Monthly Archives: May 2019
This was a long time in production. My apologies for the delay.
At first reading, the theme of this chapter is wealth; specifically, it is worldly wealth, how it compares to other-worldly wealth, and what the implications are for exalting the former over the latter. A few more readings, however, reveal that this is thematically more complex, and more subtle, than may first be apparent.
While the story of the unjust slave is unique to Luke, the summation is a quote also found in Matthew. This is the quote about God and Mammon. Since it’s in these two, it’s considered part of Q. But if the conclusion is part of Q, but the preceding story is not, whence came the story? Official answer: The L Source. Because there was not just Q, but also M and L, which account for the stuff unique to Matthew and Luke, respectively. So, not only was there one source that vanished without a trace, there were three. Oh, but M and L were oral. Oh? And the proof for that is…what, exactly? This is why Q becomes so problematic. Not only are we creating one body unnecessarily, we are creating three. It’s so much easier to credit the composition of this story to Luke’s particular brand of creativity. He took Matthew’s conclusion and composed a story to illustrate the moral more effectively.
And this story is particularly subtle. Think back to Mark. The longest single story in Mark is that of the Geresene demonaic, possessed by a demon or demons named Legion, for they were many (love that line). That is a great story, but subtle? Not so much. This story of Luke’s always puzzled me, probably because I never paid sufficient attention and didn’t hear or understand the lesson taught, or because the whole thing wasn’t read in church. I could never figure out why the master of the steward was impressed by the latter’s actions of cheating the master of debts owed; part of my failure to grasp the message was due to its subtlety. The master is impressed because the steward showed true cunning. It’s sort of like admiring the technique of a thief who has figured out a really clever way to steal something. Jesus tells the story and then agrees with the master’s assessment of the fraud. But! Jesus agrees for a specific and pretty narrow reason: the steward has demonstrated the sort of sharp practice that will get someone ahead in the chase of material wealth. This sort of practice, or behavior, will endear you to the practitioners of this age, to those who worship Mammon, so this will endear the steward and cushion his fall from grace when he is fired by the master he’s been cheating.
But then Jesus adds another twist. Yes, it shows cunning for worldly ends, but perhaps it can also help deal with other-worldly ends. For, he says, use it to prepare a place so that when wealth fails, you will be received into the tents of eternity. As an aside, tents is no doubt over-literal, but that is the basic meaning. It is prettied up as a metaphor in the various translations, and you are free to fashion your own metaphor, but, at its root, the word means tents. What are eternal tents? I rather skimmed over that in the commentary. Any time we encounter the word eternal, in any of its forms, we–at least I–start to think in terms of the afterlife, since that is the eternal realm of Christian thought. But how will riches help get you into the afterlife? Is Jesus, perhaps, being a bit ironic? How is that for a concept: Ironic Jesus. A quick glance at some of the commentaries indicate that I am perhaps being short-sighted, or too literal, or something such, since this is meant to imply that we use our material wealth for immaterial good such as giving to the poor. That is one possible interpretation, and “poor” is the translation of “friends”. Other commentaries suggest that the friends are angels, or even God. The point is that, should we be fortunate enough to have wealth, it should be used for the betterment of all in order to help ease us into the everlasting tabernacles. The problem that I have is that the very scattered approach to these interpretations clearly indicates a lack of consensus on this. No one, it appears, is all that certain what the intent of these few passages might be.
Because then we go on to the part about building trust: if you cannot be trusted in small things, who will trust you in great ones? That is a legitimate question, and one that every parent understands very well. We let our kids convince us to trust them in small ways, and then they eventually graduate to the car keys. But this seems to contradict the story we have. The steward proved himself not to be trustworthy, and then when caught he attempted more deceit to get him out of the jam. And the master was impressed. And the master was impressed? What this sort of muddle tells me is that Luke either did not sort this out in his head, or he wasn’t quite able to reconcile the various threads he was using, or that perhaps there are textual problems. By this I mean that the text got corrupted and some inappropriate words were inserted; however, the problem is that my text that is annotated for different mss traditions does not indicate any problems here. There is some quibbling about the exact form of the “received” word, but nothing beyond that. The other possibility is that this jumble represents the bad seam between several similar, but not exactly the same, versions of this story. That means we have to ask how likely it is that there were different versions of this story. Offhand, it seems unlikely as this is sort of an odd set of circumstances. This takes me back to the idea of Luke inventing a story to fit the God & Mammon moral from Matthew. Perhaps the story originated elsewhere. This would be in keeping with the way legends grow; new stories and characters are added as time passes, using, once again, the Arthur legend as the classic example. But even if Luke took over the story, he still has final editorial control, so the story is the way it is because he wanted it this way. The implication, therefore, is that Luke left us with something that it a bit ambiguous, whatever the reason for this condition.
