Jesus believed that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself; he was only truly himself when he was on the way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding man; he believed that man was never essentially himself until he came home to God. William Barclay
“When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and an the angels with him, then he will take his seat upon the throne of his glory, and all nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from each other, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, enter into possession of the Kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you gathered me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you came to visit me…
View original post 924 more words
“When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and an the angels with him, then he will take his seat upon the throne of his glory, and all nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from each other, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, enter into possession of the Kingdom which has been prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you gathered me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you came to visit me; in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we gee you hungry, and nourish you? Or thirsty, and gave you to drink? When did we see you a stranger, and gather you to us? Or naked, and clothed you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘This is the truth I tell you—insomuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ then he will say to those on the left, ‘Go from me, you cursed ones, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you did not give me to eat; I was thirsty, and you did not give me to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not gather me to you; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick and in prison, and you did not come to visit me.’ Then these too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not render service to you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘This is the truth I tell you—in so far as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will go away to eternal life.”
God’s Standard of Judgment
This is one of the most vivid parables Jesus ever spoke, and the lesson is crystal clear—that God will judge us in accordance with our reaction to human need. His judgment does not depend on the knowledge we have amassed, or the fame that we have acquired, or the fortune that we have gained, but on the help that we have given. And there are certain things which this parable teaches us about the help which we must give.
(i) It must be help in simple things. The things which Jesus picks out—giving a hungry man a meal, or a thirsty man a drink, welcoming a stranger, cheering the sick, visiting the prisoner—are things which anyone can do. It is not a question of giving away thousands of pounds, or of writing our names in the annals of history; it is a case of giving simple help to the people we meet every day. There never was a parable which so opened the way to glory to the simplest people.
(ii) It must be help which is uncalculating. Those who helped did not think that they were helping Christ and thus piling up eternal merit; they helped because they could not stop themselves. It was the natural, instinctive, quite uncalculating reaction of the loving heart. Whereas, on the other hand, the attitude of those who failed to help was; “If we had known it was you we would gladly have helped; but we thought it was only some common man who was not worth helping.” It is still true that there are those who will help if they are given praise and thanks and publicity; but to help like that is not to help, it is to pander to self-esteem. Such help is not generosity; it is disguised selfishness. The help which wins the approval of God is that which is given for nothing but the sake of helping.
(iii) Jesus confronts us with the wonderful truth that all such help given is given to himself, and all such help withheld is withheld from himself. How can that be? If we really wish to delight a parent’s heart, if we really wish to move him to gratitude the best way to do it is to help his child. God is the great Father; and the way to delight the heart of God is to help his children, our fellow-men.
There were two men who found this parable blessedly true. The one was Francis of Asissi; he was wealthy and high-born and high-spirited. But he was not happy. He felt that life was incomplete. Then one day he was out riding and met a leper, loathsome and repulsive in the ugliness of his disease. Something moved Francis to dismount and fling his arms around this wretched sufferer; and in his arms the face of the leper changed to the face of Christ.
The other was Martin of Tours. He was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money; but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold, and Martin gave what he had. He took off his soldier’s coat, worn and frayed as it was; he cut it in two and gave half of it to the beggar man. That night he had a dream. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them; and Jesus was wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to him, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?” And Jesus answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”
When we learn the generosity which without calculation helps men in the simplest things, we too will know the joy of helping Jesus Christ himself.
Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
Matthew 10:8b-10 “Freely you have received; freely give. Do not set out to get gold or silver or bronze for your purses; do not take a bag for the journey, nor two tunics, nor shoes, nor a staff. The workman deserves his sustenance.”
This is a passage in which every sentence and every phrase would ring an answering bell in the mind of the Jews who heard it. In it Jesus was giving to his men the instructions which the Rabbis at their best gave to their students and disciples.
“Freely you have received,” says Jesus, “freely give.” A Rabbi was bound by law to give his teaching freely and for nothing; the Rabbi was absolutely forbidden to take money for teaching the Law which Moses had freely received from God. In only one case could a Rabbi accept payment. He might accept payment for teaching a child, for to teach a child is the parent’s task, and no one else should be expected to spend time and labour doing what is the parent’s own duty to do; but higher teaching had to be given without money and without price.
