Strong Words


Luke 16:14-18

Tucked between two more memorable and intriguing pieces of the Lord’s teaching — the parable of the dishonest manager and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus — we have these few verses that record teaching that, in largest part, is found in other settings in the other Gospels. For example, we find similar comments to those in v. 17 about not one dot of the law passing away and in v. 18 prohibiting divorce in Matthew 5, in the famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Each Gospel writer organized his material differently but it is almost certain as well that the Lord said the same things many times over, as any good teacher would, who had different people in front of him day after day. And who understood the importance of repetition to learning.

Text Comment

v.15     The Pharisees’ grumbling over what the Lord had just said about the impossibility of loving both God and money gave them away.

This is one of a number of instances in which the Word of God presumes to judge the motives of men’s hearts. The Pharisees, so far as the evidence goes, were not as avaricious as the Sadducees were, or the tax collectors for that matter, but they did regard prosperity as God’s reward to the righteous. The covetous never admit that they are covetous. They always disguise their sin from others and often from themselves. Their lust for money is, according to them, actually only a desire for God’s blessing, or concern to care for their family, and so on. I remember some years ago one of the owners of an NFL franchise saying how glad he was for the work stoppage, the strike that was underway at the time, because it had made family men of his players. He was referring to the fact they all were justifying their strike as necessary to care for their families.

And, when all is said and done, who doesn’t love money? They may not have loved money more than some others, but they loved it nevertheless and clearly did not see the menace, the danger that money posed to one’s unqualified devotion to God. [Caird, 188] The fact is it is pointless to attempt to justify oneself when God knows your heart. The fact is people love very much and all the time things that God hates. It is a fact of every human life and one that a wise man or woman will face honestly. You can satisfy other people easily enough; but can you satisfy God?

v.16     “Law and Prophets” means the entire Bible, or that part of it that had been written at that time, the part of it that we know today as the Old Testament. Clearly the coming of Jesus meant a new day for the kingdom of God. And people with ears to hear and eyes to see realized that they were faced with a great opportunity and exerted every effort to enter into that kingdom. We are reminded of the Lord’s teaching in 13:24 about the importance of striving to enter through the narrow door. As we will see in Luke 19, Zacchaeus, climbing up a sycamore tree to see Jesus, is a picture of that drive to be saved, just as was the shrewd steward in the previous parable.

v.17     A “dot,” as in the ESV translation here is literally a serif, an ornamental flourish added to a letter. It means, therefore, that the law of God, down to its minute details, remains in place and will remain in place until the end of time. This statement is thought by many nowadays to be so unlikely on the lips of Jesus that they turn it into an ironic jab at the Pharisees. “It was easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the scribes to surrender that scrupulosity which could not see the Law for the letters.” [Caird, 190] However, that is hardly right. The saying comes in an almost identical form in Matthew 5:18 in a context in it which it is perfectly obvious that the Lord is not speaking ironically about the pedantry or legalism of the rabbis or the Pharisees. Indeed, there the paragraph begins, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” What we have here, then, is simply a short form of teaching given elsewhere at greater length and in a larger context. This is precisely what we will find to be true about the next saying.

            Jesus, in fact, never taught that the Law of Moses was passé. What he condemned was not the law itself but the rabbinical interpretation of it and use of it as an instrument of self-righteousness.

v.18     The real question here is whether what Jesus says here about divorce represents a real change in the law — immediately after the Lord said that there would be no such change — or whether what we have here is actually the explanation of what the Law had always been, however badly misunderstood by the contemporaries of the Lord. Surely that is the proper way to understand the Lord’s remark.

            The rabbis had made a mockery of the law with their lax and permissive approach to divorce. The influential rabbi Hillel thought a man could divorce his wife if she spoiled his dinner and a few years later Akiba, another influential rabbi, was willing to say that a man could divorce his wife if he found a woman prettier than she. [Morris, 268-269] This was not God’s intention and it was never the meaning of the law allowing for divorce in very specific circumstances as we read it in Deuteronomy 24. God intended marriage to be a lifelong commitment of love between a man and a woman. Only the gravest crimes could justify divorce.

