David A. Davis
September 18, 2022
Jump to audio
Yes, you heard right. I changed the word to “mammon”. I changed the word “wealth” in the New Revised Standard Version to “mammon”. “Dishonest mammon (v.9)…..dishonest mammon (v.11)…..You cannot serve God and mammon (v. 13). It is the term used in the King James and several other more modern versions of the bible. It is actually pretty much the Greek word, mammon, It’s a word with its roots in Arabic. 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 are here in chapter 16. The oh so familiar term, “mammon” is not all that common the pages of scripture. Just not a lot of mammon. A whole lot of wealth, other words for wealth, but not much mammon. But “mammon” sounds better than “wealth”. “Mammon”. It’s more fun to say and it has a bit of a nasty ring to it. “Mammon.” When it comes linked to this incredibly difficult parable from the teaching of Jesus, the parable of the unjust steward, it kind has an onomatopoeia feel to it. The parable is kind of nasty and the term has a nasty ring to it.
A few years ago, New Testament Professor Dale Allison from Princeton Theological Seminary taught an adult education class on interpreting parables. With his words he very creatively took us on a tour of the seminary library and the section that has all the books on the history of interpretation of the parables. When it comes to this parable named by tradition as “the parable of the unjust or dishonest steward”, 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 perhaps reflects 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 do 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.
Yet one more approach is the effort to distinguish the parable itself form the commentary of Jesus. In this case, one could argue the parable concludes with verse 8. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; because the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Stop right there and the listeners to the parable then and now are left shaking their heads. “Really Jesus?”. But Jesus continues teaching. The sermon goes on and the preaching heats up a bit. “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest mammon, who will entrust you the true riches?” Snap Jesus!
In November of 2015, The Christian Century published a short article I wrote and titled “When it Comes to Talking about Money, Pastors Can Never Win.” It started as an 1800 word essay on the bind that pastors face because congregations and most of the folks in them are uncomfortable talking money; especially the combination of their money and their faith. Over and over again, pastoral search committees look for the next pastor to help them improve stewardship and then the pastor catches flack at the door: “you talk about money too much” or you ought to stick to spiritual things”. The piece included bits of wisdom shared with me early in ministry and a few things I have learned over the years. One example is that the pastor should always understand the church budget as well or better than the finance committee. After comments from the editor, I cut the article to 1400 words. When it was published it was about 750 words and the title was “Why Pastors Should Know Who Pledges How Much?” Which was never the intended gist of my work and most of the tips were on the cutting room floor. It was a print version of what social media now refers to as “click bait”. When it comes to reading, teaching, talking about mammon, the title editor made it all the more a third rail issue. The editor knew what we all know. Don’t talk about mammon, mine, yours, or ours. But then, Jesus says you can’t serve God and mammon! When it comes to the first half of Luke chapter 16, it’s all about the mammon. Ouch Jesus!
Not just mammon but dishonest mammon. The two times Luke’s Jesus pairs the words mammon and dishonest. “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest mammon so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” 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, in the sentence is in contrast to “making friends.” Make friends for yourself by means of the mammon of injustice.” 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, It must be comes after the one about the lost sheep, the one about the lost coin, the one about the lost. 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.
Economic injustice seems at the heart of stories coming out of Mississippi the last few weeks. The poorest state in country. As one writer put it; far too many people in Mississippi only aspire to the poverty level. The water crisis in Jackson, MS, like the previous one in Flint MI, has everything to do with systemic, economic injustice. The poorest of communities made vulnerable by a system that diverts public funds and resources elsewhere. And then there is the story of the Hall of Fame football quarterback who participated in a scheme to defraud the state welfare fund of millions of dollars. Along with others, the effort a million dollars into his own pocket for speeches and more than a million dollars to fund a new volleyball arena at the university where his daughter was on the team. As more than one sports journalists has pointed out; he made enough money in his career and his ongoing ubiquitous endorsement deals, he could have funded the arena himself. The mammon of injustice
If you are not aware of the compelling and convicting work of “The Eviction Lab” at Princeton University, you should be. https://evictionlab.org/ The Eviction Lab is under the leadership of Professor Matt Desmond. The purpose of the lab is to gather massive amounts of data related to eviction and poverty and to make it available for policy makers, think tanks, and local and national legislative offices. More than gathering the data, the work of the lab advocates against economic injustice. To quote Professor Desmond, “Eviction functions as a cause, not just a condition of poverty. You may have heard me quote from Desmond’s award winning book Evicted before. But I can’t study the parable of the unjust steward without thinking about all I learned when reading Evicted.
This from the very end of the book: “Establishing the basic right to housing in America could be realized in any number of ways—and probably should be. What works best in New York might fail in Los Angeles. The solution to housing problems in booming Houston or Atlanta or Seattle is not what is most needed in the deserted metropolises of the Rust Belt or Florida’s impoverished suburbs or small towns dotting the landscape. One city must build; another must destroy. If our cities and towns are rich in diversity—with unique textures and styles, gifts, and problems—so too must be our solutions.” That sounds like a call for being shrewd enough to find solutions regarding economic injustice. If the managers of injustice could use the mammon of injustice to make friends with the 3.6 million individuals and families facing eviction every year.
Mammon. It’s one of words in the bible so rare that no one ever forgets. Would that the followers of Jesus would never forget that Jesus calls those followers to participate in transforming the world’s practice into the very household of God. Use the word “mammon” when reading Luke 16 and the parable of the unjust/dishonest steward. The whole section ought to be read with a crescendo above it and an increasing tempo below it. The whole section almost rushes toward “mammon.” The parable proper with all its ambiguity and then the squirm-worthy sermon from Jesus, the post-game press conference as it were; it all has a rhetorical momentum that builds. The swirl of questions and complexity that whips with the increased pace of the teaching of Jesus; stirring up head and heart…children of light, dishonest mammon, faithful in little, faithful in much, hating the one, loving the other…..You cannot serve God and mammon, Ouch Jesus! A mic drop of divine proportion. The listeners to the parable and the preaching of Jesus then and now, can’t feel good about it and can’t explain it. You just experience it and try to somehow by God’s grace and mercy, try to somehow to be faithful in your life, in following Jesus when it comes to God…..and mammon.