It has been interesting to see the reaction to President Obama’s use of the New Testament to support his tax policy at the National Prayer Breakfast last week. His remarks are relevant to our ongoing discussion on faith, work, and economics.
Here is the President’s quote in question:
And when I talk about shared responsibility, it’s because I genuinely believe that in a time when many folks are struggling, at a time when we have enormous deficits, it’s hard for me to ask seniors on a fixed income, or young people with student loans, or middle-class families who can barely pay the bills to shoulder the burden alone. And I think to myself, if I’m willing to give something up as somebody who’s been extraordinarily blessed, and give up some of the tax breaks that I enjoy, I actually think that’s going to make economic sense. But for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that “for unto whom much is given, much shall be required.
You can find the entire speech here.
While many commentators suggested the President misused the passage in question and was guilty of “proof texting,” there has been little discussion of what Jesus actually meant when he said “For unto whom much is given, much shall be required.” There is a good reason for this. Luke 12:48 comes at the end of a very difficult passage. Let’s take a look at this verse in its original context.
This passage comes at the end of a larger section that includes Luke 12:35-48. This section includes two parables, a question and an answer. The first parable (verses 35-40) describes servants who are prepared for the return of their master, who have answered the call to “Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning.” They will be greatly rewarded when the master returns.
Then in verse 41 Peter asks a question: “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” Jesus doesn’t initially answer but instead offers a second parable (verses 42-47).
Jesus describes a faithful, wise manager who is greatly rewarded for his service in the master’s absence. Jesus uses the Greek word oikonomos (from which we get the work economics), which means manager, or more literally, steward. This word was used for a trusted slave commissioned with the responsibility of the oversight of the household. It was also used as a synonym for Christian leaders, pastors, and apostles in the church.
In the second half of this parable, the faithful service of the wise manager is contrasted with a wicked manager who abuses his power and is severely punished upon the return of the master.
Regarding this passage John Calvin writes in his Harmony of the Gospels:
As Christ had formerly exhorted the whole family in general to watch for his coming, so now he demands extraordinary care from the principal servants, who had been appointed over others for the purpose of pointing out, by their example, the path of …sobriety, watchfulness, and strict temperance… True, indeed, all are enjoined, without exception, to be sober, and to give earnest attention, but drowsiness would be peculiarly disgraceful and inexcusable in pastors.
In the second half of verse 48 we find the answer to Peter’s question. Yes, it is to everyone; however, as you can see in this second parable, those who have been given more knowledge and a higher level of responsibility in their calling will be held to a higher standard.
Verse 48 is not about blessings that we have received and should then share. In the parable the workers are actually slaves who have no money. It is about knowledge of what we should be doing while we await the return of the master and how faithfully we perform those actions. In his commentary on this passage, Darrell Bock writes:
Eschatology (teaching about the future) in the Bible exists not so much to inform us of the details of the future as to prepare us to serve God faithfully today.
This passage is not about tax policy. It is describing how Christians have a great responsibility to work for God’s kingdom while we wait for the return of our King. To faithfully live this out, we must acquire a better understanding of how our vocation is integral to our Christian calling, a discussion of which we will have tomorrow.