In a culture like ours, where divorce has become commonplace and many other commandments of the Law of God — once taken by virtually everyone as having divine authority — are now dismissed as outdated, unhelpful, and unduly restrictive, it would not be wise for us to pass over these brief and somewhat unconnected remarks of our Lord. The same Savior who used that beautiful story of the father and his two lost sons to reveal to us the heart of God and to show us the way of salvation is the same man who then turned and demanded our reverence for the Law of God down to its detail and then gave us a particular example of its strictness, viz. its prohibition of divorce.

Salvation is something that many miss — the Lord has been warning us about this throughout this section of the Gospel — and one of the reasons they miss it, perhaps the primary reason they miss it, is because they are unwilling to live the life it requires. The same faith by which we embrace the God of love and mercy leads us inexorably to respond to his mercy with a life of obedience to his commandments, each and every one of his commandments.

Always and everywhere it is the two of these things together, their inseparability however distinct from one another — faith and obedience — that proves to be the problem in one way or another, always the problem. Many will have the obedience, or what they imagine to be the obedience, but only that. They do not wish to live by faith in the love and work of another. Many others wish to have the faith, let Christ save them and not they themselves, but do not want to be obliged to obey God’s commandments.

As Samuel Rutherford once put it:

“But oh! how many of us would have Christ divided into two halves, that we might take the half of him only! We take his office, Jesus and salvation: but ‘Lord’ is a cumbersome word; and to obey and work out our own salvation, and to perfect holiness is the cumbersome and stormy northside of Christ; and that we eschew and shift.” [Letters, CCXXXIV]

Now, to be sure, there really isn’t much difference between those who want only to believe and those who want only to obey. In both cases it is rebellion against God; in both cases it is the same old sinner’s quarrel with the law of God. The Pharisee says he wants to obey the law, but invariably redefines it so that obedience is both much easier and something more to his liking, always something very different from what is actually required in the law of God. He will be, for example, a stickler on divorce, but then find that virtually any and every offense, real or imagined, is justifiable grounds for divorce. The antinomian, on the other hand, the one who wishes only to believe but not to obey ends up in the same place: living a life that is not in fact a life of obedience to God. He will also pursue a divorce the law of God does not permit, but he will do so in the serene confidence that because he believes, God will not care. Counting on the law for salvation or blithely ignoring it are simply two routes to the same place.

Few then or now would admit that this is the practical effect of their viewpoint — no one admits that he hopes to get away with disobeying the law of God by whatever means or that he wants to be saved but that he wants to live as he pleases even more — but the fact is this is the actual situation with vast multitudes of religious people. They have a conscience that is only very partially alive to the holiness of God, only very partially alive to the sinfulness of sin, and only very partially alive to the unchanging demands of God’s law.  There is but one fundamental spirit in the sinful human heart: the spirit of rebellion against the law of God, the pride that wants its own way rather than God’s way.

But the wise man or woman, the one Jesus describes here as the one who is forcing his or her way into the kingdom of God, is the one who, as Jesus taught us in a previous chapter, counts the cost, accepts the implications of faith in Christ and salvation by his grace, and understands that his life will no longer be his own, but Christ’s to command. It is a kingdom after all, and a kingdom has a king and the king has subjects. Subjects are to obey their king! And, if you protest that we are also God’s children, well, children are to obey their parents in everything, as Paul reminds us in Colossians.

But, perhaps you are thinking, “Well, I agree that we have laws to keep but I notice that v.18 here does not include the exceptions to the rule. Did not Jesus say in another place, “he who divorces his wife or her husband except for adultery and marries another commits adultery himself or herself?” True enough. He did say that. The apostle Paul also adds the provision that a believer who is deserted by his or her unbelieving spouse may marry another.

