A few weekends ago, I looked at my diary to see what I should be doing in the coming days, and found an entry that I wasn’t expecting for a committee meeting. After a few moments’ thought, I remembered an e-mail from the chairman saying that there was little to discuss, and asking if we would agree to leave getting together until the next month. We all did, of course, but somehow deleting the entry in my diary had slipped off my to-do list.
The incident brought to mind a Bible verse, “No one can serve two masters …”. It occurs in two Gospels, at Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13. The idea of loving my memory and hating the diary that got it wrong seemed a bit bizarre, but when I looked up these two references I found a deeper truth, which I’ll share with you today.
When two sources disagree, e.g. in research, what do we do? The first thought is to consult a third source, and take a majority view; a second idea might be to consider the sources we’ve looked at so far, and see what each is based on: whether one or other is the more reliable. In my personal interest, the field of family history, such a difference might occur between a person’s year of birth as expressed on a census versus looking at a birth registration index. An age could easily be falsified, or mis-remembered, but the law requires registration within six weeks of birth. We might also consider whether the conflicting details that have been found are really significant: in my example, is a birth within a five-year range good enough?
If you look at the two verses I’ve quoted above, you’ll see that the words are identical. But their contexts are totally different. Matthew places them in the Sermon on the Mount, at the end of a chapter that falls into four parts, teaching about alms-giving, prayer, fasting and the necessities of life. Each section leads to consideration of God’s loving care, for “… your heavenly Father knows that you need them.” (v. 32).
Luke, however, has been narrating a series of parables – the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son (ch. 15), all illustrative of a caring father – and he begins chapter 16 with this one addressed to the disciples, but clearly pointed at, and possibly overheard by, the Pharisees. It is variously labelled as the ‘unjust steward’ or ‘dishonest manager’, although the NIV describes it as ‘the shrewd manager’, taking account of Jesus’ follow-up remarks about using our money (which, in common with all our possessions, is only held in trust and really belongs to God) for the good of others rather than ourselves, thereby earning us a heavenly reward. His remarks lead up to the verse we started with, about serving two masters.
So the same key verse is appropriate in either situation. Does it matter that one Gospel-writer places it in one place and the other somewhere else? If we take a step back, we can see the same underlying message, telling us to focus our attention on God, rather than on our possessions.
When two authorities differ, we shouldn’t just toss a coin, but look for a common truth that overcomes the difference of detail. The same applies whether it’s in our diaries, our research, or when it comes to applying our Faith.