Money Parables and Divorce and Remarriage

One of these things is not like the others.

March 19, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 60, Proverbs 19, and Luke 14—16.

I have said it before and I will say it again: I really quite detest the heading text in modern English Bible translations. That might seem a strange way to open a devotions post, but it connects. Trust me.

I was reading through Luke 14, 15, and 16 this morning, trying to put the various pieces of the narratives together in the way that Luke intended. Whenever I am reading, I am always trying to understand the text as a text, because that is how it was created and how God inspired it. The words we read are not abstract things, magic talismanic elements we can mix together as we please. The authors did things intentionally, as any good author does, and if we are paying attention, we will learn things from the construction of the books as we read them.1

So there I was, working my way through Luke 16, and I came to a verse about which I have thought a great deal because of its implications for pastoral ministry, laid out thus in the ESV:

…it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

Divorce and Remarriage

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divroced from her husband commits adultery.”

The Rich Man and Lazarus

“There was a rich man…”

—Luke 16:17–19a

On its face, Luke 16:18 is fairly straightforward—granting that the amount of ink spilled over the issues of divorce and remarriage means it is not totally straightforward. But the straightforwardness of the statement is much diminished if we separate out those headings and situate the verse in its broader context. Here is the whole chapter (which is perhaps just enough context). I have bolded 16:18 below, and removed all the headings. To feel the full force of the issue, I really do recommend you read the whole thing.

He also said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do, so that when I am removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.

"The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void.

"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

What in the world is this passage on divorce and remarriage doing in the middle of a discussion about handling wealth? Every other piece here fits together in a fairly obvious fashion. The parable about the rich man and Lazarus is clearly a rejoinder to the Pharisees attitude toward money. That attitude in turn was exposed by the Pharisees’ response to another parable about the relatively value of wealth in this life. Sandwiched between the two is this statement about divorce and remarriage—one that would seem perfectly clear on its own, but which set against the backdrop of this discussion on money seems to be aiming at something other than divorce and remarriage alone.

In truth, I am not entirely sure what Luke is doing here. My first guess, and one that Jaimie suggested as well when I pointed this out to her this morning, is that he is highlighting the way Jesus takes the law in contrast to the Pharisees. Whereas they were concerned with keeping the law in letter, he was concerned with the principle of the law. This is the same rhetorical move he makes in Matthew’s recounting of the Sermon on the Mount with this same issue, heightening the sense of the law by sharpening its demands on the listeners. “Here, you ‘righteous’ Pharisees,” Jesus seems to be saying, “I’ll see your legal requirements and raise you double that”—just before he goes on to hammer away yet more at their self-righteousness. That, in turn, makes the parables before and after this that much more convicting, that much more of a heart check. That is to the good.

In truth, I am still not sure that is what is going on here; tomorrow I intend to spend some time looking at this issue in the commentaries. But the heading obscures that there is even a point to be seen here. I nearly missed it this morning. I have missed it in the past, nearly every time I read through this section. I am therefore all the more strongly resolved to read the books of the Bible as books—to find ways to get away from the headings, whenever possible, and let the text be the text, as it was written and as it was inspired.

  1. To make the point a bit more forcefully: Can you imagine taking apart Shakespeare and trying to understand one couplet from a sonnet apart from the rest of the sonnet? Or trying to understand Eliot’s Four Quartets by reading a line here and a line there? It would be absurd and laughable, and rightly so.