This week, at St. Paul’s Newman Center in Laramie, we have Father James DiLuzio visiting to perform his Luke Live, essentially a performance of the Gospel of St. Luke. We are on the final run of the gospel, covering chapters 17-24. I have to say, Father DiLuzio is quite an engaging, energetic fellow, and last night’s session was a blast. I’m looking forward to the next three, and I hope to report on them each day, with what we discussed and what observations we made. (And if anyone else has had the pleasure of joining Father DiLuzio for Luke Live, please feel free to share your observations!)
First, the format. Father DiLuzio recites a passage from Luke from memory (though occasionally he needs to refresh his recollection), acting out the scenes and infusing the text with all kinds of emotion and emphasis. Once finished, he then asks the congregation to share any insights, any gut-reactions, any thoughts. So we started last night actually tackling Luke 5 and the calling of the fishermen. Then he sang Judy Collins’ Fisherman Song, and after that we discussed what the great qualities of fishermen were, and why that played into Jesus’ choice to start calling his disciples from the fishermen. Once we exhausted that topic, we turned to Luke 16 to discuss some economics. I’ll go into detail about this part in moment. Once he finished his recitation, he launched into Feed the Birds from Mary Poppins, and we continued discussion. He concluded the evening with chapter 17, a short dicussion, and then with the song How Can I Keep From Singing?
While the fisherman discussion was interesting, I think the most enlightening aspect of the night’s talk came from his recitation of Luke 16. The chapter starts out with the parable of the dishonest steward:
Then he also said to his disciples, “A rich man had a steward who was reported to him for squandering his property. He summoned him and said, ‘What is this I hear about you? Prepare a full account of your stewardship, becaus eyou can no longer be my steward.’ The steward said to himself, ‘What shall I do, now that my my master is taking the position of steward away from me? I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg. I know what I shall do so that, when I am removed from the stewardship, they may welcome me into their homes.’ He called in his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He replied, ‘One hundred measures of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note. Sit down and quickly write one for fifty.’ Then to another he said, ‘And you, how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘One hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Here is your promissory note; write one for eighty.’ And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.”
Now, this is a hard parable for most of us to understand, and Father DiLuzio rightly identified that most of us in the congregation were uneasy with the message. It seems that we finally have something coherent to latch onto come verse 13, but we still have difficult text to wade through:
“For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with dishonest wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours? No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Again, this passage seems most unusual. We have Jesus telling us of a dishonest steward who, when his master discovered his dishonesty and fires him, goes out and reduces the debt owed by his master’s debtors. We look at this and cringe. The shifty devil is making free with his master’s property just so that he’ll be welcomed among the debtors once he’s out on the street. Can you imagine a banker today who, upon being laid off, calls in all the mortgage holders and reduces the mortgage amount by anywhere from a fifth to a half? We’d have federal investigations and the banker would be flayed on the nine o’clock news! But what does Jesus tell us? He practically commends the dishonest steward! The master commends the steward for being prudent. And then Jesus tells us to make friends with dishonest wealth! What in the world is going on here?
Father DiLuzio is very fond encouraging us to dig deeper into the text, to try to understand things better. If we have a negative reaction to the text, that’s a good thing, because at least we’re listening. Once we’ve listened, though, it is important to have a conversation, to discuss and reason about what is going on.
First of all, what we need to be aware of is the change of the meaning of the text over time. When Luke refers to dishonest wealth, he’s not talking about wealth accrued through dishonest means. Thus we can immediately rule out that Jesus is exhorting us to steal or embezzle or anything like that. Of course, we knew that…right? When Luke writes about dishonest wealth, what he’s really conveying is the notion that wealth has a psychological effect on us. It has a tendency to corrupt, it has a tendency to captivate us, has a tendency to become the prime motivator in our lives. Thus the warning about serving two masters: God and mammon.
