God’s Provision (Luke 9:10-17; 12:4-7; 12:22-31)Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
Throughout Luke, Jesus teaches that living in God’s kingdom means looking to God, rather than human effort, as the ultimate source of the things we need for life. Our labor is not optional, but neither is it absolute. Our labor is always a participation in the grace of God’s provision.
Jesus Feeds Five Thousand (Luke 9:10-17)
Jesus demonstrates this in actions before he teaches it in words. In the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17), God, in the person of Jesus, takes responsibility for meeting the crowd’s need for food. He does it because they are hungry. Exactly how Jesus works this miracle is not stated. He makes use of ordinary food — the five loaves of bread and two fish — and by God’s power, a little bit of food becomes enough to feed so many people. Some of Jesus’ disciples (the fisherman) were in the food service profession and others (e.g., Levi the tax collector) were in civil service. He employs their accustomed labor, as they organize the crowd and serve the bread and fish. Jesus incorporates, rather than replaces, the ordinary human means of providing food, and the results are miraculously successful. Human work is capable of doing good or doing harm. When we do as Jesus directs, our work is good. As we so often see in the Gospel of Luke, God brings miraculous results out of ordinary work—in this case, the work of providing the necessities of life.
Jesus Teaches About God's Provision (Luke 12:4-7; 12:22-31)
Later, Jesus teaches about God’s provision. “I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear….Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-31). Jesus offers this as plain common sense. Since worrying cannot add so much as an hour to your life, why worry? Jesus doesn’t say not to work, only not to worry about whether your work will provide enough to meet your needs.
God gave Joe Kreutz, CEO of County Commerce Bank, relationships that made him feel secure enough to run his bank to help the community, customers and employees succeed, rather than worrying about himself.
In an economy of plenty, this is excellent advice. Many of us are driven by worry to labor in jobs we don’t like, keeping hours that detract from our enjoyment of life, neglecting the needs of others around us. To us, the goal doesn’t seem like “more” money but rather “enough” money, enough to feel secure. Yet seldom do we actually feel secure, no matter how much more money we make. In fact, it's often true that the more successful we are at bringing in more money, the less secure we feel because we now have more to lose. It’s almost as if we would be better off if we had something genuine to worry about, as do the poor (“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” Luke 6:21). To break out of this rut, Jesus says to “strive for [God’s] kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well” (Luke 12:31). Why? Because if your ultimate goal is God’s kingdom, then you have the assurance that your ultimate goal will be met. And feeling that assurance, you can recognize that the money you make actually is enough, that God is providing for your needs. To earn a million dollars and be afraid you may lose it is like being a million dollars in debt. To earn a thousand dollars and to know that you will ultimately be fine is like getting a thousand dollar gift.
But what if you don’t have a thousand dollars? About a third of the world’s population subsists on less than a thousand dollars a year. These people may have enough to live on today, but face the threat of hunger or worse at any moment, whether or not they are believers. It is difficult to reconcile the hard fact of poverty and starvation with God’s promise of provision. Jesus is not ignorant of this situation. “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” he says (Luke 12:33, NIV), for he knows that some people are desperately poor. That’s why we must give to them. Perhaps if all Jesus’ followers used our work and wealth to alleviate and prevent poverty, we would become the means of God’s provision for the desperately poor. But since Christians have not done so, we will not pretend to speak here on behalf of people who are so poor that their provision is doubtful. Instead, let us ask whether our own provision is presently in doubt. Is our worry in proportion to any genuine danger of lacking what we really need? Are the things we worry about genuine needs? Are the things we worry about for ourselves remotely comparable to the things the desperately poor need that we do nothing to provide for them? If not, then anything but Jesus’ advice not to worry about the necessities of life would be foolhardy.
The theme of God’s provision through human labor continues in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, God’s provision for a crime victim comes through the compassion of a foreign traveler, who evidently has enough wealth to pay for a stranger’s medical care. This may be the best-known of all Jesus’ parables, though it occurs only in the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately after Luke’s account of the Great Commandment. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus says that greatest commandment in all of scripture is to “love God” and “love your neighbor.” In Luke 10:25-37 the discussion of the greatest commandment continues directly into the Parable of the Good Samaritan. For the workplace implications of the Great Commandment, see "The Great Commandment is a Great Framework (Matthew 22:34-40)” and “Our Work Fulfills the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34).”
