September 19, 2010
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
It must have something to do with mammon. Understanding, experiencing, encountering the very difficult parable of the unjust steward in the 16th chapter of the gospel of Luke, it must have to something to do with mammon. Mammon, as in “you cannot serve God and mammon.” That comes from the teaching of Jesus here in Luke, and in Matthew. In older translations, the parable of the unjust steward includes the term mammon. At v 9, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteousness mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” Mammon is one of those bible words that you just don’t forget. Whether it was Mrs. Snyder’s 3rd grade Sunday School class, or the old preacher down at the Methodist Church that would preach on that quote from Jesus every year on stewardship Sunday (you can’t serve God and mammon), or your own reading of the bible and the collection of verses that just never go away. Mammon is one of those bible words, and it must have something to do with the parable of the unjust steward. “Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon…”
Some would focus on the historical and cultural analysis of the business practices described in the parable. Knowing he was about to be fired, did the manager simply cut his own commission or eliminate the predatory elements that put cash in his pocket, or was the immediate discount coming out of the owners’ profit? The shrewdness commended was an urgent decision that allowed the rich man to cut some losses and move on.
Others would look to the existential crisis of the manager, “what will I do now…I’m not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg”. The manager’s employment predicament becomes symbolic of an Ebenezer Scrooge-like transformation that leads to kindness and mercy. Or his blatant political expediency of acting in ways to ingratiate himself to the debtors becomes some kind of exaggerated indicator of an awareness of others and the ripple effect of one’s own behavior. Or his quick thinking to save his own hide becomes a metaphor for a spiritual creativity that ought to apply to things eternal. A street smart, edgy wisdom applied to figuring out what is necessary for the salvation of one’s own soul. The shrewdness commended has to with some kind of conversion process going on in the unjust steward that adjusts his focus, his energy, his business like mind, his entrepreneurial spirit toward important things, toward eternal things.
It is also possible to step away from the details of the parable, step away from trying to figure it out completely point by point and do a kind of flyover. Take a step back and observe the broad contrast between the children of this age and the children of light. The firing of the manager and the reference to being welcomed into eternal homes creates a kind of end time apocalyptic teaching of Jesus. The children of light must be more alert, more on guard, more prepared than the children of this age. The shrewdness commended relates to being on God’s side when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory, out-smarting the world with a wisdom that is from above and that lasts forever.
And then, there’s the mammon. The unrighteous mammon. Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon. If you have not been faithful with unrighteous mammon who will entrust true riches to you? You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is such a bible word, so etched in the vernacular of the world of bible. It’s fun to say, mammon. It’s easy to remember, mammon. It’s not hard to figure out what it means, mammon, money, wealth. Mammon. Mammon. Mammon. Folks who have never read the scriptures could pull up the quote, “you can’t serve God and mammon!” Mammon. Money. Scratch. Cashola. Big coin. Mammon. What’s surprising, is that right here in Luke, right here around the parable of the unjust steward, right here is pretty much the only place in the bible where mammon is mentioned. Yes, once in Matthew, and then here three times in Luke, chapter 16. Pretty much all the mammon is right here. This biblically rooted, urban dictionary term that everyone just sort of knows? It’s not all through the bible, it’s just here. Right here. So, yes, it must have something to do with the mammon.
A long time ago, a wise pastor named Ed Shalk came to visit and welcome me to the presbytery. I had been ordained all of a few months, and he had been retired a decade or so. Over the years we talked about many things from sermon writing to session meetings, from clergy taxes to Presbyterian history, from protecting days off to which local funeral directors were the most helpful. That first conversation he said to me, “You know David, over the years I have come to think that most congregations would prefer that their pastors not know much about money; personal finance, church budgets, investments.” I wasn’t sure what he meant so we talked some more about it. He summed it up with a bit of clarity. “The less the pastor knows about money the easier it is to accept the myth that faith and money don’t mix.” It was the compartmentalization of life he was lamenting. Faith here. Money here. Sunday here. Monday to Saturday here. Sanctuary here. Office here. Prayer list here. Check book here. “You can’t serve God and mammon”. So you put God here. Mammon over here. Which probably wasn’t what Jesus had in mind!
