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Is God a Loan Shark? (Luke 16)

Loan Sharks

It happened in just the way I thought it would. We were reading through the Gospel of Luke at our Meeting Jesus Conference and Luke 16 was read which includes the parable of the unfaithful steward. During the question and answer time of the conference, someone wanted to know why the unrighteous steward was “praised” by the master. Does God approve of shady business deals? Was the steward being praised for being dishonest? What is going on in this parable?! When we read through the gospels or the Bible in general, we tend to forget everything we read in the previous chapters whenever we see the number for the new chapter and the header title. It’s the way our brains are wired. We are busy compartmentalizing the gospel stories and detaching them one from another. But for Luke, who did not have chapter divisions in the original manuscript, the parable that Jesus shares in Luke 16 is part of a continual flow of thought from what took place in Luke 15. In Luke 15 we heard about a good shepherd who searched diligently for a lost sheep, a woman who searched diligently for a lost coin, and a father who rejoiced at the recovery of a lost son. Now in Luke 16, we are hearing about the bad shepherds who don't seek out what was lost, but rather seek to exploit what was entrusted to them. On top of that, they also lack the wisdom to repent when their day of reckoning arrives, unlike the prodigal son. Jesus' parable about a master and his unfaithful steward is not a story about ethics. Jesus isn’t saying that God is like a shady business owner or a loan shark, which we might have to conclude otherwise. The emphasis of this story lies, not on the master, but on the precarious position of the unfaithful steward. Luke 15 was all about what a good shepherd would do if he lost a sheep, what an honorable woman would do if she lost part of her dowry, and what an honorable father would do if he lost a son. Luke 16 is about what bad shepherds should do once they have been found out and their day of reckoning is approaching. The Chief Priests are those who had been entrusted with shepherding God’s people and the Pharisees were the self-appointed gate-keepers of Israel. But Jesus has come with a high critique for the way that they have carried out their commissions. The point of the parable of the unfaithful steward is that this unscrupulous man knew what to do once he was aware that his day of reckoning was coming. The Pharisees on the other hand, don’t seem to have as much sense as this godless steward to escape the coming wrath while they can, to sue for peace while they can, and to take up the cross of the Kingdom while they can. The Pharisees had been jockeying for the best cabinet positions in the Kingdom of God but Jesus has been telling them “You haven’t been faithful with what belonged to someone else, (namely the sheep of Israel), why should you expect to receive a charge of higher importance?" No. They are going to find themselves at the back of the line. A person in the front of the line, finding themselves at the back of the line, is particularly what the second parable about the rich man and Lazarus is all about. Stories of the reversal of fortunes in the after-life were apparently common in Jesus’ day. They were so common, in fact, that we can see how Jesus changed the usual telling of such a story. Usually, messages from the dead are allowed to be delivered to those who are still alive, but in Jesus’ story, the delivery of the message is denied. I propose that the reason for this is due to the fact that time was running out for Israel. They had the law and the prophets, as Abraham points out in the story, and they weren’t listening to them. The prophet Jeremiah specifically warned against bad shepherds who not only neglect the sheep but who scatter the sheep (Jeremiah 23:1-2). Like the rich man in the second parable, the Pharisees looked with disgust at Jesus’ kingdom feasts because those whom Jesus was including in His inner circle were people the Pharisees expected to be licking up the crumbs at the feast at best. Instead, these “sinners” were in the seats of honor and the Pharisees were on the outside. The rich man in the parable continues to treat Lazarus as his slave even after the roles have been reversed. He asks Abraham to “send cool my tongue.” But Abraham says that this cannot be done because of the gulf that exists between them. There was only one way for the rich man to share in place of honor that Lazarus was enjoying and that was by acknowledging that Lazarus is his equal, something the rich man seems unwilling to do. We should remember that nobody was keeping the Pharisees from coming to the party that Jesus was having. They were simply refusing to come. This parable ends in the same way as the prodigal son. The older brother is standing outside the party seemingly unmoved by the fact that his brother was dead and is now alive and we don’t know if he will go into the party or not. And the rich man, from Hell, still looks down his nose at Lazarus. The vindication that Lazarus is experiencing seems to leave no impression on the rich man. And the rest of the rich man's family will be given no additional messages. If they can't see the long awaited justice of God being manifested in Jesus' kingdom feasts and healings, there is nothing more than can be done for them. They won't believe even if someone rises from the dead. They would do well to take a lesson from the unscrupulous steward and make peace with their master before there is not time left. God was establishing his kingdom in the midst of them and they were trying to force their way into it, but they were not willing to accept it as what it really is. We don't expect God to act like a loan shark or to approve of dishonest behavior.and thankfully He does not. But sometimes what we expect God would do or should do is far from accurate. When we meet the God that is rather than the God we imagined, we are faced with a choice of worship. Which God do we worship? The God that is, or the God that we made up? When God doesn't validate us as we stand, do we repent or do we reject God? That is what the shepherds of Israel faced when the Good Shepherd came to town and exposed their malpractice. And this is what each of us face when we look at Jesus, the image of God and the true human being, and we ask ourselves how are we are fairing in that double vocation?

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