In Luke’s account, the lawyer begins by asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer to summarize himself what is written in the law, and the lawyer returns with the Great Commandment “Love the Lord your God… and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replies that this is indeed the key to life.
The lawyer then asks Jesus a follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds by telling a story which has been called “The Parable of the Good Samaritan.” This story is so compelling that it has permeated into popular knowledge far beyond Christian circles. People who have never picked up a Bible will still recognize the meaning of the term “Good Samaritan” as someone who takes care of a stranger in need.
Given the cultural idea of a “Good Samaritan” as someone with an extraordinary talent for compassion, we might be tempted to overlook the actual Samaritan in Jesus’ story. And yet it is important to our understanding of our own work to examine why the Samaritan Jesus describes was a successful businessman.
The Samaritan in Jesus’ story comes upon the Jew injured by robbers along a well-known trading route. The Samaritan likely traveled that trade route often, as evidence by the fact that he was known at a nearby inn and deemed trustworthy enough by the innkeeper to demand an extension of services on credit. Whatever the nature of his business, the Samaritan was successful enough to be able to afford oil and wine for medicinal purposes and lodging at an inn for a complete stranger. He is willing to spend his money on the stranger, and his time too. The Samaritan puts his other business on hold to see to the needs of the injured stranger.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan can thus be interpreted as a story about using our material success to benefit others. The hero of the parable spends his money on a stranger without any direct obligation to do so. They are not related by kinship or even by faith. Indeed, the Samaritans and the Jews were often antagonistic toward one another. And yet in Jesus’ mind, to love God is to make anyone who needs our help into our “neighbor.” Jesus emphasizes this point by reversing the thrust of the lawyer’s original question. They lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that begins with the self and then asks who the self is obligated to aid. Jesus reverses the question, “Which of the three was a neighbor to the man?” a question that centers on the man in need, and asks who is obligated to help him. If we begin by thinking of the person in need, rather than ourselves, does that give us a different perspective on whether God calls us to help?
This doesn’t mean we are called to absolute, infinite availability. No one is called to meet all the needs of the world. It is beyond our capability. The Samaritan doesn’t quit his job to go searching for every injured traveler in the Roman Empire. But when he crosses paths—literally—with someone who needs the help he can give, he takes action. “A neighbor,” says the preacher Haddon Robinson, “is someone whose needs you have the ability to meet.”
The Samaritan doesn’t just help the injured man by throwing a few coins his way. Rather, he makes sure all the man’s needs are cared for, both his immediate medical needs and his need for a space to recuperate. The Samaritan thus cares for the man as he might care for his own self. This fulfills Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The Samaritan takes on an extraordinary degree of risk to help this stranger. He risks getting jumped by the same bandits when he stoops to see what has happened to the man. He risks being cheated by the Innkeeper. He risks being saddled by the expense and emotional weight of caring for someone who has become chronically ill. But he takes on these risks because he acts as if his own life were the one in question. This is Jesus’ best example of what it might mean to be a neighbor to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Another feature of the story that would have surprised Jesus’ listeners is the ethnicity of the hero, a Samaritan. Jesus’ people, the Jews, considered Samaritans ethnically and religiously inferior. Yet the Samaritan is more attuned to the Law of Moses than the Jewish religious leaders who pass by on the other side of the road. His presence in Jewish territory is not a danger to be feared, but a saving grace to be welcomed.
At work we have many chances to be neighbors with co-workers, customers and others across ethnic or cultural divides. Being a Good Samaritan in the workplace means cultivating a specific awareness of the needs of the other. Are there people in your workplace who are being robbed in some way? Often specific ethnic groups are deprived of recognition or promotion. A conscientious Christian should be the one to say, “Are we giving this person a fair shake?”
Similarly, just as enmity had grown between the Jews and Samaritans, management and employees often think of themselves as two distinct tribes. But that doesn’t need to be the case. One company didn’t see it that way at all. Arthur Demoulas, CEO of the chain of groceries Market Basket, made it a point to treat his workers exceptionally well. He paid them well over the minimum wage and refused to scrap the company’s profit-sharing plan even when the company lost money during an economic downturn. He forged direct connections with his workers, learning the names of as many of them as possible. This was no small feat in a company of 25,000 employees. When Market Basket’s board of directors fired Arthur Demoulas in 2014, due in large part to his generous practices, the employees of the supermarket chain went on strike. Workers refused to stock the shelves until Arthur Demoulas regained control of the company. It was perhaps the first instance ever of workers of a large company organizing at the grassroots level to choose their own CEO, and it was fueled by Arthur Demoulas’ self-sacrificing generosity.