But surely the very thing the Lord does not want us to do with v. 18 is to begin to search for exceptions to the rule. That was the sort of the thing the Pharisees were always doing: finding ways around the commandment, inventing schemes to free them from its obligation. In every case in which the Lord brought up divorce as a fact of life his primary aim was to forbid it to his people. His primary interest was always to inculcate in his disciples a reverence for marriage, a sense of its special sanctity, and revulsion at the thought of the disintegration of it. I know very well that it hurts to hear such a sermon as this if you have been divorced, perhaps even more if your divorce was not your fault but was obtained by your spouse. It is hard in the same way it is hard for an unwed mother to hear a sermon on fatherhood, or for a man or woman with a promiscuous past to hear a sermon on the blessing of chastity. But the Lord knew that when he wrote his Word as he did. We must hear what he has to say, and hear it willingly even if it stings. We need to hear it, others need to hear it, and our children very much need to hear it. We cannot protect our feelings at the cost of the whole church’s obedience.

I know very well; believe me, no minister in this day and age does not know that there are people in the congregation to which he is preaching who have been divorced, who have been harmed by divorce, or who are tempted to get a divorce.  Divorce is a fact of modern life. Preachers know that in all likelihood, in congregations of any size nowadays, there are women who have had abortions and men who have encouraged women to have them. Abortion is a sad fact of even Christian life. Preachers know very well that in virtually any congregation of any size there are Christian men and Christian women who have lived or are living promiscuously, just as there are some who have knowingly cheated on their income taxes or who have indulged their desires with pornography. There is forgiveness with God that he may be feared!

But if you are Christians at all, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to pass over the few verses we have read this morning and go on to something happier to hear? Do you want me to read v. 18 and then talk at length not about this prohibition of divorce but about what things might be acceptable exceptions to the rule? Do you want me to say that you are free to sin so that grace may abound, that the more you sin the greater God’s grace will be seen to be. Paul forbids that line of thought as does the whole Bible. And it was our Savior who so solemnly said, in more ways than one, that it is not the one who says to him “Lord, Lord” who will be saved, but the one who does the will of his Father in heaven. It was the Lord Jesus, the same Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, who told us that not one jot or tittle would fall from the law until all is fulfilled. It was the Lord Jesus who told those whom he had forgiven to “go and sin no more.”

Will you be the sort of church-goer who is always looking for the loophole, or are you going to be the man or woman who is always to be found forcing his way or her way into the kingdom of God, by trusting the Lord in that comprehensive whole-souled and whole-hearted way that must lead to obeying his commandments.

Will you be the sort of parent who fixes in his or her children a firm and intractable sense of the indefectibility of the marriage vows, or impart to them instead a weaker view of the sanctity of marriage, one that in this day and age is going to make divorce a very likely outcome at some point in their adult lives?

No! Christians are to hear these words of their Lord and Savior and embrace them without question, without reservation, without qualification of any kind! The commandments of God are not burdensome as we are often reminded in the Word of God. They are for our good and point the way to a satisfying, fulfilling, useful, and happy life. My goodness, are we better off nowadays, are we happier because we have made marriage so disposable? Are our children better off because they cannot live through their childhood and into their adulthood with the same two parents who gave them life and who have the ultimate reason to love them through thick and through thin?

I know very well that not all Christian marriages are happy and holy as they ought to be. After all, the Lord Jesus is not saying here that he only cares that a marriage is secure. He teaches us in his Word that husbands and wives are to love and respect one another, to live in harmony and mutual affection, to live together as the heirs of the grace of life, and to serve him together. Think of all that that must mean. No Christian and no Christian church should ever rest content with a bad marriage. In this single verse the Lord Jesus is not talking about how husbands and wives ought to love one another and care for one another and make a happy, holy marriage together. He is saying only that they should not divorce.

