal that Mary had also mentioned (1:52–53).
What is quite disconcerting about the way Abraham words his rebuke to the rich man in v. 25 is that he does not say that the rich man is being punished for ignoring Lazarus or not using his wealth on behalf of others. He just says the rich man is being punished for being wealthy. The rich man had a comfortable life, so now it’s his turn to suffer.
We’ve already seen, however, that Luke sometimes includes these sorts of black-and-white statements in his Gospel and he balances them out with more moderate statements about the proper use of wealth. I think we get a hint of that in this parable, as well. The rich man wants Lazarus to go and warn his brothers (v. 27). What does he want Lazarus to tell them? Surely it’s that they need to use their money not on their own lavish lifestyles but rather on those poor people like Lazarus who are right outside their door—the same message the late Jacob Marley proclaims.
It is required of every man, the Ghost returned, that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!Marley’s Ghost, in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
Abraham tells him that the brothers need to listen to Moses and the prophets. The rich man actually says that his brothers are not going to listen to Moses and the prophets on this score. What passages of Moses and the Prophets do you think they have in mind? How about these?
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the LORD your God.Leviticus 19:9–10
Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.Deuteronomy 14:28–29
If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.Deuteronomy 15:7–8
Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!”Amos 4:1–2
That’s merely a sampling. Abraham knows what he’s talking about: Moses and the prophets have a lot to say about how to use your money. And the way you’re supposed to use it is for the benefit of the Lazaruses out there.
The rich man says his brothers are not going to listen to Moses and the prophets. Are we?
Ask yourself the question: “If I were going to glorify God with my money, what would I do? If I were going to be faithful with this unrighteous mammon, which my Lord calls a very little thing that doesn’t even belong to me—if I were going to be faithful with what has been entrusted to me, what would I do?” Ask yourself that question, and then decide if you want to be faithful with your unrighteous mammon.
In the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (Luke 16:1–9), what is the steward’s problem and what is his plan to fix his problem?
Do you think Jesus wants us to admire the dishonest steward? Are we supposed to imitate him? If so, how should we imitate him? If we are not supposed to imitate him, why does Jesus tell the parable?
How does the teaching of Jesus in Luke 16:10–15 relate to the Parable of the Dishonest Steward?
In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), what point is Jesus making about money?
Why does the rich man want Lazarus to talk to his brothers? What does he want Lazarus will tell them?
(1) See Greg Carey, Luke: All Flesh Shall See God’s Salvation, An Introduction and Study Guide (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 12–13.
(2) Tuckett, Luke, 94–110 stresses the multiple sides to Luke’s Gospel on money. See also Carey, Luke, 62–64.