If you’ve been following closely as we’ve made our journey through the Gospel of Luke, one of the things you’ve likely noticed is that the use of money is a major theme throughout. In fact, Luke gives us the impression that God’s preference is toward the poor over and against the rich. Think about where we’ve been so far:
- In Mary’s song in Luke 1, known as the Magnificat, she praises God for “pulling the powerful down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (1:52-53)
- In chapter 3, John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah and the people respond, “What should we do?” John’s answers are all about the use of money—share your possessions, don’t extort people, be satisfied with your pay (3:10-14)
- In chapter 4, Jesus announces his mission in the synagogue at Nazareth, quoting Isaiah 61—“He has sent me to preach good news to the poor.”
- Moving to chapter 6, in Luke’s version of the beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours” (note: not “poor in spirit” as in Matthew)
- In chapters 9 and 10, Jesus sends out his 12 disciples and then 70 others to preach the news of the kingdom, but they are to travel with nothing—relying completely on the kindness of strangers
- Many of his parables have an economic bent to them, as in chapter 12—the story of the rich fool who hoarded his resources instead of sharing them.
These are just a few examples. But actually, Jesus is not making this emphasis up on his own—if we go back to the Old Testament, we see that the use of money is a major theme in both the Law and the Prophets. We might sum it up best with a quote from the prophet Amos, where God won’t hold back punishment from Israel “because they have sold the innocent for silver and those in need for a pair of sandals. They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7).
Throughout the Scriptures, we read that perhaps the greatest indicator of one’s faithfulness to God is found in how one uses money and, in particular, how one treats the poor. In other words, if you want a gauge of true discipleship, it will be found in your checkbook register and credit card statement.
That’s a hard teaching, which is why it makes many people uncomfortable, especially in the church. Preachers are often reticent to talk about money and parishioners plug their ears or skip out that day. We’d rather talk about sexier topics—like sex, or faith, or blessings—but don’t hit us in the wallet.
The Dishonest Manager
But Jesus goes there, and goes there often. He is teaching his disciples the economics of the kingdom of God and one of the places where this comes into the clearest focus in here in Luke 16—a chapter dominated by two parables that are all about money.
In the first parable, a dishonest manager finds himself in trouble for squandering his master’s estate (much like the young son in chapter 15, which we discussed last week). In order to make up for his poor management, the manager has an inner dialogue with himself (remember, an inner monologue was usually reserved for nefarious people in Luke!). “What will I do now that my master is firing me as his manager? I’m not strong enough to dig and too proud to beg. I know what I’ll do so that, when I am removed from my management position, people will welcome me into their houses.”
So the manager embarks on a campaign of reducing the indebtedness of the master’s tenants. You owe a thousand bushels of wheat? Make it 800. In doing so, the manager gains favor from the tenants and makes his master look benevolent in the bargain. It’s a shrewd way of operating—using money to benefit others in the present and himself in the future. Jesus urges his followers to use money in the same way—for the present help of others and for one’s long-term good.
You can’t serve two masters…
But then comes the real thesis statement of Jesus’ teaching on money (v. 10-13). You can’t serve two masters—you cannot serve both God and wealth. Money is a good servant but a terrible master. Use it for God’s glory.
The Pharisees overheard this parable and “sneered” Jesus because they were “money-lovers.” The Pharisees, like many people in our own day, believed that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing on an individual. By contrast, poverty was a sign of failure—something that indicated a person’s dysfunction or laziness.
But Jesus has already disavowed his hearers of that notion. Time and again he says, “You can’t follow me unless you’re willing to give up all your possessions.” That’s the challenge to the rich young ruler in chapter 18—to identify more with the poor than the rich; to not allow yourself to be mastered by money but to be its master and use it for God’s glory; to see real blessing as not being found in the abundance of your possessions but in the fewness of your wants.
The Pharisees justified their love of money as a sign of God’s favor, but God knew their hearts. “What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God,” says Jesus (v. 15). Jesus points back to the Law and the Prophets (for us, the Old Testament) as a reminder of God’s economics and preference for the poor. The Pharisees, like many Jews, believed that the prophetic era had ended until the Messiah came. Now Jesus was announcing that all the Law and the Prophets had pointed to was becoming a reality. The Messiah had come to fulfill the Law, not supersede it. It’s moral force was still in effect and, warns Jesus, you had better pay attention—particularly to the part about money!
As if to reinforce this, there is a strange insertion about divorce in verse 18 that seems very out of place in context. Why does Jesus switch gears so quickly? Well, it could be because it illustrates his point—the Law said that it was possible for a man to divorce a woman by simply giving her a certificate. Jesus, however, intensifies the force of the Law, saying that a man who divorces for the sole purpose of marrying someone else is committing adultery. Like protecting the poor, Jesus uses the force of the Law to protect women who were vulnerable to men who constantly marry and divorce in search of the perfect trophy wife or to enhance their economic status. Here again, money and sex get intertwined! They are good servants but terrible masters.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
That leads us to the second parable about an unnamed rich man and another named Lazarus. This is not the Lazarus we find in John’s Gospel, whom Jesus raises from the dead, and yet the story does have something to do with resurrection as we will see.
The contrast between the rich man and Lazarus is striking—one wears purple (a sign of wealth and privilege), the other only wears his sores. One feasts sumptuously, the other simply hopes for table scraps. One is massaged by servants, the other licked by street dogs. Lazarus lays at the rich man’s gate, likely being stepped over by the rich man several times a day. The implication is that the rich man let Lazarus starve to death, even though he had more than enough at his table.
