Some of you may be familiar with the story of Matt Chandler, an exceptionally successful pastor in Texas. Last year on Thanksgiving morning without warning, at age 35, he suffered a seizure and collapsed. At the hospital they found an aggressive form of malignant brain cancer. Before his seizure, Matt felt perfectly healthy and exhibited no symptoms of the tumor slowly growing inside his skull. But that is the way it is with most terminal illnesses, isn’t it? They often incubate for years in our bodies without symptoms and we rarely catch them until something serious grabs our attention.
I apologize to all you hypochondriacs out there, but this is going to get worse before it gets better. Sin and guilt before God, like a cancer, is subtle and hides under the surface so that we can miss its symptoms if we are not properly diagnosed. When Jesus showed up on the scene, the Jews, and especially the Pharisees, were misreading their symptoms, and Jesus tells this story to literally get to the heart of our well being before God. All of life tests our hearts and eternity hangs in the balance.
In fact, it may not be a parable at all. Consider:
- A parable by definition is a fictional, earthly illustration that represents a spiritual truth. This story presents the spiritual truth directly without an earthly metaphor.
- Jesus never gives any of the characters in his parables a name. He does so here.
- The Gospel writers often state when a parable is being told. Not so here.
- Jesus typically explained his parables. No explanation follows.
This story is completely unlike any of Jesus’ other parables (in fact, many scholars don’t even consider it a parable). While the characters may or may not be fictional, he intends to teach concrete spiritual realities in a straightforward manner without a parable. Whether this is a parable, historical fiction, or a retelling of something that actually happened, Jesus is making a few things plain: hell is as real as heaven, earthly wealth and status are deceptive, and all things will be sorted out at death.
Now Jesus was constantly picking on the Pharisees. I mean, these guys could not catch a break (not that they deserved one). But the Pharisees weren’t the only ones Jesus was targeting with this story. If we read the first half of Luke 16 (or if you remember Lee’s last couple of sermons), Jesus has been challenging the popular religious teachings of the day. One of those supposed that your state in life was directly related to your (or someone else’s) sin. We see this in other cultures around the world that are stuck in a rigid caste society, especially those that subscribe to the idea of reincarnation. If you’re down and out, well, that’s just because you were a bad person in a past life. And the worse your situation is, the worse of a person you were.
But this view wasn’t just held by the Pharisees, it permeated the Jewish culture of that time. Even Jesus’ own disciples weren’t immune to the idea. John 9:2 tells us that when Jesus passed a man blind from birth “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” So they assumed that bad behavior brought on this man’s bad situation. In other words, they wrongly believed that misfortune in life shows God’s disapproval.
And the opposite was equally common in the Jewish mind. After the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life, Jesus said “‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?’" Notice their assumption. If this rich kid, so obviously in good with God, will have such an impossible time getting into heaven, what chance do we have? In other words, they also wrongly assumed that fortune in life shows God’s approval.
We know that this popular teaching was being spread by the Pharisees because earlier in Luke 16 Jesus says “You cannot serve God and money." Luke goes on to explain that “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And [Jesus] said to them, "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.” The Pharisees were trying to justify themselves, trying to show that they were righteous! And how? By showing their wealth, by wearing it on their sleeve, they were trying to prove that they were right with God. In fact, if you consider what we know about the Pharisees, there were two things that Jesus continually tore into them about, their love of money and their love of the praise of man.
But notice where Jesus says the problem actually lies, he said “God knows your hearts”. The Pharisees were continually obsessed with the external: looking good, upright, godly. Material wealth was just another means of looking like they were in good with God in the eyes of men. But they were failing the test at the heart level. And Jesus wants us all to look deeper. God’s approval isn’t won merely by external behavior. And God’s approval isn’t shown merely by external blessings. If you buy into either of these lies--if you focus on mere externals--then when you evaluate your life and your standing before God, you will stop before you reach your heart. And this would be tragic because “God knows your hearts”. You would be making the same mistake the Pharisees did, and Jesus tells this story for you.