Q. This is one I’ve always wondered about. In Luke 16 Jesus tells a parable about the shrewd manager. I think he shouldn’t have charged the creditors less just to start the cash flow, but the part that I don’t get is Jesus’ last remark—something like, “Make friends with the unrighteous, so that when you fail, they might accept you into everlasting homes.” (Huh? scratching the head).
This is definitely one of Jesus’ most puzzling parables. It seems as if the master represents God, and the manager stands for a typical servant of God, so it’s pretty shocking to hear Jesus say, “The master commended the dishonest manager . . .”
To understand what’s going on here, it’s helpful to realize that when Jesus tells a parable, there’s typically one single point of correspondence between the story he tells and something he wants us to understand about the kingdom of God.
For example, in the parable of the persistent widow a little bit later in Luke, Jesus talks about a judge who “neither fears God nor honors man.” Yet somehow this judge represents the God who hears our prayers! Jesus is making only a single point: we are called to perseverance in prayer. (There’s actually an implied contrast at the end: If perseverance pays off even with such a judge, “Will not God bring about justice?” So Jesus clearly isn’t making a further point about the character of God when he describes the judge.)
In the same way, the parable of the shrewd manager is making only a single point: Soon the money we now have in this world will be no longer at our disposal. (That is, our lives are shorter than we realize.) So we need to use our money while we can to “make for ourselves friends” who can receive us into “eternal dwellings.”
In other words, use the money you have on earth to make friends with God. Invest your money in ways that advance God’s purposes, and then God will take care of you when you leave this earth and “can’t take it with you.” (As I say in my Luke-Acts study guide, the manager “provides for his future by using resources he’s just about to lose.”)
Jesus isn’t praising dishonesty or cheating. He’s simply encouraging us to take the right attitude towards the money we have. But he does this through some startling language, another common characteristic of his parables.
As he wraps up this story, Jesus describes the manager as practicing “unrighteousness” (adikia) when he cheats his master. He then describes the money of this world as “the mammon of unrighteousness” (adikia).
He’s not saying that wealth is intrinsically evil. He wouldn’t call us to invest our wealth in God’s work on earth if it were. But he is saying that in this world, money is often used to manipulate other people (just as the steward does here) and to undervalue or overvalue things compared to their true worth in God’s eyes. In that sense it’s the “mammon of unrighteousness.”
But we can also use our for God’s purposes, and if we do, this will show that we belong in “eternal dwellings.” We will have made friends not “with the unrighteous” but “with the unrighteous mammon.” That is, by means of the corruptible and often corrupted money of this world, we can make friends who are really worth having.
Q. Didn’t the Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, intend for Luke and Acts to be separated? Since the biblical canon in its final form was designed with them separated, aren’t we violating inspiration if we put them back together?
Q. I think your decision to place Luke and Acts together is misguided. While other books were split because of their length (1 Samuel through 2 Kings), or were ordered with no regard for their content (the Pauline epistles), Luke and Acts were separated in order to place the gospel of John as the last gospel. If you have any faith in the efficacy of the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries, you have to trust that God was at work in the construction of the canon. If you’re going to re-order the gospels, you’re starting to question the construction of the canon–in which case you have bigger problems than separating Luke from Acts.
Q. It seems to me that we must respect the tradition of the church, believing that the Holy Spirit continued to work through his people as the books God inspired were recognized, put in the category of Scripture, and organized in a certain way. The “four-fold gospel” is a significant indicator of God’s intentions in the NT. Acts placed between the gospels and epistles is a significant indicator of movement within the NT. The church itself has not been unanimous on how the NT books should be ordered, but neither was it unanimous about which books should be included. Without tradition, how would we even know which books to include in the NT?
All three of these questions suggest that if we put Luke-Acts back together as a single work, as they are presented in The Books of the Bible, and as they are treated in the Luke-Acts study guide, we are overlooking and perhaps even resisting the role that the Holy Spirit played in the preservation, recognition, and collection of the biblical books—a role that may have extended to their ordering. And so, on the authority of centuries-long church tradition, which presumably reflects the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, shouldn’t Luke and Acts be kept as separate books, and all the gospels kept grouped together?
It is true that church tradition exerts significant authority over our understanding and treatment of the Bible. However, I think most of us would agree that the Spirit’s hand is not evident in every single aspect of tradition as it relates to the Bible. Many of us would be prepared to dispense, for example, with the chapter and verse divisions, even though these are the aspect of tradition that certainly influences contemporary readers of the Bible the most. (By frequently running paragraphs run right through badly-placed chapter breaks, many modern publishers show openly that they don’t adhere to this part of the tradition.)
How, then, can we determine which aspects of tradition reflect the Spirit’s hand, and which ones don’t? I think that most people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God would agree that the determination of the contents of the canon reflects the Spirit’s influence, while the placement of chapter and verse divisions does not. But what about something in between, like the order of the books in the canon? I think some would see the Spirit’s hand in this, and others wouldn’t. In other words, this is a matter of individual conviction, not of doctrine.
That being the case, I think it’s reasonable for resources such as The Books of the Bible and the Luke-Acts study guide to be made available for those whose convictions about the Spirit’s role in the presentation and transmission of the Scriptures permit them to explore what additional perspectives and further insights can be achieved when the books are placed in new orders. Putting Luke and Acts back together as volumes 1 and 2 of a unified history, whose overarching structure and unfolding message then become much more evident, can open up great vistas into the meaning of the life of Jesus and the story of his early followers. I think that by making this possible we’re working with, not against, the Holy Spirit.
Indeed, The Books of the Bible seeks to draw upon the best in the church’s tradition of the biblical book ordering even as it arranges the books innovatively and creatively. As its New Testament introduction explains, “The order of the New Testament books in this edition seeks to express the ancient concept of the fourfold gospel in a fresh way. The traditional priority of the stories of Jesus is retained, but now each Gospel is placed at the beginning of a group of related books. The presentation of four witnesses to the one gospel of Jesus the Messiah is enhanced by a fuller arrangement that will help readers better appreciate why the books of the New Testament were written and what kind of literature they represent. The four sets of books, each headed by a Gospel, form a cross, as it were, around the central figure of Jesus. Each sheds its light on his story in a unique way.”
One final observation. It’s a demonstrable fact that the Scriptures that have guided the church for centuries have done so in a great variety of orders. (I document this in my book After Chapters and Verses. In fact, as Bruce Metzger notes in The Canon of the New Testament, “While the gospels . . . are always kept together, they are found in nine different sequences, including two in which Luke is placed last and followed immediately by Acts, possibly out of a desire to keep the two volumes of this historical study together.”) Even if we assume that this great variety of orders simply reflects a stage on the way to the ultimate emergence of the Holy Spirit’s chosen order, how do we know whether we’ve arrived there yet? How do we know that The Books of The Bible, for example, isn’t instead part of the Holy Spirit’s effort to keep shuffling the books until they get into the real “God-intended” order?
In other words, if you prefer a particular book order because it’s the outcome of a long historical process, how do you determine the end point of that process? On what basis do you pick 1500, when the order we know today was established basically by printers? Who’s to say that the process isn’t still continuing? Or that it didn’t end in A.D. 240? The real problem here is that authority is being divided between Scripture and tradition, that is, between fixed texts and an ongoing historical process. My commitment is to the authority of Scripture, and in treating Luke-Acts as a single work, my goal is to keep the Bible’s interpretation from being limited to what is implied by the historical shaping the Bible has received to date—because I believe, as John Robinson said, that “the Lord hath yet more light and truth to break forth out of His Holy Word.”