Friday, May 21, 2010

Luke 16:14-18 Commentary

14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God's sight.

Additional Teachings
16 "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and people are forcing their way into it. 17 It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.

18 "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Dig Deeper
There is, in the United States these days, a growing chasm between people with large differences in their political and philosophical ideologies. At one time, it seems like the differences between different sides of the American spectrum were not that wide but they are growing day-by-day now. These two side are often characterized by the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” America is unique, though, in the larger swath of the world, because most political disagreements in America don’t come down to what is best for the country (although that is what both sides claim to want) but they usually come down to what is Constitutional (a phrase in America that has come to mean something that is in keeping with the principles of both the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence). One of the great themes in American life that was put into our DNA as a country from the Declaration of Independence has been the right that every American citizen has to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We are familiar with those items and place great value on them while vehemently opposing anyone who we might perceive as trying to impinge upon those things. One American issue that has really brought out this topic is the reforms in healthcare. Opponents of this reform have charged that those in favor of healthcare want to institute an aspect of healthcare reform that would encourage older Americans to end their life. They then have charged them with favoring socialistic policies that would infringe on people’s personal freedoms to make decisions for themselves like whether or not to have healthcare coverage. All of this reform, they argue, will ultimately destroy the American economy and cause, for the first time, a generation of young people who cannot hope to do better than their parents.

At the heart of this, in the American mind, is not really a debate over those specific issues. Wise Americans understand that those three arguments are, in many senses, an appeal back to the Declaration and the very ideas of what it means to be American. The hope of those who take those positions is that Americans will hear those three arguments and put it together that those are all aspects of what it means to be a “Constitutional” American: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Their hope is that people will come to share their point of view that those who favor a certain type of healthcare reform are actually embracing un-American ideas.

Because those arguments are all concerning healthcare, it is easy to see the connection. But when we look at passages like this one in Luke, it seems like Luke has given three rather different and unconnected topics. It’s quite probable, granted, that Jesus didn’t put these exact three thoughts together, one after the other like this, but that Luke has taken three different quotations from Jesus and put them together. One of the great mysteries that puzzles many commentators is how these three topics (the love of money, the coming of the kingdom as it relates to the Law, and divorce) come together. I believe, in agreement with scholars like Joel Green and others, that the best way to understand the connection of these passages is to see that Luke has put together these three aspects of Jesus’ teaching to appeal to a common Jewish belief that there were three “nets” in which Israel was snared (this is described, for instance, in the Qumranic text, the Damascus Rule, which was part of the Dead Sea Scrolls). These “nets” were the love of riches, profaning God’s word and the Temple, and fornication. It is quite possible that it is to these three abominations that Luke is appealing here.

The first charge mentioned by Luke against the Pharisees is in response to the fact that they have now devolved into full out ridicule of Jesus. They were apparently listening as Jesus charged his disciples with giving up their present ideas of wealth and the like to make friends in the eternal sense. Rather than being lovers of the eternal reality though, the Pharisees were lovers of money and the things of the present age. In the biblical times, the advantage of wealth went beyond it’s buying power and was seen as having the double value in the currency of status and honor. The more wealth one had, the more honored and the higher status they were. Thus, it was common in Luke’s day to use phrases like “loved money” to refer to idea that loving money was really loving self. They were caught up in the worldly system that they would have been so quick to denounce.

Jesus pointed out that rather than finding their status as God’s people, being justified, in God’s sight, they sought it out in the eyes of men. This is clearly demonstrated in passages like Matthew 12:45-46 in which we are told that the Pharisees wanted to arrest Jesus but didn’t because of their fear of the crowds. God was not their priority. What people thought of them was their true priority. If they really did think that Jesus was a blasphemer and that obeying God was all that mattered, then they should have sought to have him arrested regardless of what the crowds wanted or thought. They were caught up in being shown to be God’s people according to the values of man rather than valuing what God truly valued. They were clearly, Luke wants us to see, ensnared in the net of riches. That was strike one.

The second charge against the Pharisees, then, has to due with their lack of discernment and commitment to God’s will and covenant as found in his kingdom. Just as they were guilty of idolatry in serving money and the things of their own will rather than God’s will, they were equally guilty of idolatry in seeking their own version of the kingdom. All of the Scriptures, referred to as the Law and the Prophets, were proclaimed right up until the coming of John. John was the threshold of change, though. The Law and the Prophets pointed to and promised something new and it had now come. As the prophet Jeremiah had promised, “’The time is coming,’ declares the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers. . . . I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jer. 31:31-34).

The time of that promise had come, but people were trying to force their way into God’s kingdom rather than being justified into God’s family according to the promises that God had always promised through the Law and the prophets. The Scriptures had always pointed to the fulfillment of the scriptural promises and the new thing that God would do. It would be easier for heaven and earth to pass away (this was a common figure of speech that did not imply the actual passing away of heaven or earth but spoke of the ridiculousness of the thought that the thing being referred to could actually pass away) than for God’s promises in the law to pass away. Those who turn to this verse (and it’s parallel in Matthew 5:17-18) as a proof text to bolster their claim that the Old Testament Law is still binding in the New Covenant miss the point of Jesus’ words. His point was that the promises of God as found in the Old Covenant Scriptures were being fulfilled in his ministry. Not one of those promises were being dropped out and they never would be.

They were ones that were misinterpreting, or abolishing (the figure of speech used in Matthew 5) the law. Jesus’ ministry was fulfilling the Scriptures. The Law and the prophets shouldn’t be thought of as having no relevance or simply passing away, rather that they should be interpreted and understood in light of Jesus’ new kingdom announcement and ministry. In clinging to their own version of how God should work, the Pharisees were the ones who were misinterpreting, and thus profaning, the word of God and his new Temple, Jesus Christ. That was strike two.

They were guilty, declared Jesus, of loving riches and profaning God but what about fornication? From one angle, their idolatry of self could have justified the charge of spiritual fornication, but Luke drives the point home further by demonstrating one example of their loose interpretation of Scriptures and how that act of profaning God’s word had actually led them into fornication.

Anyone who divorced his wife, said Jesus, for the purpose of marrying another woman was guilty of adultery, which was a form of fornication. The commitment among God’s people to stay married was a commitment to stay married. To break that commitment was to engage in adultery. (this was not to say that anyone who has ever divorced and remarried cannot be forgiven and brought into God’s kingdom as a full member of his family, rather Jesus’ point had to do with their acceptance and embracing of divorce as a viable option despite the fact that this was contrary to God’s word).

As Luke has made clear, the Pharisees in their commitment to the idolatry of money and self, their profaning and rejection of God’s word, and divorce were actually distancing themselves from the very word they claimed to uphold. Luke will drive this irony home even further in 18:9-14 when he depicts a Pharisee standing up to pray to thank God that he was not like other men, a robber, an evildoer, or an adulterer. The very thing that they claimed to not be, is precisely what they were.

The unifying theme throughout this whole section, going back to the beginning of the chapter, is a matter of being loyal to God’s kingdom over the kingdom of self and the world. The Pharisees, as a representative group, had made their choice and rejected God’s truth as was evidenced by their actions. In the eyes of Jesus’ contemporaries they were firmly ensnared in the net of the world. The warning for us is to ensure that we avoid those nets and are people who are firmly committed to reflecting God’s image to the world around us.

Devotional Thought
We have seen that the three “nets” of the Jewish people were riches, profaning the word and the Temple, and adultery. If we were to create three “nets” for the people of your country or culture what would they be? How is your church family doing in casting off those nets and then helping others in your culture to escape them as well? What are some things that you all could be doing to better help people escape those particular nets?

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