In this case, being a Good Samaritan actually boosted Arthur Demoulas’ success. Perhaps it’s not only good spiritual counsel but good business advice when Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
The Parable of the Shrewd Manager (Luke 16:1-13)
The key to security about the things we need is not anxious earning and saving, but trustworthy service and spending. If God can trust us to spend our money to meet the needs of others, then the money we ourselves need will also be provided. This is the point of the parable of the dishonest manager. In it, a manager squanders his master’s property and, as a result, is notified he will be fired. He uses his last days on the job to defraud his master further, but there is a strange twist to how he does it. He does not try to steal from his master. Perhaps he knows it will be impossible to take anything with him when he leaves the estate. Instead, he fraudulently reduces the debts of his masters’ debtors, hoping that they will reciprocate the favor and provide for him when he is unemployed.
Like the dishonest manager, we cannot take anything with us when we depart this life. Even during this life our savings can be destroyed by hyperinflation, market crashes, theft, confiscation, lawsuits, war, and natural disaster. Therefore, building up large savings offers no real security. Instead, we should spend our wealth to provide for other people, and depend on them to do the same for us when the need arises. “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, NRSV footnote b). By providing for his master’s debtors, the dishonest steward is creating friendships. Mutual fraud is probably not the best way to build relationships. But apparently it is better than not building relationships at all. Building relationships is far more effective for gaining security than building wealth is. The word eternal signifies that good relationships help us in times of trouble in this life, and they will also endure into eternal life.
An extreme example of this principle occurs whenever war, terror, or disaster destroys the economic fabric of society. In a refugee camp, a prison, or a hyperinflated economy, the wealth you formerly may have had cannot procure even a crust of bread. But if you have provided for others, you may find them providing for you in your most difficult hour. Note that the people the dishonest manager helps are not wealthy people. They are debtors. The dishonest manager is not depending on their riches but on the relationship of mutual dependence has built with them.
Yet Jesus is not saying to depend on the fickle sentiments of people you may have helped over the years. The story turns quickly from the debtors to the master in the story (Luke 16:8), and Jesus endorses the master’s maxim, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much” (Luke 16:10). This points to God as the guarantor that using money for relationships will lead to lasting security. When you build good relationships with other people, you come to have a good relationship with God. Jesus does not say which matters more to God, the generosity to the poor or the good relationships with people. Perhaps it is both. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). True riches are good relationships with people founded on our mutual adoption as God’s children, and a good relationship with God is realized in generosity to the poor. Good relationships produce good fruit, which gives us greater ability to build good relationships and be generous to others. If God can trust you to be generous with a little bit of money and use it build good relationships, he will be able to entrust you with greater resources.
This suggests that if you do not have enough savings to feel secure, the answer is not trying to save more. Instead, spend the little you have on generosity or hospitality. Other people's responses to your generosity and hospitality may bring you more security than saving more money would. Needless to say, this should be done wisely, in ways that truly benefit others, and not merely to assuage your conscience or flatter people targeted as future benefactors. In any case, your ultimate security is in God’s generosity and hospitality.
Echoes of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)
This may be surprising financial advice: Don’t save, but spend what you have to draw closer to other people. Notice, however, that it comes immediately after the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In that story, the younger son wastes his entire fortune, while the older son saves his money so frugally that he can’t even entertain his closest friends (Luke 16:29). The younger son’s profligacy leads to ruin. Yet his squandering of the wealth leads him to turn to his father in utter dependence. The father’s joy over having him back washes away any negative feelings he has about the son costing him half a fortune. By contrast, the older son’s firm grasp on what’s left of the family’s wealth turns him away from a close relationship with his father.
In the stories of both the dishonest manager and the prodigal son, Jesus does not say that wealth is inherently bad. Rather, he says that the proper use of wealth is to spend it, preferably on God’s purposes—but if not that, then on things that will increase our dependence on God.