What is God’s justice?

Luke 16:1-13 (Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113)

This is the most despised text in all the New Testament – at least in the minds of biblical scholars. It’s just a very difficult text to interpret. Okay, despised may be overstating it a wee bit. Let’s just say, as one scholar puts it, “It is one of the great exegetical mountains of scripture.” The full text, and even an outline of all the potential interpretations, is impossible to share in this brief devotion. So, go read the passage; and here I’ll share my interpretation.

Jesus has ended his discourse on the cost of discipleship. Soon, he’ll condemn the Pharisees for their love of money (Luke 16:14) and then he’ll share the story of the rich man cast into hell for not showing mercy to poor Lazarus (who gets to go to heaven 16:19). So, the danger of misusing money and possessions, as well as misusing people, is clearly on Jesus’ mind. That’s the context of this passage.

The passage we’re working with today pretty much states that a manager is caught squandering the property of a rich man. Before he can be dismissed, the manager contacts his master’s debtors, reduces the amount owed, and thereby makes new friends whom he hopes will provide him employment. When the rich employer finds out what’s going on, he commends the manager; and so does Jesus. So, what’s going on here?

 Apparently, it was very common at that time for managers to add their own commission to debts owed to their masters, when such transactions passed through their hands. It requires no stretch of the imagination to see that the manager is canceling the portion of the debt owed to him, in order to win friends. So, the rich man is commending the manager for finally showing the managerial qualities for which he was employed in the first place. Such managers (oikonomos)were well-trained, trusted agents of their masters; and had full use of their employers resources; and were expected to use these materials effectively (land, property, money, etc.). At long last, the manager was effectively managing – hence the praise. Why, Jesus asks, can’t his followers (“children of light” 16:8) use their resources as effectively as non-believers? (“children of this age” 16:8).

At this point, the reader may think that Jesus is referring to the use of spiritual resources. Not so! For, here’s what Jesus says towards the conclusion of the passage:

And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes (Luke 16:9).

This challenging phrase, “dishonest wealth,” refers to material possessions. Yet a literal translation would be, “Make for yourselves friends out of the mammon of dishonesty” or “the wealth of unrighteousness.” This Semitic turn of phrase, which is fairly common in various contexts, describes something that has a tendency to/which may lead to unrighteousness. Jesus’ hearers would likely have gotten the point right away, whereas to us it sounds scandalous. Jesus is basically saying, that the Christian is to use his or her material possessions in a way that is pleasing to God, and which will lead to God’s presence.

Amos is writing at a time of peace and prosperity. Folks are not in physical danger but they are in spiritual danger – they are mistreating the poor: “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…” (Amos 8:4). In fact, the pious folks who mistreat the poor, even thought they observe the sabbath and the holy days, use that time to devise even more heinous ways to add to their wealth:

… saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat (Amos 8:5-6).

This unbridled injustice, and hollow worship (as one scholar describes it), is condemned by Amos – much to the anger of the elite. After all, Amos is pointing out their dual lives: religiously observant yet participating in and perpetuating an unjust system. Amos is enraged because so too is God, of whom the psalmist who writes:

The Lord is high above all nations; God’s glory above the heavens. Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth. The Lord takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes, enthroning them with the rulers, with the rulers of the people (Psalm 113:4-8).

In Psalm 113, God notices the invisible ones in society – powerless compared to the movers and shakers – and exalts them. As one writer points out, “God levels the playing filed so all humans are treated with proper dignity.” And, that same scholar looks at the Luke text and notes that:

The outside world knows how to make friends and build a support network for their survival, but the faithful are not so wise. They know what should be done to receive the eternal hospitality of God, yet they continue to focus on the wrong things. Human wealth is actually on loan from God, and the way we manage what has been entrusted to us reflects whether God should trust us with greater blessings or not. If we are dishonest with all that we have received from God, then we will also squander the truly important gifts of God (Lisa W. Davidson).

So, I think this is a text about justice. In English, the word justice conjures up images of the courtroom (bewigged English judges in full regalia, dispensing punishment). In Hebrew the word most frequently translated as justice is mishpat. Here too, its origins are legal, but that is only its root meaning. In Deuteronomy 18, the priests in the tabernacle are to be paid their mishpat, their due – that which is their right. And, a quick glance through the Old Testament reveals that justice is a verb – one is to do justice. Startlingly, within the biblical context those on the receiving end of justice are not the criminals, but rather what some scholars refer to as “the quartet of the vulnerable” – widows, orphans, the immigrant, and the poor. This quartet contains those who in Hebrew society had the least power, lived the most fragile of lives, and had no one of blood to defend or support them. Thus, neglect of the neighbor (especially the quartet) is not merely an absence of mercy or love/charity, but an injustice. As a result, even the festival worship commanded by God in Exodus and Deuteronomy (the feasts of Unleavened Bread, Weeks, and Harvest) are rejected by that very same God. “I hate and despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” Amos 5:21.

What then of righteousness, which Amos often places hand-in-hand with justice? It should now come as no surprise that the Hebrew word for righteousness (tzadeqah) has less to do with personal morality (as we preconceive it) but instead describes a life lived in a web of relationships (tribe, family, society, synagogue, world) typified by fairness, equity, and love; in which one “does” justice. Absent justice and righteousness, the one who looks forward to the Day of the Lord (their supposed day of victory), is in for a nasty shock.
Pastor Ken+