Now, Jesus never meant for us to abandon all our material possessions. He never even demanded it of his apostles. Though Peter and James and John left all they had behind to follow Jesus, that didn’t mean they abadoned their profession, and we have hints that they did some regular fishing alongside the fishing of men. We also know that the apostles kept money on them, and we’re told in John that Judas was in charge of the coin purse. So when Jesus is telling us to make friends with dishonest wealth, he’s talking about learning to be good stewards of our wealth here in this world. Indeed, with that understanding, the next few lines fit in flawlessly. If we’re good stewards of such small matters as material wealth on earth, then we’ll be good stewards of by far more important things–such as the Kingdom of God. Conversely, if we can’t even handle our money, how can we handle by far more important things?
How, then, does this reflect back on the steward? For one, we have to be aware that the steward’s dishonesty was in part rectified by calling in the master’s debtors, rather than exacerbated. For example, if we understand the practices of the time, part of the debt the debtors owed went to the steward (and it is possible that the steward’s dishonesty came from charging such exorbitant fees for himself), and thus the debt the steward waived was the portion owed him. His prudence, then, came in shrewdly managing his affairs to weather a crisis (perhaps finding wisdom too late, since the crisis was essentially of his own making).
Now, we are not to commend the steward beyond his shrewd plan to manage his affairs successfully. After all, he is representative of the “children of the world”, as opposed to the “children of the light”. But the lesson is there for us wisely manage our wealth, neither placing it too high that we call down disaster on ourselves, nor disregarding it so that we be shown untrustworthy.
Continuing on just in my Bible, I have several subdivisions within the chapter: A Saying against the Pharisees; Sayings about the Law; Sayings about Divorce; and The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, Father DiLuzio handed us all of this at once, no divisions, and then proceeded to weave them together to form a consistent whole (whereas my Bible has a footnote stating that these topics are just randomly sprinkled in). So let me give you the text as a whole:
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him. And he said to them, “You justify yoursleves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets lasted unil John; but from then on the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone who enters does so with violence. It is easier for heave and earth to pass away than for the small part of a letter of the law to become invalid. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dine sumptuously each day. And laying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
“When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lararus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
“Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now his comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’
“He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them list to him.’ He said, ‘Oh, no, father Abraham, but if someon from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'”
The common theme connecting all this together, Father DiLuzio informed us, is the treatment of wealth, especially in terms of social status. We need to understand the doings of the time to really know what this is about. The talking about the law and divorce are just as connected to the Pharisees’ love of money and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
First let us examine the parable. What is the point of the story? Is it that the rich man goes to Hell for being rich, and Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham for being poor? Hardly. Though Jesus exhorts us time and again that wealth can pose an obstacle on the road to Heaven, it by no means automatically condemns. There’s a deeper meaning here. In those times, the setting was much more intimate than today. The poor on the streets were visible, they were known, and their life stories were known. Today, on the other hand, the poor are practically invisible. We barely see them, and if we do see them, we don’t know them. They’re tattered, dirty people huddling in the alleys, strangers, disconnected from the rest of us. So let’s try to imagine that we know the poor, that we know who they are, how they’re afflicted, and that they are literally at our doorsteps.
Certainly the rich man was punished for not sharing of his wealth with Lazarus, but it goes much beyond that. First, Lazarus is literally suffering at his door. Lazarus isn’t some bum in the alley, hidden and forgotten, but a known person right there in front of the rich man. The rich man not only did not share of the measly scraps from his table, but he completely disassociated himself from Lazarus. Why? Status.
At the time, status was a very important focus in people’s lives, and people of higher status could not be bothered with people of lower status. Indeed, a common practice at the time was, if a man could rise in status by divorcing his wife and marrying into a more affluent family, he would do so. The callousness of divorce was appalling. This is why Jesus mentions divorce in this setting, because of how it is treated as a means of climbing the social ladder.
This all, of course, is aimed at the Pharisees. They’re the ones guilty of perverting the law, of wielding divorce as a tool for social status. They’re the ones guilty of being so concerned with status and the esteem of their peers and of those of lower standing that their practices have become an abomination before God’s eyes. The alienation of the less fortunate, of those of lower status, is grave evil that earns, as in the case of the rich man, eternal torment.
So, the overarching message across this chapter? Be good stewards of your wealth, but don’t let it become the driving purpose. Don’t let the status that comes through affluence make you callous and alienated from others.
Father DiLuzio continued through chapter 17, but I’ll call it quits here, as the post is pretty long already.