Jesus wrapped up a parable about a scheming and dishonest business manager by saying, “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.” [Luke 16]
This is what we call a “hard saying” of Jesus! It’s not especially hard to understand, of course. It’s just hard to swallow! We all know that money—in its practical application—is just a means for exchanging goods and services. We need it to make life work: to pay the rent or mortgage, to buy groceries, to pay for clothing, furniture—in short, we need it to do almost anything and everything. We earn it and we spend it without ever “serving” or “loving” it . . . right?
Yet listen to the response of those in the audience: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things and they ridiculed him.”
Before moving on we should at least ask: did the Pharisees have a point in reacting to Jesus? And what of the label, “lovers of money”? I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who loves money. Who, for instance, ever takes money to bed with them? Or collects sacks of it to pour out and enjoy whenever time allows? The real challenge of life is to learn how to live with too little money! And the Pharisees were a religiously focused group—devoted to Scripture studies, solid doctrine, and strong traditions. How could they, of all people, be lovers of money?
What Jesus said to them next is even more remarkable: “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.”
As we reflect on this exchange we’re left with a number of issues to ponder. Among them: why and how did the Pharisees ridicule Jesus? And, on Christ’s side, how broadly did his point about “what is exalted among men” apply? Was it just to that setting, or was it broader? Does God view everything humans value as “an abomination”? Or just the narrow set of issues related to the “love” of money?
No full answer can be offered, but one reality stands out. Just prior to his clash with the Pharisees Jesus spoke of a financial officer who was being investigated for malfeasance. Before being fired the man’s shrewd response was to reduce any outstanding charges owed to his employer in order to curry favor with those who owed the payments—thus setting up a new future for himself. Jesus then made his point by offering a contrast: in life there will always be successful schemers; and, alternatively, there are also those who seek and gain “true riches”. Which sort of person would each of the parable-listeners represent? The Pharisees who ridiculed Jesus had exposed their own standing!
The point Jesus was making was ultimately all about relationships! The shrewd financial officer was strictly utilitarian in his activities—his personal security was at stake! It was a case of self-love, making arrangements with other shrewd managers (those he hoped would later hire him—even when they knew that their benefit from him was illegal). Jesus was merely pointing out the “birds of a feather flock together” reality of life. The ridicule of the Pharisees almost certainly had to do with their own “feathers”.
I can imagine them mocking him: “Having a plan for success is the way the world works, Jesus!” They would have been dismissive, I’m sure: “and if you don’t get it you’re clueless!” Jesus, after all, had never been formally educated, nor had he ever owned a home, nor did he have the right connections he needed to succeed! He certainly had no prospect of being invited to join the Sanhedrin unless he learned a lesson or two about how life really works!
So what are the “true riches”? In the bipolarity of his “two masters” statement, Jesus made it clear: God was the alternate choice. The riches of relationship with God, and with his Son, were presented to the listening Pharisees as an option.
But they had other values. Did they love money? Yes, of course, just as Jesus said they did. Not the “cash” itself, but the trajectory of companionship it represented. Money is, indeed, just a means to exchange goods and services with others who have money as well as goods and services to offer. But those relations represent an idolatrous focus of the heart: representing a collective devotion to personal security, pleasure, and prestige. And not a devotion to God.
But what about the range and weight of what Jesus said about “what is exalted among men” being an “abomination” to God? The answer comes into focus when we realize God’s eternal Triune communion existed before the creation. Before there was an earth, or stars, or sun and moon, and houses, and cars, and money, God was sharing a relationship of mutual love and devotion. The glory of God is found in his love, offered freely: as in the glory of God’s purpose to send his Son—the “Word”—to join humanity and to die so that we can gain access to God’s eternal glory. This is what God loves. But to serve and worship the creation rather than the Creator—that is an absolute abomination, as Paul observed in Romans 1.
So Jesus was representing two trajectories. One leads to a fading glory, as Jesus explained in the parable: “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.” Those dwellings are well away from God, of course.
Or, alternatively, to become fast friends of God—as those who love him and all he represents. So that heaven will hardly be noticed as anything different than what this life is about: our relations of love for God and neighbor. And then, in entering eternity itself, nothing but our setting will change.