And because he said so divorce has always been far more common in cultures that have not been shaped by Christian ethics. Divorce is much easier to get in Islam, for example, than ever it has been in historic, biblically oriented Christian churches or in cultures deeply influenced by those churches. Remarriage, likewise, is hardly ever the issue that it has long been in Christian ecclesiastical law. How quaint it seems, now that the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. has thrown off all constraints and abandoned in its totality the law of God, not just the dots but the ten commandments themselves, that when Jimmy Stewart, the famous actor, wished to marry a divorcee — he had never been married, she had been married once before — because Stewart was a member of a Presbyterian Church the two of them had to go before a commission of the Los Angeles Presbytery to be granted permission to marry. That is the kind of thing that happens when whole churches take seriously the Lord’s statement that “everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Would that such days would come again!

But, the fact is, such days have never ended for serious-minded, principled followers of Jesus Christ; for his disciples who have counted the cost and who are striving to enter by the narrow door. Serious Christians rarely do divorce, as is right. I have mentioned before, perhaps only in sermons preached at weddings, however, that very few of the couples I have married through the years have divorced. I have married some unbelievers to unbelievers and I’m not counting them. It is no surprise if they divorce. Divorce in the first century was as commonplace as it is today.

But of the Christians I have married there have been precious few divorces and in some if not most of those few cases one of the spouses abandoned his or her Christian faith at the same time as he or she abandoned the marriage. Of the 104 Christian marriages that I have officiated, 96 remain intact today or were ended by death, well over 90% and of several of the few divorces, were I to give you the details, you might wonder, as I do, whether one or the other or both of the spouses really was or is a committed follower of Jesus Christ. Staying together is what Christians do and they do it because it is the will of their Savior! They recognize his right to command their lives and they see their obedience to him as the most important way to honor him and love him as their redeemer. Instinctively they realize something hugely important is at stake here.

The social consequences of this fact — that a Christian view of marriage and divorce both contributes to and expresses a fundamentally different outlook on life — are immense. It was breaching this barrier a generation ago that led to so much else in American Christianity and American culture. People forget that it was not that long ago that even in the Episcopal church, already the most liberal American Protestant body, divorce would have disqualified a man from office in the church. James Pike, the very liberal bishop of California in the early 1960s had to arrange for his first marriage to be annulled — on false grounds as it turns out — because his divorce and subsequent remarriage would have disqualified him from church office. But times were changing. An affair with his secretary cost him his second marriage but not his ministry. It was first the surrender of the sanctity of marriage, only later came all the rest that now seems to have been so inevitable: divorced clergy, the approval of abortion, homosexual clergy, and so on. The first practicing homosexual bishop of the American Episcopal church, Gene Robinson, divorced his wife years before he declared his homosexuality. Had the old rules still applied, he would never have had the opportunity to become the first practicing homosexual bishop! You see, if you genuinely hold to the sanctity of marriage — a sanctity publicly defined in most minds by the difficulty of getting out of a marriage once you are in it — you will not approve of promiscuous sex, or homosexuality, or abortion. It was the loss of the Bible’s prohibition of divorce that set in motion this train wreck that has been visited upon American culture over the last forty years. The departure of the American Protestant church from the ethics of two thousand years of Christendom began with its unwillingness any longer to follow Jesus’ teaching about divorce.

Alright. We are probably all in agreement, virtually everyone — no matter his or her religion or philosophy of life — will nod in agreement when I say that it is far better for marriages to endure than to dissolve, better for the man and woman and certainly better for the children. Every study has demonstrated that.

But suppose the marriage is very unhappy, the husband and wife do not get along. One or the other has done something or many things that have destroyed the regard of the other. There is little or no affection, there is barely any civility. We know there are marriages like that, alas even between Christians. A lot of water has already passed under the bridge and it is not easy for either of them to imagine that offenses so hurtful and so deep could be removed or that their long ago love, so thoroughly beaten, ground down, and pulverized, could ever be restored.

