Luke 16: 16 – 18 Additional teachings
‘The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
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We’ve just had a big chunk of teaching about the correct value of money (i.e. we mustn’t care for it at all). We’re just about to read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, which is again about the right use of wealth and the dire consequences of letting it blind us to human need. So what is this random passage that the NIV rather coyly labels “Additional teachings”?
‘The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John.
This seems straightforward. John the Baptist’s life marked a transition. Up until John’s ministry, the Jews had been God’s chosen people in covenant with him. God had given them the Law to tell them how he wanted them to live, and sent prophets to guide them as they struggled to do his will in the world.
Then Jesus came. That marked the beginning of a different way of relating to God. Righteousness ceased to be a matter of sacrifice in the temple, and became a matter of following Jesus. It ceased to be an exclusive covenant between God and the Jews; God’s kingdom, as revealed by Jesus, was thrown open to all humankind.
Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it.
This sentence does not seem to have a clear meaning.
Perhaps it is the broadening of the covenant to include the whole of humankind that Jesus meant by this; Gentiles as well as Jews are now scrambling to take advantage of access to the kingdom.
One scholar points out that the Greek verb translated as “forcing” has several different meanings, among them the idea of struggling with great zeal to accomplish something. That would certainly fit with the mood of the rest of chapter 16. Jesus must be first in our lives if we are to follow him, and that requires complete commitment on our part. We must seize the opportunity while we have it.
If we accept this meaning for “forcing”, we must take care not to misunderstand what we are saying.
Salvation comes from faith in Jesus. It doesn’t come from anything we do. However, once we have committed ourselves to Jesus, we want to do his will, and we want to make the effort to obey him. Our actions spring from our love for Jesus, which in turn is our response to God’s love. It is God’s love that comes first. Our actions are the consequence of loving Jesus, and they witness that we follow him.
It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.
Just in case the previous sentence should be misunderstood as relaxing the criteria for entry to the kingdom of God – perhaps because Jewish early Christians were worried about the admission of Gentiles to the church – St Luke affirms in the strongest possible terms that the requirements of the Law still stand.
How are we to understand this? We’ve just read that everything changed after John the Baptist. That was because the old covenant between the Jews and God had not been sufficient to bring people to righteousness. A new covenant was needed, and Jesus was bringing it about.
And now we’re reading that the Law is still valid?
I think the key to this is God’s love.
The old covenant did not make people righteous. You cannot make someone good by law; you can only prohibit wrongdoing and impose sanctions if a prohibition is broken. No, the way to make someone righteous is to love them, to forge a friendship with them, and to show them by example what is needed.
The Law remains constant, but we have been given the grace of God’s love in Jesus. We have been shown by Jesus’ example how we should live. We have been filled with the Holy Spirit so that we can experience the presence of Jesus with us constantly. And when we sin, we have Jesus’ promise that when we repent we will be forgiven.
‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’
At the time of Jesus’ ministry, there was a strand of Pharisaic teaching that made divorce easy. One rabbi apparently ruled that a woman could be divorced for burning her husband’s breakfast. Another taught that finding a prettier woman could be a cause for divorce. By including this sentence about divorce and adultery, St Luke is using a contemporary example to add even more force to the teaching that the Law is unchanging.
(I feel I should add here that I do not want in this blog post to contribute to the debate over the remarriage of those who divorce. My personal view is that God knows people make mistakes, and that he is compassionate towards those who do and I praise and thank him for that mercy.)
Thank you for opening my eyes this morning, and changing my understanding of this passage of scripture. Thank you for the compassion that you always show to all humankind.
In Jesus’ name, Amen