Wealth is a killer. About half the stories in the newspapers seem to be about money in one way or another—the glamour and glitz it seems to provide, the shock and the horror when it runs out, the never-ending scandals about people getting it, embezzling it, losing it and getting it again. The lines between legitimate business and sharp practice are notoriously blurred. When does a gift become a bribe? When is it right to use other people’s money to make money for yourself, and when is it wrong? And then there are the robberies, burglaries, and the numerous other obvious ways in which money is at the center of simple, old-fashioned wrongdoing.
From a parable about money, Luke moves us to actual teaching about money. This passage contains some of Jesus’ strongest and most explicit warnings about the dangers of wealth, and experience suggests that neither the church nor the world has taken these warnings sufficiently to heart. Somewhere along the line serious repentance, and a renewed determination to hear and obey Jesus’ clear teaching, seems called for.
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. Money also, according to this passage, points beyond itself, to the true riches which await us in the life to come. What they are, we can hardly guess; but there are ‘true riches’ which really will belong to us, in a way that money doesn’t, if we learn faithfulness here and now.
If we don’t, we shall find ourselves torn between two masters. This situation was particularly acute in Jesus’ day. As in most peasant societies, there was a very small number of extremely rich people and a very large number of the very poor. The rich included the chief priests (some of their opulent houses in Jerusalem have been discovered by archaeologists), so any attack on the rich would include an attack on them. The Pharisees were more of a populist movement; but the danger they faced, with the land as a key part of their religion, was that they would equate possession of land, and the wealth it brought, with God’s blessing. Here Jesus makes it clear that this was not the way. He insists starkly that God’s standards are not just subtly different from human ones, but are the exact opposite.
Is Jesus saying something new in all this? The Pharisees might well have answered him by pointing out that there was much in the Jewish law which encouraged people to think that possessions were a sign of God’s favor. Jesus, of course, takes the opposite view, with a good deal of the prophetic writings obviously on his side; and the law itself commanded Israel to care for the poor and needy. His relationship to the Jewish law, though, is not exactly straightforward, and verses 16–17 need examining with some care.
He sees the law and the prophets (meaning the books we call ‘the Old Testament’) as taking their place in a sequence of events within God’s plan. They are not God’s last word; they hold sway until the time of John the Baptist, after which God’s kingdom has been coming in a new way. Something fresh is happening here, where Jesus is; but this doesn’t mean that the law and the prophets were wrong, or are now irrelevant. They remain fixed and unalterable. They are a true signpost to what God is going to do, even though they cannot themselves bring about the new day, the new world, that God is creating through Jesus. When, therefore, God does what he intends to do through Jesus, the law and the prophets will look on in approval, even though they couldn’t have done it by themselves.
Putting the passage together, we find the underlying challenge to be faithful: faithful in our use of money, faithful to God rather than money, faithful in our hearts not just in our outward appearances