Death comes to both men, however—it is the great equalizer, after all. The poor man is carried “to Abraham’s side” and the rich man is buried and finds himself in Hades or “the place of the dead.” Now, usually at this point people hearing this story will begin to focus on the cosmology of the afterlife as a way of distracting themselves from the force of the parable. Jesus is not giving us a definitive view of heaven and hell (neither word or concept is used here, in fact), but rather calls us to view the reversal of fortunes of the rich and poor in God’s economy. As he has said many times already in Luke, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
The point is that Lazarus, once poor and neglected, is now with Abraham the patriarch—truly one of God’s chosen people. The rich man, on the other hand, finds himself on the outside and in torment. In life the situations were reversed—the rich man had his version of “heaven on earth” which he defined by his wealth. Now the situation was reversed. Still, the rich man sees Lazarus as someone beneath him—“Send him down here, Abraham, to cool my tongue.” Now the rich man will know what it’s like to go wanting and feel pain.
So the rich man changes gears—“Father Abraham, I beg you to send Lazarus to my father’s house to warn my five brothers about the fate that awaits them if they don’t change their ways (his pattern of privilege was apparently hereditary).” Abraham’s reply is stark and reinforces what Jesus has already said: “They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.”
“But that won’t do it!” the rich man protests. “If someone comes back from the dead and tells them, then they will change their hearts and lives.” Abraham’s response? “If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
There’s an echo here of the end of last week’s parable—the story of the father and his two sons. Remember how it ends? The younger son returns home—poor and broken—while the older son sulks over his father’s offer of grace. The father then says to the older son, “This brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” But the story is left hanging, the older brother—like the rich man in this parable—wanting to keep the poor, ragged brother or neighbor out of sight and out of mind.
Jesus had been doing exactly the opposite in his ministry, of course. He was constantly criticized by the Pharisees for eating with tax collectors, outcasts, and sinners. Why does Jesus do this? It’s a sign that he is putting into the practice in the present world the great reversal that is coming in the future—putting the priority on the least, the last, and the lost over and against the rich, the elite, and the privileged, just as the Law and the Prophets had commanded. The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were behaving toward the people Jesus was welcoming exactly like the older son behaved toward his prodigal brother and like the rich man had behaved toward Lazarus. And just like the dishonest manager who saved his own bacon in the nick of time, Jesus now urges the Pharisees to change their ways before it’s too late.
If they don’t change their ways, and adapt their economics to the way of God revealed in the Scriptures, then even someone rising from the dead won’t bring them to their senses. Then again, we know that someone did rise from the dead. We above all need to pay attention to what he says.
Like the Pharisees, it is so easy for the people of God to be caught up in an economy where wealth is seen as a personal blessing and poverty a kind of curse. Our economy tends to reward the rich and denigrate the poor, and that value can become gospel (small g) in a culture enslaved by materialism. Jesus reminds us, however, that a great reversal is coming with his kingdom—and that how we treat the poor has eternal consequences. The question is whether we will take our economic cues from the halls of government or the pundits on Wall Street, or will we take them from the one who has risen from the dead and teaches us the way of the God’s coming kingdom?
It’s not that having wealth is bad. Money, by itself, is not the root of all kinds of evil, it’s the love of money that gets us into trouble. It’s love of money that causes us to hoard it for ourselves and causes us to step over others in need who might come across our paths. It’s love of money that makes us feel blessed when we have it and cursed when we don’t. Love of money causes us to want to skip over the Bible’s rules for its use and talk about something else.
Of course, we can also try to skip what the Bible says by claiming that we ourselves are poor. Remember what Nelson Rockefeller, one of the richest men in the world in his day, said when asked how much more money he needed to feel secure? “A little more than I have,” was his response. Wealth is relative, but here’s a startling fact—according to Oxfam, if you make just $32,400 a year, you are in the top 1% of the wealthiest people in the world. My guess is that covers most if not all the families in the room today. 99% of the world is poorer than we are—and that’s a staggering number. The median average income per household worldwide is less than $10,000. In reality, we who are the 1% hold 48% of the world’s total wealth. The question is, what will we do with it? The answer, according to Jesus, has eternal consequences.
Disciples of Jesus put money in its proper place—as a tool to be used for the benefit of others and benefit our future in God’s kingdom. Disciples invest their treasure on earth in light of God’s coming kingdom—seeing themselves as stewards of God’s resources rather than owners. Disciples work for justice for the poor, calling out policies and structures that oppress them. They treat the poor with dignity, as brothers and sisters, recognizing that God is for them and so should we be.
How do we begin to do that? I’m convinced, and convicted, that we won’t get it until we actually get to know the poor. It’s too easy to listen to politicians and pundits talk about the poor as though they are a problem to be solved, and too easy to pass by that person on the street or standing at the intersection and not even look at them. Of that I am guilty—of the pang that says, “Get a job.” But then I remember what it was like when I was a teenager in a home barely scraping by—when I had the humiliation of having to pick up a free lunch token at school every day, to come home and only have generic white bread and cheese slices to eat, and to have members of my home church slip bags of groceries into my car while services were going on. If it wasn’t for those generous people, I don’t know where I would be. My sisters and I were their Lazarus—and I am eternally grateful for their generosity.
Who is your Lazarus?
That’s the question that lingers for me and convicts me when I read this text: Who is my Lazarus? Who is the Lazarus at your gate? How can you lift him (or her) up? What are you willing to invest in order to make the coming kingdom a reality on earth as it is in heaven?
In a world where chasm between rich and poor seems to grow larger and more permanent, those of us who follow Christ must be willing to stand in the gap with both our money and our time. It’s not about charity, nor is it about socialism, it’s about the way of the kingdom. When we prioritize giving—be it money, food, time, or talent—on behalf of others who can’t pay us back, we are following the way of Jesus. We see ourselves not merely as stewards of money, but caretakers of all God’s children.
Call it “The Lazarus Effect.”