In the Mishnah the Law lays it down that, if a man takes payment for acting as a judge, his judgments are invalid; that, if he takes payment for giving evidence as a witness, his witness is void. Rabbi Zadok said, “Make not the Law a crown wherewith to aggrandize thyself, nor a spade wherewith to dig.” Hillel said, “He who makes a worldly use of the crown of the Law shall waste away. Hence thou mayest infer that whosoever desires a profit for himself from the words of the Law is helping on his own destruction.” It was laid down: “As God taught Moses gratis—so do thou.”
There is a story of Rabbi Tarphon. At the end of the fig harvest he was walking in a garden; and he ate some of the figs which had been left behind. The watchmen came upon him and beat him. He told them who he was, and because he was a famous Rabbi they let him go. All his life he regretted that he had used his status as a Rabbi to help himself. “Yet all his days did he grieve, for he said, ‘Woe is me, for I have used the crown of the Law for my own profit!'”
When Jesus told his disciples that they had freely received and must freely give, he was telling them what the teachers of his own people had been telling their students for many a day. If a man possesses a precious secret it is surely his duty, not to hug it to himself until he is paid for it, but willingly to pass it on. It is a privilege to share with others the riches God has given us.
Jesus told the twelve not to set out to acquire gold or silver or bronze for their purses, the Greek literally means for their girdles. The girdle, which the Jew wore round his waist, was rather broad; and at each end for part of its length it was double; money was carried in the double part of the girdle; so that the girdle was the usual purse of the Jew. Jesus told the twelve not to take a bag for the journey. The bag may be one of two things. It may simply be a bag like a haversack in which provisions would ordinarily have been carried. But there is another possibility. The word is pera(<G4082>), which can mean a beggar’s collecting bag; sometimes the wandering philosophers took a collection in such a bag after addressing the crowd.
In all these instructions Jesus was not laying upon his men a deliberate and calculated discomfort. He was once again speaking words which were very familiar to a Jew. The Talmud tells us that: “No one is to go to the Temple Mount with staff, shoes, girdle of money, or dusty feet.” The idea was that when a man entered the temple, he must make it quite clear that he had left everything which had to do with trade and business and worldly affairs behind. What Jesus is saying to his men is: “You must treat the whole world as the Temple of God. If you are a man of God, you must never give the impression that you are a man of business, out for what you can get.” Jesus’ instructions mean that the man of God must show by his attitude to material things that his first interest is God.
Finally, Jesus says that the workman deserves his sustenance. Once again the Jews would recognize this. It is true that a Rabbi might not accept payment, but it is also true that it was considered at once a privilege and an obligation to support a Rabbi, if he was truly a man of God. Rabbi Eliezer ben Jacob said: “He who receives a Rabbi in his house, or as his guest, and lets him have his enjoyment from his possessions, the scripture ascribes it to him as if he had offered the continual offerings.” Rabbi Jochanan laid it down that it was the duty of every Jewish community to support a Rabbi, and the more so because a Rabbi naturally neglects his own affairs to concentrate on the affairs of God.
Here then is the double truth; the man of God must never be over-concerned with material things, but the people of God must never fail in their duty to see that the man of God receives a reasonable support. This passage lays an obligation on teacher and on people alike.
The Daily Study Bible Series/the Gospel of Matthew Volume 1/Revised Edition by William Barclay
The Resurrection and the Life (Jn 11:20-27)
11:20-27 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, but Mary remained sitting in the house. So Martha said to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even as things are, I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him: “I know that he will rise at the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will live even if he has died; and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him; “Yes, Lord. I am convinced that you are God’s Anointed One, the Son of God, the One who is to come into the world.”
In this story, too, Martha is true to character. When Luke tells us about Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42), he shows us Martha as the one who loved action, and Mary as the one whose instinct was to sit still. It is so here. As soon as it was announced that Jesus was coming near, Martha was up to meet him, for she could not sit still, but Mary lingered behind.
