Monday, March 01, 2021

Luke 16:14-18

Luke 16:14–18 (ESV): The Law and the Kingdom of God, Divorce and Remarriage


In the previous passage Jesus had hinted to his followers that maybe some things are more important than money. In this passage we find out that the Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” didn’t agree, so they ridiculed him for it (verse 14 (ESV)). But Jesus answers them:

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."

(verses 15–17 (ESV))

After this, Luke lumps in another teaching of Jesus’, that seems to be simply thrown at random between this teaching and the next parable:

“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery." (verse 18 (ESV))

I don’t actually have much to say about this verse, since, other than its placement, it seems self explanatory.


It is very easy to look down our noses at the Pharisees, who ridiculed Jesus for hinting that worshipping God is more important than worshipping money. When you phrase it like that, of course God should be more important to us than money! But we should keep in mind a couple of things:

  • In the Pharisees’ day (and, therefore, Jesus’ day), it wasn’t common to pull those two things apart. People considered it obvious that a lot of money was evidence that you had found favour with God. The other side of that coin would be that if you found favour with God, He would obviously reward you materially. (The negatives would also apply: if you didn’t find favour with God He wouldn’t reward you, and if you were poor or un-blessed with money it was a sign that He wasn’t pleased with you.) This is why Jesus talks about the Pharisees “justifying themselves before men” because when the proof of God’s favour is something material that others can see it becomes easy to demonstrate your “righteousness” to others.
    • Don’t get me wrong, if anyone should have understood things better it should have been the Pharisees—who were supposed to know God’s Law better than anyone—so I’m not trying to hold them blameless when Jesus is obviously calling them out on their sin, but I’m also aware of the danger of us falling into judgement of the speck in the Pharisees’ eyes while ignoring the planks in our own eyes. Which brings me to…
  • We may not fall into the exact same sin that this group of Pharisees fell into, thinking that the blessing of God and money are interchangeable and co-related—which is good—but the reason we don’t fall into this exact form of the sin is that we’ve had more than 2,000 years of this text sitting in front of us (along with other similar passages). It’s not that we are smarter than the Pharisees, or more righteous than they were, it’s that we’ve had things spelled out for us very precisely. When we get tempted to think too highly of money, we have very specific passages like this one that speak to this very specific issue, and it curtails our impulses. But we should question whether we do the same thing as the Pharisees did, but with regard to blessings other than money.
    • Do we think that pastors and preachers are more blessed by God because of what they do?
    • Do we feel that the people playing music in the churches are more blessed by God—that they’re more righteous?
    • What about the ones who get up on Sunday morning and pray real good, or read the Scriptures? Do we feel they’re more righteous, or more blessed by God?
  • And then, all that being said, even though we have passages like this that specifically call out money as something that’s dangerous to the believer, we still worship it! I’ll speak for people who live in North America, where I live, and say that we have a remarkable ability to read a passage like this, sneer at the Pharisees for their hypocritical unrighteousness, and then go right back to our lives where money is that the centre of everything we do. It doesn’t even occur to us how hypocritical we are on this point, at least in part because it’s really, really easy to justify it in our own hearts. (Ahem: Just like the Pharisees did.)
Justification Why it doesn’t work
Us: “Money isn’t my God, I’m a Christian, I’m just trying to provide for my family!” When we think like this we’re putting our trust in our money, instead of putting our trust in God. Do we really think He’s not capable of providing for our families, such that we have to do it for Him?
Pharisees: “I worship the Lord, but proof of my devotion is that He will reward me materially!” There are a number of Old Testament passages the Pharisees should have been able to look at that show that there isn’t this one-to-one relationship between worshipping God and being well off in this life.
Us: “The Bible never says you can’t be rich and be a Christian!” This is a great example of where we’re not arguing in good faith. We love money, we want as much of it as we can get, but we also want to justify ourselves in the face of passages like this, so our default response is to say something like, “well, some passages say one thing and other passages say other things, so we can’t really know for certain,” and then we feel ok when money is too large a part of our souls. It’s true, the Bible doesn’t say Christians can’t be rich, but it also says a lot about how money can corrupt you, how the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, and of how much harder it is for rich folks to enter the Kingdom of God (see 18:25 (ESV)), so I think it’s worth us asking ourselves the question I posed in the last passage: If I were to lose one or the other—God or money—which one would cause the most panic in my heart/soul?

All this talking, and I haven’t even moved past the first verse in this passage…

After his brief point to the Pharisees about the way they try to justify themselves before men, Jesus then goes on to say something that seems like a non sequitur—and then seems to contradict himself in the process! In verses 16–17 he says a couple of things:

  1. The Law and the Prophets were in effect until John, after which comes the kingdom of God, and
  2. However, the Law is not void

Why does Jesus seemingly switch gears? And which is it—does the Law apply or not? Let’s look at the verses again:

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."

(verses 15–17 (ESV))

Let’s break that down into pieces (I won’t keep including the verse numbers each time):

And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts."

I’ve already talked about the first part of this, but the important part Jesus is making in that first sentence is that “God knows your hearts.” All of the stuff above talking about money is a special case of a larger point: God knows your heart. Do you love money more than Him? He knows. Do you love your family more than Him, or your social status, or your job, or your fame, or … ? He knows your heart. Contrarily, do you have a great family or job or lots of wealth, but still value God above all of those things? He knows that, too.

“For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

This is a continuation of the previous point. What is important in life? Not necessarily what the world thinks is important. In fact, anything that gets placed as higher importance in our hearts than God is out of order.

