By the Rev. Darren Miner
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In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, we hear an odd parable about a steward, or estate manager, followed by three challenging sayings about mammon, or wealth. All relate to the topic of money, either directly or indirectly. Now, chances are that Jesus did not deliver all these teachings at the same time. Scholars think it more likely that Luke did a little editing and lumped them all together, since they shared a common thread. But the resulting juxtaposition can be a bit confusing.
Let’s look at the parable first. I have always heard this parable called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. But the title doesn’t really suit the story, since the dishonesty of the steward isn’t really the point at all. Perhaps a better title would be the Parable of the Daring and Decisive Steward.
The story starts out with a rich absentee landowner acting on a malicious accusation against his estate manager. The English translation doesn’t bring out this nuance of the Greek— that the accusation is, in fact, a slander. The rich man doesn’t wait to investigate the truth of the matter. Instead, he presumptuously fires his manager and demands that the account books be handed over. The estate manager realizes that he is ill-suited for hard labor and that he would be too ashamed to beg in the streets for a living. So he cooks up a little scheme! And ironically, the idea for his little scheme comes right from the malicious accusation that got him fired in the first place. So what does the manager decide to do? He calls in his boss’s debtors and asks them to falsify their bills by lowering the amounts that they owe. In other words, he decides to actually do what he had been falsely accused of—dispersing his boss’s property. The purpose of his scheme was to make friends fast, so that he would have some place to go after he was kicked out onto the streets by his boss. Now, somehow the boss finds out what’s going on. And we might well expect him to be furious and have his manager sent to the pokey. Instead, the rich landowner actually praises his scheming manager for his prudent and sensible action. The parable then finishes with Jesus’ comment that “the children of this age are more clever with regard to their own generation than are the children of light.”
What are we to make of this strange parable—and of Jesus’ final comment? On the surface, the parable seems to condone dishonesty. But that, of course, doesn’t really make much sense coming from Jesus Christ. So what then? Well, first I think that it is good to differentiate between the words of the rich landowner and the words of Jesus. The fact that the rich landowner commends the dishonesty of his former employee says loads about the nature of the rich man. It seems to me that he was no more honest than the so-called “dishonest steward”! Why else would he commend dishonesty? Given that, I don’t think we need to accept his opinion on the matter. What Jesus himself says is simply that the children of this age, in other words those who don’t follow Jesus, cope more successfully than his own followers, the children of light. Jesus is not expressing a wish that his disciples become more shrewd and successful in their business dealings in this world. But he may be expressing a wish that his followers be more daring, decisive, and resourceful in their work for the Kingdom of God. So, there is, in fact, a lesson that can be learned from the dishonest action of the steward, apart from the lesson that crime pays!
Now, the parable touches upon the theme of wealth, but money is not really the issue. The same cannot be said about the sayings that Luke has tacked onto this parable. In these sayings of Jesus, money and wealth are the main issue. The first saying, literally translated, is “Make friends for yourselves by means of mammon, which is unrighteousness, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal tabernacles.” Jesus’ point is that mammon or accumulated wealth, in and of itself, is unrighteousness. Mammon is an Aramaic word that commonly referred to “wealth” or “accumulated property,” but it originally meant “that which you rely on.” The Holy Scriptures repeatedly tell us that the only thing we can truly rely on is God. And in this saying, Jesus asks us to show ourselves faithful by dispersing our mammon to the righteous poor, by giving away “what we rely on” and relying on God instead.
The next saying gives us a similar teaching. It tells us that we need to be faithful with unrighteous mammon, with the false riches of this world, if we hope to be entrusted with the true riches of God’s Kingdom.
Finally, we are told yet another saying about wealth, and the punch line of this saying is “You cannot be a slave to God and to mammon.” Jesus warns us here that money has the power to replace God in our lives and to spiritually enslave us.
To be honest, I find these teachings about money and wealth challenging in the extreme. Common sense tells us that we should save as much money as possible for a rainy day. Consider health care, for example. It’s outrageously expensive. And if you don’t have good health insurance, you better have some money put aside. And even if you are healthy, what about the cost of living in the Bay Area? If you give all your money away, how are you supposed to afford the rent or buy gasoline or pay your utility bills? So, then, how are we supposed to resolve the conflict between Jesus’ teachings about mammon and our need for money to survive?
And if you find that you can’t even do that, then I suggest that you ask yourself why. Is it because you really can’t live without that bit of income? Or is it that you are afraid and are seeking a sense of security in something other than God?
These are hard questions to ask oneself. But every so often, we have to take stock of our relationship to money, if we wish to remain faithful followers of Jesus. We need to perform a spiritual audit, if you will. And we need to pray for guidance and for courage.
Sometime soon, the parish will be starting yet another annual pledge drive. Now would be a good time to start your spiritual audit. Who knows what you might find! You might find the courage to trust in God a little bit more and to trust in money a little bit less. Or you just might find the daring to radically reorder your whole relationship to wealth and to God. You just might find that, through the grace of God, you have become as daring and as decisive as that “dishonest steward.” “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”
© 2016 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.