When Martha met Jesus her heart spoke through her lips. Here is one of the most human speeches in all the Bible, for Martha spoke, half with a reproach that she could not keep back, and half with a faith that nothing could shake. “If you had been here.” she said, “my brother would not have died.” Through the words we read her mind. Martha would have liked to say: “When you got our message, why didn’t you come at once? And now you have left it too late.” No sooner are the words out than there follow the words of faith, faith which defied the facts and defied experience: “Even yet,” she said with a kind of desperate hope, “even yet, I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”
Jesus said “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered: “I know quite well that he will rise in the general resurrection on the last day.” Now that is a notable saying. One of the strangest things in scripture is the fact that the saints of the Old Testament had practically no belief in any real life after death. In the early days, the Hebrews believed that the soul of every man, good and bad alike, went to Sheol. Sheol is wrongly translated Hell; for it was not a place of torture, it was the land of the shades. All alike went there and they lived a vague, shadowy, strengthless, joyless ghostly kind of life. This is the belief of by far the greater part of the Old Testament. “In death there is no remembrance of thee: in Sheol who can give thee praise?” (Ps 6:5). “What profit is there in my death if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise thee? Will it tell of thy faithfulness?” (Ps 30:9). The Psalmist speaks of “the slain that lie in the grave, like those whom thou dost remember no more; for they are cut off from thy hand” (Ps 88:5). “Is thy steadfast love declared in the grave,” he asks, “or thy faithfulness in Abaddon? Are thy wonders known in the darkness, or thy saving help in the land of forgetfulness?” (Ps 88:10-12). “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence” (Ps 115:17). The preacher says grimly: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Ecc 9:10). It is Hezekiah’s pessimistic belief that: “For Sheol cannot thank thee, death cannot praise thee; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for thy faithfulness” (Isa 38:18). After death came the land of silence and of forgetfulness, where the shades of men were separated alike from men and from God. As J. E. McFadyen wrote: “There are few more wonderful things than this in the long history of religion, that for centuries men lived the noblest lives, doing their duties and bearing their sorrows, without hope of future reward.”
Just very occasionally someone in the Old Testament made a venturesome leap of faith. The Psalmist cries: “My body also dwells secure. For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the pit. Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore” (Ps 16:9-11). “I am continually with thee; thou dost hold my right hand. Thou dost guide the with thy counsel, and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory” (Ps 73:23-24). The Psalmist was convinced that when a man entered into a real relationship with God, not even death could break it. But at that stage it was a desperate leap of faith rather than a settled conviction. Finally in the Old Testament there is the immortal hope we find in Job. In face of all his disasters Job cried out:
“I know that there liveth a champion,
Who will one day stand over my dust;
Yea, another shall rise as my witness,
And, as sponsor, shall I behold—God;
Whom mine eyes shall behold, and no stranger’s.”
(Job 14:7-12; translated by J. E. McFadyen).
Here in Job we have the real seed of the Jewish belief in immortality.
The Jewish history was a history of disasters, of captivity, slavery and defeat. Yet the Jewish people had the utterly unshakable conviction that they were God’s own people. This earth had never shown it and never would; inevitably, therefore, they called in the new world to redress the inadequacies of the old. They came to see that if God’s design was ever fully to be worked out, if his justice was ever completely to be fulfilled, if his love was ever finally to be satisfied, another world and another life were necessary. As Galloway (quoted by McFadyen) put it: “The enigmas of life become at least less baffling, when we come to rest in the thought that this is not the last act of the human drama.” It was precisely that feeling that led the Hebrews to a conviction that there was a life to come.
It is true that in the days of Jesus the Sadducees still refused to believe in any life after death. But the Pharisees and the great majority of the Jews did. They said that in the moment of death the two worlds of time and of eternity met and kissed. They said that those who died beheld God, and they refused to call them the dead but called them the living. When Martha answered Jesus as she did she bore witness to the highest reach of her nation’s faith.
Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
John 16:12-15 “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth has come, he will lead you into all the truth. For he will not speak on his own authority and out of his own knowledge, but he will speak all that he will hear, and he will tell you of the things to come. He will glorify me, for he will take of the things which belong to me, and will tell you of them. All things that the Father has are mine. That is why I said that the Spirit will take of the things which belong to me, and tell them to you.”
To Jesus the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth, whose great work is to bring God’s truth to men. We have a special name for this bringing of God’s truth to men; we call it revelation, and no passage in the New Testament shows us what we might call the principles of revelation better than this one.