In Luke’s gospel, just before the lasting quote from the lips of Jesus about serving God and serving mammon, Jesus said to his disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager….” And he said to them, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon…” This parable would be so much easier, the parable would be so much safer without the mammon. Actually, that quote from Jesus would be so much easier without the parable. Because the parable just stomps all over that myth of compartmentalization, that myth that faith and money don’t mix. The quote is so clean and crisp, ready for underlining, mounting on the wall, and ignoring. The parable, it’s just plain messy and draws you in because there’s no easy answer, nothing to just figure out. The shrewdness commended is realizing that management, and work, and money, and welcoming, and oil, and wheat, and children, and family, and friends, and others, faith, and Jesus, and the kingdom, it’s all so darn blended in. And in the parable of the unjust steward, it may all be about the mammon.
The word “mammon” occurs 4 times in scripture. Two of them are in the quote from Jesus in Matthew and Luke, “You can’t serve God and mammon.” The other two times, Luke uses the word here in chapter 16; once in the comment at the end of the parable and again in the verse of teaching that follow. In these two cases, the word “mammon” comes together with the descriptor “dishonest” or “unrighteous”. Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest mammon, unrighteous mammon. One commentator suggests the best translation of the Greek could be “the mammon of injustice”. The adjective in the Greek is the same used to describe the steward as dishonest, as unjust. The master commended the dishonest manager, the unrighteous steward, the manager of injustice. The mammon of injustice. The manager of injustice.
Injustice, then, is in contrast to “making friends.” Make friends for yourself by means of the mammon of in justice. Making friends must be more than light hearted fellowship, more than making an acquaintance. Making friends must be more than scoring political points, more than keeping score and counting favors. Making friends must be a reference to welcoming someone as a member of the very household God. It must be what comes after finding the lost, after a tear-filled embrace, after a grasping shout of joy. Making friends, as when Jesus announced in John’s gospel “I no longer call you servants….I call you friends.” Making friends connotes relationship, care, partnership, equality. The shrewdness commended in the parable points to a participation in a transformation, not simply in the heart and soul of the steward, but a transformation of the economy of injustice, a turn toward the household of God. Taking part in transforming the world’s practice into the very kingdom of God. The minister of injustice took the mammon of injustice to make friends for eternity so that when the mammon is gone, when the injustice is gone, the glorious welcome of eternity will last forever. It’s a parable about ridding the world of economic injustice one manager at a time.
I have just started working my way through the book Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. The book is written by Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, former journalists at the Wall Street Journal. In the book they argue that while no one should have to die of hunger in the 21st century, the hunger crisis around the world is actually getting worse. In 2008 the number of undernourished people in the world reached nearly 1 billion. 25,000 people die every day because of hunger, malnutrition, and related diseases. 6 million children were dying every year from starvation as the world headed into the 21st century. The authors point to a Nobel laureate’s acceptance speech 40 years ago when he warned that humanity can and ought to prevent the tragedy of famine instead of “merely trying with pious regret to salvage the human wreckage of famine.” In writing about history, globalization, economics, the politics of relief, the science of farming, the authors are really writing about injustice, about mammon, about the mammon of injustice.
Early on in the preface to the book, Thurow and Kilman take on those who think hunger is a given, like the poor who will always be with us, or that it is always a result of natural disaster or a corrupt tyrant. “The truth is that natural disasters will occur and unconscionable dictators will ruin their countries. But so much of the chronic, every day hunger in the world is now a man-made catastrophe, caused one anonymous decision at a time, one day at a time, by people, institutions and governments doing what they thought was best for themselves…” As you might guess, the authors’ plea in the book is not simply for more money. But it is a plea for “informed people to advocate for policy reform and new practices that work for the world’s poorest”, to become more educated about the global consequences of self-interested decision, to roll up sleeves and work in fields. The battle can be won, they argue, because “this generation has more weapons at its disposal than any other.” Or to put it another way, “the children of this age are more shrewd.” Or, if the managers of injustice could use the mammon of injustice to make friends with 1 billion starving people.
Mammon. It’s one of those bible words you will never forget. How about not forgetting this, Jesus expects his followers to participate in transforming the world’s practice into the very kingdom of God. One manager at a time. And it has everything to do with mammon.
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