That’s an important point, because when Jesus says that the things men exalt are “an abomination in the sight of God,” he doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily bad to place importance on some things. (Even money, despite a diatribe against it above!) What’s an abomination is when we value anything more highly than we should. And the ultimate test is whether we value them higher than we value God. It’s good to have what we in the West call “family values,” but not if those values are more important to us than God; it’s good to value our jobs, and to try to be the best we can be in their execution, but not if we think that’s more important than God; it’s not even bad to place some value in money and to work for it, given the fact that it is so necessary in our society—in fact, I’ll go even further and say that it’s not wrong to try to gather a lot of it to provide for our families!—but when we place more value in money than we do in God, or refuse to give our money to the poor because we’re too intent on providing for our families, then we’ve gone off the track.

If my attitude is, “I need to get as much money as I can to provide for my family because I don’t trust God to do it,” then I’m sinning, but if my attitude is, “I will get as much money as I reasonably can to provide for my family (without sacrificing time with them or my duties at church or other things that are more important than work), but I know that God will take care of me regardless, and even if I lose my job or there is a recession or it turns out I’m really bad at my job and get fired, I’ll still trust Him to provide—and, with the money I end up making, I won’t neglect the poor,” then I’ve got my priorities in order.

Again: anything that places God less than at the top of our priority list 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…"

Since the beginning of the nation of Israelites—not since the beginning of the Jewish people, in Genesis, but since they became a nation in Exodus—they’d been governed by the Law, as well as the books of the Prophets as they were added to the Israelite “library” (if I can phrase it that way). To simplify things somewhat, the Law told the Israelites how they were to live, and God used the Prophets to communicate to His people about ways they weren’t properly obeying Him (among other things), including (but not limited to) violations of His Law. When Jesus arrived—or more precisely, as he indicates here, from the time of John the Baptist—that approach to worshipping and obeying God was superseded by “the good news of the kingdom of God.” What does that mean?

I view this less as “the rules changing,” and more as additional information being given to us about how Grace works. Meaning: obedience to God—being “righteous”—was always more than just obeying the Law. Jesus points this out graphically in the Sermon on the Mount, where he indicates that it’s not enough to just refrain from murdering you have to refrain even from hating people, and it’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery you have to refrain even from lusting. I view this in a very extreme way: God is a Holy and Righteous being, and nothing can come into His presence unless it’s as Holy and Righteous as He is—in other words, while the Law is a good starting point as to getting to know His character, what I really have to do, to have a proper relationship with Him, is that every moment of my life I should do exactly what God would do, and think exactly what God would think. I’ve failed at that, and so has everyone else who ever lived (other than Jesus). But because of what Jesus has done, I get treated in God’s eyes as if I had lived a perfectly righteous life. Even in the Old Testament nation of the Israelites, obedience to the Law never made them right with God, Jesus did, even though they didn’t know about Jesus yet and couldn’t possibly have understood things in that light.

Since the time of John the Baptist, he and Jesus started explaining salvation to us more fully, so that we now better understand how things really work. Because of their preaching (and the rest of the New Testament books), we understand “the good news of the kingdom of God” better than anyone in Old Testament times did—even the prophets!

“… and everyone forces his way into it."

I have no idea what Jesus means by this phrase, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Especially since the ESV Study Bible seems to indicate that it’s not perfectly clear even to translators what Jesus meant here:

Everyone forces his way into it is a puzzling and much debated statement. Greek biazō means “to use force,” but the verb form here (biazetai) could be either in the middle voice (“everyone is using force” to enter into it) or in the passive voice (“everyone is being forced [or forcefully urged]” to enter into it). The meaning in the ESV text, “everyone forces his way into it,” is possible grammatically and fits the meaning of the same verb when used in Matt. 11:12. By this interpretation, the verse suggests that exercising the faith that brings one into the kingdom and keeps one there involves a kind of holy “violence” toward oneself in the form of repentance and self-denial. Some interpreters object, however, that this view does not fit well in the context, for not everyone is forcing their way into the kingdom and in fact many are rejecting it. In addition, there is arguably some tension between forcing one’s way into the kingdom and the emphasis throughout the Gospels on entering the kingdom of God by faith. These interpreters have favored the meaning in the ESV footnote, “everyone is forcefully urged into it.” The verb takes that sense elsewhere (see Gen. 33:11; 2 Sam. 13:25, 27; parabiazomai has this meaning in Luke 24:29; Acts 16:15. This is similar to the idea of Luke 14:23 (see note on 14:21–24). On this view, the meaning of biazō would be different from its sense in Matt. 11:12, but the verses appear in different contexts and the meaning may be different as well (cf. note on Matt. 11:12).

He ends this part of the passage with this:

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

Does this contradict what I said earlier? Doesn’t “the good news of the kingdom of God” supersede the Law? Isn’t the Law a thing of the past, and “the good news of the kingdom of God” the new religion? Not really.

I think what Jesus is doing here is trying to prevent a misunderstanding whereby we think that God has somehow changed His mind about righteousness and obedience; we’re not to come away from Jesus’ teachings thinking that God accidentally created a system in the Old Testament that didn’t work, so He gave up on it and decided to try something new. The Law and the Prophets were supposed to teach the Old Testament Israelites something of God’s character (and we can still get that glimpse of His character when we study those writings today), but they were never able to make the Israelites righteous, any more than they can make us righteous now. God hasn’t changed, He’s just explained things to us more fully now than He had in Old Testament times.

Jesus didn’t “void” the Law; He didn’t make it go away. He fulfilled it. He did everything I couldn’t do (nor could anyone else), and then bestowed that righteousness onto me, and onto all of God’s followers.

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