(i) Revelation is bound to be a progressive process. Many things Jesus knew he could not at that moment tell his disciples, because they were not yet able to receive them. It is only possible to tell a man as much as he can understand. We do not start with the binomial theorem when we wish to teach a boy algebra; we work up to it. We do not start with advanced theorems when we wish to teach a child geometry; we approach them gradually. We do not start with difficult passages when we teach a lad Latin or Greek; we start with the easy and the simple things. God’s revelation to men is like that. He teaches men what they are able and fit to learn. This most important fact has certain consequences.
(a) It is the explanation of the parts of the Old Testament which sometimes worry and distress us. AT that stage they were all of God’s truth that men could grasp. Take an actual illustration—in the Old Testament there are many passages which call for the wiping out of men and women and children when an enemy city is taken. At the back of these passages there is the great thought that Israel must not risk the taint of any heathen and lower religion. To avoid that risk, those who do not worship the true God must be destroyed. That is to say, the Jews had at that stage grasped the fact that the purity of religion must be safeguarded; but they wished to preserve that purity by destroying the heathen. When Jesus came, men came to see that the way to preserve that purity is to convert the heathen. The people of the Old Testament times had grasped a great truth, but only one side of it. Revelation has to be that way; God can reveal only as much as a man can understand.
(b) It is the proof that there is no end to God’s revelation. One of the mistakes men sometimes make is to identify God’s revelation solely with the Bible. That would be to say that since about A.D. 120, when the latest book in the New Testament was written, God has ceased to speak. But God’s Spirit is always active; he is always revealing himself. It is true that his supreme and unsurpassable revelation came in Jesus; but Jesus is not just a figure in a book, he is a living person and in him God’s revelation goes on. God is still leading us into greater realization of what Jesus means. He is not a God who spoke up to A.D. 120 and is now silent. He is still revealing his truth to men.
(ii) God’s revelation to men is a revelation of all truth. It is quite wrong to think of it as confined to what we might call theological truth. The theologians and the preachers are not the only people who are inspired. When a poet delivers to men a great message in words which defy time, he is inspired. When H. F. Lyte wrote the words of Abide with me he had no feeling of composing them; he wrote them as to dictation. A great musician is inspired. Handel, telling of how he wrote The Hallelujah Chorus, said: “I saw the heavens opened, and the Great White God sitting on the Throne.” When a scientist discovers something which will help the world’s toil and make life better for men, when a surgeon discovers a new technique which will save men’s lives and ease their pain, when someone discovers a new treatment which will bring life and hope to suffering humanity, that is a revelation from God. All truth is God’s truth, and the revelation of all truth is the work of the Holy Spirit.
(iii) That which is revealed comes from God. He is alike the possessor and the giver of all truth. Truth is not men’s discovery; it is God’s gift. It is not something which we create; it is something already waiting to be discovered. At the back of all truth there is God.
(iv) Revelation is the taking of the things of Jesus and revealing their significance to us. Part of the greatness of Jesus is his inexhaustibleness. No man has ever grasped all that he came to say. No man has fully worked out all the significance of his teaching for life and for belief, for the individual and for the world, for society and for the nation. Revelation is a continual opening out of the meaning of Jesus.
There we have the crux of the matter. Revelation comes to us, not from any book or creed, but from a living person. The nearer we live to Jesus, the better we will know him. The more we become like him, the more he will be able to tell us. To enjoy his revelation we must accept his mastery.
There are two great temptations in the Christian life; and, in a certain sense, the better people are, the more susceptible they are to them. First, there is the temptation to try to earn God’s favour, and second, the temptation to use some little achievement to compare oneself with others to our advantage and their disadvantage. But the Christianity which has enough of self left in it to think that by its own efforts it can please God and that by its own achievements it can show itself superior to others is not true Christianity at all.
Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the part of the estate which falls to me.’ So his father divided his living between them. Not many days after, the son realized it all and went away to a far country, and there in wanton recklessness scattered his substance. When he had spent everything a mighty famine arose throughout that country and he began to be in want. He went and attached himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed pigs; and he had a great desire to fill himself with the husks the pigs were eating; and no one gave anything to him. When he had come to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, and I—I am perishing here with hunger. I will get up and I will go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants.”‘ So he got up and went to his father. While he was still a long way away his father saw him, and was moved to the depths of his being and ran and flung his arms round his neck and kissed him tenderly. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger; put shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it and let us eat and rejoice, for this my son was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to rejoice.