It gets worse, at least potentially. In the next section, which is short, Luke ties this thematically to the favorite Bad Guys of the NT: the Pharisees. They, we are told, love money, so they get a bit annoyed by Jesus’ story. It is at this point that they are excoriated as those who push their way to the front of the line of the entrance to the Kingdom of God. This, in turn, raises the question of how is this possible, if the Kingdom of God is to be found in the afterlife, and is based on the merit we have earned in this life? It really isn’t. Which suggests the implication that the Kingdom of God and the reward in Heaven were not, initially, synonymous concepts. Since the Baptist was preaching the Kingdom of God, then it is not much of a stretch that John’s kingdom was not heavenly. And, interestingly enough, this would provide a solid theological basis for Matthew’s decision to refer to it as the Kingdom of the Heavens. He chose this different title because the idea it was describing had undergone a fundamental change: it was no longer a kingdom of the earth, but one in the heavens, gained only in the afterlife. That is an interesting thought. Then why did Luke revert to Kingdom of God? Because, by the time Luke wrote, the concepts of the Kingdom and the Life had become wholly interchangeable; no one expected an earthly kingdom any longer, so it was not necessary to frame the goal of life as the kingdom of the heavens. The Kingdom of God expressed the same concept. And here’s an interesting twist to that. My position is that even Mark was writing as much for pagans as for Jews, and Matthew certainly was addressing pagans almost exclusively. There was no longer much expectation that Jews would join the new movement. Mark used the old term, because he still had a foot planted firmly in the old ways of Judaism. Matthew did not have such a stance, so he forewent the Kingdom of God, replacing the term with Kingdom of the Heavens to get this point across to pagans. Such an audience of pagans would not bring the Jewish concept of an earthly messiah into the new religion, so the idea of a Kingdom of God, as understood by Jews, would not have been terribly meaningful. So Matthew used a different, more explicit term, one that definitely referred to the afterlife.
[As an aside, I checked the number of incidences of kingdom vs life in the gospels to see if there was a transition point. There really isn’t. Matthew uses the term kingdom slightly more often than Luke does, but the incidence of the Life is about the same in each. Where Life really becomes prominent is in John. ]
Anyway, the Pharisees are meant to indicate that the Jews no longer held favored status in the line to enter either the kingdom or the life. This was sort of a double-whammy; the Jews, of course, were the Chosen People, and the Pharisees were considered– by themselves, anyway– to be the Chosen among the Chosen. At least, this is how they are portrayed in the gospels, and we have to wonder how accurate this portrayal is; OTOH, Paul does sort of provide independent verification of this in Phillipians, when he brags about being a Jew among Jews, and a Pharisee.* To demonstrate the point, Jesus informs them that the Law and the Prophets held sway until John; but then, rather paradoxically, adds that not a serif of the Law will not pass away. This is such a great example of the uneasy cooption of Judaism by Christians; on one hand, the Jews had been superseded, but OTOH, Christians needed the legitimacy offered by the antiquity of Judaism. I’m reading Eusebios’ Ecclesiastical History, and he goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the idea of the Christ, and even the name of Jesus/Joshua was in the Hebrew Scriptures. There was an entire series of christs (lower case by design) that culminated with The Christ, The Saviour, known as Jesus the Christ. So Christianity has always been very ambivalent towards its Jewish heritage. Then we have a throwaway line about divorce, that doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the chapter. The context is so far disrupted that it seems there has been a break in the continuity in the theme of the chapter. We started with the story of the Wicked Steward, which led into the pronouncement being unable to serve both God and Mammon. But not to fear, we then jump to Dives & Lazarus, which is a great cautionary tale to illustrate what happens when we choose Mammon.
In between these, however, we have Verse 18, prohibiting divorce. This is so far off-topic that I completely forgot to discuss on it when we were in the commentary. This is hardly the first time we’ve noted the lack of continuity between stories. In fact, almost the entire Sermon on the Mount has this feel, of a bunch of beads strung together with only a thin–thin to the point of invisible–line connecting them behind the scenes. As always, this is one of the best arguments for Q: not that the Sermon on the Mount was so masterful, but precisely because it wasn’t. It’s just sort of episodic and discontinuous irregularity that is actually the most effective, IMO, argument for something like Q. Why the need to stick these small pieces in wherever one can, whether they fit or not? This fairly strongly implies that there was a body of teachings that Jesus supposedly uttered that Matthew and Luke felt compelled to include in their works. On balance, I do not believe this is enough to convince me of the existence of Q, at least not as a written document, but it does give me pause. As for the content of the prohibition of divorce, this is pretty much a repetition of what was said in Matthew, so it need not detain us.
Thus we arrive at Dives and Lazarus. Of the three gospels we’ve looked at, Luke is by far the most interested in the topic of rich and poor. Remember, he said “blessed are the poor”, which is not necessarily a “more primitive” version of “poor in spirit”. It is a completely different thought. “Poor in spirit” always sounded a bit legalistic to me; wealth, per se, isn’t bad so long as we are poor in spirit. This is despite the injunction to sell one’s possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. As a fable about how wealth corrupts, the moral is straightforward and clear and not needing much in the way of explanation. There is also another layer, one which ties back to the anger at the Pharisees. In his torment, Dives begs Abraham to send Lazarus to the house of the former’s father, so that Dives’ brothers can be told to repent. Abraham’s response is that they have the law and the prophets, and if they aren’t sufficient, why would they listen to someone returned from the dead? Let’s see, has anyone returned from the dead with a message of repentance? Oh, wait, Jesus! From the perspective of historical analysis, this nails down that the story was never, ever told by Jesus. This is obviously a story that developed after the Resurrection had become part of the core Christian message. So what we have here is yet another dig at the Jews. First, bad enough that they had not heeded the Law and the Prophets, but worse was that they had not listened to the message of someone returned from the dead. The fact that Rich-Man (literal translation of dives) was also rich, provided that extra little shot at the Pharisees.
* This is the only time the word “Pharisee” is used in the NT outside of the gospels.