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Luke 16:1-13








Catch up on the Story

Way back in chapter 4 of Luke, Jesus begins his public ministry by announcing that he will bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed, proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. In the story that Luke tells to this point, Jesus has been doing these things. Jesus’ actions and words have not always been exactly what the crowds and religious leaders expect.


Nevertheless, Jesus is resolute in his mission and practice. As we draw closer to Luke chapter 16, we find that Jesus is beginning his movement toward Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the center of the Jewish world, and it will be there that Jesus does his most important work. In Jerusalem, Jesus will be tried, suffer, die and rise again.


The immediate context of our passage is that of a collection of parables (see definition below) aimed directly at the Pharisees (religious leaders) and, now, the disciples. Some of Jesus’ most well know parables are found here. As Jesus has been doing throughout the Gospel of Luke, he is turning the current understanding of humanity’s relationship to God, the Law, and each other, upside down. Expectations about wealth are about to be overturned.


Central Point

Jesus is making a point about faithfulness and trust. To quote Tom Wright, “The key to it all is in the opening verses: it’s about faithfulness. Money is not a possession; it’s a trust: God entrusts property to people and expects it to be used to his glory and the welfare of his children, not for private glory or glamour” (Wright, 196). This is particularly pertinent for those who have been so richly blessed. And, for the most part, by living in America, we have all been richly blessed. Will we use the wealth we have been given to our advantage? Or, will we use God's gift to “make friends” with the poor, captives, oppressed, blind, and lame?


A common understanding in Jesus’ day was that those who were rich had been blessed especially by God, and those who were poor were sinners and had not been blessed by God. Jesus is turning this on its head. Just because you have been blessed with material wealth does not mean that God has looked upon you with more favor than others. Rather, God now desires that you use your resources to help the others that God loves –the ones that may not be able to help themselves.


Important Terms

Parables

From the Old Testament onwards, prophets and other teachers used various story-telling devices as vehicles for their challenge to Israel (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:1–7). Sometimes these appeared as visions with interpretations (e.g., Daniel 7). Similar techniques were used by the rabbis. Jesus made his own creative adaptation of these traditions in order to break open the worldview of his contemporaries and to invite them to share his vision of God’s kingdom instead. His stories portrayed this as something happening, not just a timeless truth, and enabled his hearers to step inside the story and make it their own. As with some Old Testament visions, some of Jesus’ parables have their interpretations (e.g., the sower, Mark 4); others are thinly disguised retellings of the prophetic story of Israel (e.g., the wicked tenants, Mark 12) (Wright, 312).


Pharisees, Legal Experts, Lawyers, and Rabbis

The Pharisees were an unofficial but powerful Jewish pressure group through most of the first centuries bc and ad. Largely lay-led, though including some priests, they aimed to purify Israel through intensified observance of the Jewish law (Torah), developing their traditions about the precise meaning and application of scripture, their patterns of prayer and other devotion, and their calculations of the national hope. Though not all legal experts were Pharisees, most Pharisees were thus legal experts.


They affected a democratization of Israel’s life since the study and practice of Torah were equivalent to worshipping in the Temple—though they were adamant in pressing their own rules for the Temple liturgy on an unwilling (and often Sadducean) priesthood. This enabled them to survive ad 70 and, merging into the early Rabbinic movement, to develop new ways forward. Politically they stood up for ancestral traditions and were at the forefront of various movements of revolt against pagan overlordship and compromised Jewish leaders. By Jesus’ day, there were two different schools, the stricter one of Shammai, more inclined towards armed revolt, and the more lenient one of Hillel, ready to live and let live.


Jesus’ debates with the Pharisees are at least as much a matter of agenda and policy (Jesus strongly opposed their separatist nationalism) as about details of theology and piety.