“Now the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what these things could mean? He said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has got him back safe and sound.’ He was enraged and refused to come in. His father went out and urged him to come in. He answered his father, ‘Look you, I have served you so many years and I never transgressed your order, and to me you never gave a kid that I might have a good time with my friends. But when this son of yours—this fellow who consumed your living with harlots—came, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ ‘Child,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me. Everything that is mine is yours. But we had to rejoice and be glad, for your brother was dead and has come back to life again; he was lost and has been found.'”**
Not without reason this has been called the greatest short story in the world. Under Jewish law a father was not free to leave his property as he liked. The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third. (Deut 21:17.) It was by no means unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died, if he wished to retire from the actual management of affairs. But there is a certain heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, “Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead, and let me get out of this.” The father did not argue. He knew that if the son was ever to learn he must learn the hard way; and he granted his request. Without delay the son realized his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money; and he finished up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew because the law said, “Cursed is he who feeds swine.” Then Jesus paid sinning mankind the greatest compliment it has ever been paid. “When he came to himself,” he said. Jesus believed that so long as a man was away from God he was not truly himself; he was only truly himself when he was on the way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by blackguarding man; he believed that man was never essentially himself until he came home to God.
So the son decided to come home and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of slaves, the hired servants, the men who were only day labourers. The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day’s notice. He was not one of the family at all. He came home; and, according to the best Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that. The robe stands for honour; the ring for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring it was the same as giving him the power of attorney; the shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family were shod and slaves were not. (The slave’s dream in the negro spiritual is of the time when “all God’s chillun got shoes,” for shoes were the sign of freedom.) And a feast was made that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
Let us stop there and see the truth so far in this parable.
(i) It should never have been called the parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not the hero. It should be called the parable of the Loving Father, for it tells us rather about a father’s love than a son’s sin.
(ii) It tells us much about the forgiveness of God. The father must have been waiting and watching for the son to come home, for he saw him a long way off. When he came, he forgave him with no recriminations. There is a way of forgiving, when forgiveness is conferred as a favour. It is even worse, when someone is forgiven, but always by hint and by word and by threat his sin is held over him.
Once Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the rebellious southerners when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States. The questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered, “I will treat them as if they had never been away.”
It is the wonder of the love of God that he treats us like that.
That is not the end of the story. There enters the elder brother who was actually sorry that his brother had come home. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. Certain things stand out about him.
(i) His attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service.
(ii) His attitude is one of utter lack of sympathy. He refers to the prodigal, not as any brother, but as your son. He was the kind of self-righteous character who would cheerfully have kicked a man farther into the gutter when he was already down.
(iii) He had a peculiarly nasty mind. There is no mention of harlots until he mentions them. He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked to commit.
Once again we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to many a man; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many an orthodox man; that the love of God is far broader than the love of man; and that God can forgive when men refuse to forgive. In face of a love like that we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise.
The Gospel of Luke, Barclay’s Daily Study Bible (NT).
** William Barclay’s translation.
A Bad Man’s Good Example (Luke 16:1-13)
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a steward. He received information against the steward which alleged that he was dissipating his goods. He called him, and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your stewardship, for you can no longer be steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What am I to do? I have not the strength to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I will do, so that, when I am removed from my stewardship, they will receive me into their houses.’ So he summoned each of the people who owed debts to his master. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘Nine hundred gallons of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your account and sit down and write quickly, four hundred and fifty.’ Then he said to another ‘And you—how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A thousand bushels of corn.’ He said to him, ‘Take your accounts and write eight hundred.’ And the master praised the wicked steward because he acted shrewdly; for the sons of this world are shrewder in their own generation than the sons of light. And, I tell you, make for yourselves friends by means of your material possessions, even if they have been unjustly acquired, so that when your money has gone they will receive you into a dwelling which lasts forever. He who is trustworthy in a very little is also trustworthy in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If you have not shown yourself trustworthy in your ordinary business dealings about material things, who will trust you with the genuine wealth? If you have not shown yourselves trustworthy in what belongs to someone else, who will give you what is your own? No household slave can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot be the slave of God and of material things.”