What of them? Are they doomed to live their remaining days in this world stuck in a lifeless marriage, condemned to awake each morning to renewed disappointment and hopelessness? The world thinks that it would be cruel to make them do so, cruel and inhuman. It may be hard on the children, it may be hard on the husband and wife as it turns out, financially and psychologically, but they should certainly have the freedom to try life apart, to seek their happiness free from the bondage of an unhappy marriage. Many Christians nowadays are saying the same thing, either explicitly or effectively, by allowing divorces that are forbidden in the Word of God.

What are we to say to them, and what are we to say to those unhappy, sometimes deeply unhappy people? Well, if they are Christians we will certainly say that they have a duty before God and before one another to sanctify their marriage, to make it better, and to permit nothing to stand in the way of making it better: not their grievances, not their memory of offenses given and received, not their record of failure to affect positive changes. “I can do all things not some things, not most things through Christ who strengthens me.” The Lord never gives us a command without at the same time giving us the promise of his help and blessing. We are not to remain in unhappy marriages; we are to make them happy. And we are to be willing to let others help us, correct us, and direct us so that our marriages improve until they are happy.

But, finally, we must also say — and this is our emphasis this morning given the Lord’s peremptory remark in v. 18 — we are not free to seek our own pleasure in our own way. We are not, that is, if we are Christians. Unbelievers can try to fashion a world without respect for the laws of God. We are finding out what kind of world they will make for themselves! Divorce now a commonplace, illegitimacy now the lot of frighteningly large numbers of American children, children by the millions deeply harmed by the disloyalty of their parents to one another, birthrates plunging, serial cohabitation now commonplace because young adults are afraid of marriage, though cohabitation itself makes a successful marriage still less likely. Western marriage is the laughing stock of the world and the Western family is in tatters and we are only now beginning to reckon with the social and political carnage resulting from the decision a generation ago to make it much easier to leave a marriage. Our culture is in fact literally dying and the lethal virus was introduced into the body of that culture with laws making divorce easy and with a cultural position that no longer profoundly discouraged divorce. That’s was unbelievers can do. But that is the lot they chose for themselves. But what of Christians?

We have a king; we are his subjects. It is ours to obey. And this is not the only world; what we do here has implications far larger, far more serious than our own immediate personal peace and happiness. The world is for some reason sure that God would not require of his creatures that they remain in unhappy marriages, but no one can read the Bible and come away thinking that a faithful Christian life is an easy, uncomplicated, undemanding life that does not require real sacrifice. We may want it to be easy but the Bible promises us it will be difficult. “Through many tribulations we must inherit the kingdom of God,” the Apostle Paul reminds us. And here the Lord makes a point that the one who gains entrance into his kingdom is the one who forces his way into it, which, in the larger context in this section of the Gospel of Luke means the one who is willing to endure the cost of true discipleship. That cost is precisely the difficulty of living a truly obedient life. For many Christians marriage is not that difficulty — they are very happy in their marriages as Christians ought usually to be (this congregation is full of such happy marriages I am glad to say) — but for some the tribulation lies precisely here, at home. But if it is difficult, it is difficult. The obedience is still required.

What does the Christian say when some friend asks him or her, “Why do you stay in such an unhappy marriage?” “Why do you remain with such a jerk or such a shrew?” He says, she says, “I serve a God who made terrible sacrifices to redeem me from sin and death and sit me down with him in the heavenly places. If he asks a difficult, even a very difficult thing of me, it is my honor, my pleasure, and the gift of my love, to do it; to do it heartily, cheerfully, and to the end. My cross is not to be compared with his and it is my greatest privilege to share in his sufferings by doing difficult things for the sake of his kingdom and the salvation of others.”

Or, as Augustine said in his Confessions:

“He is your best servant, O Lord, who hopes not so much to hear from you what he wants to hear, but rather hopes to do what he hears from you.”