This is a difficult parable to interpret. It is a story about as choice a set of rascals as one could meet anywhere.
The steward was a rascal. He was a slave, but he was nonetheless in charge of the running of his master’s estate. In Palestine there were many absentee landlords. The master may well have been one of these, and his business may well have been entrusted to his steward’s hands. The steward had followed a career of embezzlement.
The debtors were also rascals. No doubt what they owed was rent. Rent was often paid to a landlord, not in money, but in kind. It was often an agreed proportion of the produce of the part of the estate which had been rented. The steward knew that he had lost his job. He, therefore, had a brilliant idea. He falsified the entries in the books so that the debtors were debited with far less than they owed. This would have two effects. First, the debtors would be grateful to him; and second, and much more effective, he had involved the debtors in his own misdemeanours, and, if the worst came to the worst, he was now in a strong position to exercise a little judicious blackmail!
The master himself was something of a rascal, for, instead of being shocked at the whole proceeding, he appreciated the shrewd brain behind it and actually praised the steward for what he had done.
The difficulty of the parable is clearly seen from the fact that Luke attaches no fewer than four different lessons to it.
(i) In Lk 16:8 the lesson is that the sons of this world are wiser in their generation than the sons of light. That means that, if only the Christian was as eager and ingenious in his attempt to attain goodness as the man of the world is in his attempt to attain money and comfort, he would be a much better man. If only men would give as much attention to the things which concern their souls as they do to the things which concern their business, they would be much better men. Over and over again a man will expend twenty times the amount of time and money and effort on his pleasure, his hobby, his garden, his sport as he does on his church. Our Christianity will begin to be real and effective only when we spend as much time and effort on it as we do on our worldly activities.
(ii) In Lk 16:9 the lesson is that material possessions should be used to cement the friendships wherein the real and permanent value of life lies. That could be done in two ways.
(a) It could be done as it affects eternity. The Rabbis had a saying, “The rich help the poor in this world, but the poor help the rich in the world to come.” Ambrose, commenting on the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his goods, said, “The bosoms of the poor, the houses of widows, the mouths of children are the barns which last forever.” It was a Jewish belief that charity given to poor people would stand to a man’s credit in the world to come. A man’s true wealth would consist not in what he kept, but in what he gave away.
(b) It could be done as it affects this world. A man can use his wealth selfishly or he can use it to make life easier, not only for himself, but for his friends and his fellow-men. How many a scholar is forever grateful to a rich man who gave or left money to found bursaries and scholarships which made a university career possible! How many a man is grateful to a better-off friend who saw him through some time of need in the most practical way! Possessions are not in themselves a sin, but they are a great responsibility, and the man who uses them to help his friends has gone far to discharge that responsibility.
(iii) In Lk 16:10-11 the lesson is that a man’s way of fulfilling a small task is the best proof of his fitness or unfitness to be entrusted with a bigger task. That is clearly true of earthly things. No man will be advanced to higher office until he has given proof of his honesty and ability in a smaller position. But Jesus extends the principle to eternity. He says, “Upon earth you are in charge of things which are not really yours. You cannot take them with you when you die. They are only lent to you. You are only a steward over them. They cannot, in the nature of things, be permanently yours. On the other hand, in heaven you will get what is really and eternally yours. And what you get in heaven depends on how you use the things of earth. What you will be given as your very own will depend on how you use the things of which you are only steward.”
(iv) Lk 16:13 lays down the rule that no slave can serve two masters. The master possessed the slave, and possessed him exclusively. Nowadays, a servant or a workman can quite easily do two jobs and work for two people. He can do one job in his working time and another in his spare time. He can, for instance, be a clerk by day and a musician by night. Many a man augments his income or finds his real interest in a spare-time occupation. But a slave had no spare time; every moment of his day, and every ounce of his energy, belonged to his master. He had no time which was his own. So, serving God can never be a part-time or a spare-time job. Once a man chooses to serve God every moment of his time and every atom of his energy belongs to God. God is the most exclusive of masters. We either belong to him totally or not at all.
** William Barclay’s translation.