Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail,
they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
(St. Luke xi. 1)
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus teaches a parable that has confused and befuddled the best of Scripture’s interpreters for centuries. So I will try to make some sense of this for all of us, but we must first understand that it must be grasped in the spiritual sense, as in the case of all of the parables. But we cannot get to the spiritual core or inner meaning of the parable before first confronting the outer and literal sense.
The parable that Jesus gives this morning is called The Parable of the Unjust Steward. What we have here is the tale of a man who was hired to be a steward or manager of a rich man’s treasure. What we learn is that he has been accused of wasting the rich man’s goods. As it turns out, he was not a very good steward, caretaker, or manager of the treasure that had been entrusted to him. The rich man summons his employee and says this: How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) The rich man seems to be surprised, but gives the man ample room for explaining what he has done. The employee is no doubt struck with immediate fear and trepidation over his fate, and he is worried to death about his future. He sees the writing on the wall, and so he says to himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. (Ibid, 3) The (now former) employee is a very worldly man. He is proud of his gifts and abilities, probably has a fairly good education, many talents and gifts, and so he is not about to take a job as a manual laborer. He will neither dig holes for his bread, nor will he reduce himself to begging. He is too proud to claim unemployment benefits, and he will not further demean and belittle his own worth. So with the ingenuity and industry that characterize his capacities, he knows what he will do. If he can no longer be employed by his Master, he will do what he can so that he can be taken care of by others, and so [be received] into their houses. (Ibid, 4)
So he makes a deal with other men who have taken out loans with his Master. He asks them what they owe the Master, and tells them to give him a portion of their debt that he may return it to his Master. The implication in the parable is that, at present, they cannot afford to repay the Master, so he will collect what he can from them, to show the Master that he has worked in earnest to recollect at least a portion of their debts. He ends up securing a promise for half of what one man owed, and eighty percent of what the other owed. He returns to his Master and gives him what he has collected. The Master seems rather merciful, for we read that, the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. (Ibid, 8) Jesus tells his listeners that in earthly and worldly terms, here we find a man who used his prudence and worldly wisdom to make the best of a bad situation, and who was even a model for self-preservation and planning for the future. Jesus concludes the parable by saying: Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Ibid, 9)
And so now comes the difficult part. What does Jesus mean when he says that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light? And why in the world would he ever say that we are to make us friends with the mammon of unrighteousness? In another place he appears to say the opposite – that we cannot serve God and Mammon, (St. Matthew vi. 24) and this seems to contradict what he is saying here. So what is Jesus getting at? Well, for starters, the formulators of our lectionary readings might have done us no small service if they had included the lines which follow in the reading from St. Luke’s Gospel. After our closing Gospel line for today, Jesus says, He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? (Ibid, 10-12) The parable seems to suggest that Jesus means to commend his friends and disciples to a kind of prudence that can imitate that of the unjust steward. But it is not in imitating the earthly steward’s obsession with his future financial security that Jesus is interested. Rather he is interested in having his spiritual followers imitate true prudence and prepare for a spiritual future. But to do so they must be faithful first in unrighteous mammon. The Christian who is prudent in unrighteous mammon is the man who realizes that he is a steward of God’s treasure. More often than not he fails in his calling and vocation, and so is an unjust steward, or one who has not managed the gifts that God has given to him in the most productive and industrious of ways. God is the Master in the parable, and sinful man is the unjust steward. But there are countless others, indeed the whole host of men who live in this world, who owe God more than they can repay. So what the unjust [spiritual] steward does is to take his spiritual brothers and sisters where they are and help them to give back what they can, given their present spiritual conditions. That he is an unjust steward is simply a fact that reveals that he cannot ever live up to his calling and vocation. But this is no excuse for him not to work with what he has in helping others to begin to be made right with God. He may indeed have paid his tithe to God, but more is required. He must help others to do the same. And so he does this by giving what he has to help them. In the parable he makes an arrangement for others to lessen their debt to the Master. In the case of the disciple, he becomes one who prepares for his spiritual future by realizing that he must do what he can for his fellow brothers who are equally indebted to God. He then that is faithful in that which is least, is also faithful also in much. (Ibid, 10)
Now Christ makes it very clear in using this parable that most men are rather more creative, industrious, and enterprising in preparing for their earthly and worldly futures than his followers are in readying themselves for their spiritual futures. If spiritual men took as much time, care, and caution in preparing for salvation, as earthly men took in preparing for their retirements, the world might become quite a different place. And yet the connection with the parable has a more literal meaning. If the spiritual man used his money first to serve God, and then to help his neighbor, he would reveal what kind of treasure and riches he was really after. He would be liberal and generous with his earthly treasure, knowing that his chief concern and primary interest is with the heavenly gifts that should move and define him. Man’s relation to money and mammon must be spiritualized. What do I mean? If a man’s eyes are opened to his spiritual future, his ultimate salvation, and his final reconciliation with God, he will want to share what he has with others so that they too, being nourished, clothed, and housed may join with him in the spiritual journey to the kingdom. If there are men around us who are feverishly anxious about how to feed, clothe, and house their children, they will have scarce little time to consider the greater call to God’s kingdom. The rich like to quote another quotation of Jesus, when he says the poor always ye have with you, (St. John xii. 8), as if they embody some kind of permanent problem that cannot be helped. But Christ is suggesting those who are not rich towards God, and then to their neighbors, really are not much interested in true treasure. So if we share with others what we have, then when [we fail], (i.e. die)…they [will] receive us into everlasting habitations. (St. Luke xvi. 9) Who will receive us? The poor whom we have helped out of their material poverty, and who, curiously enough, have helped us out of our material obsessions, as we both together become fellow journeymen seeking the treasures of heaven.
So making friends with mammon of unrighteousness, (Ibid, 9) has, I think, a few different meanings for us today. First, we should emulate and imitate the passion, determination, and persistence with which the unjust steward secured his earthly future, into our own quest for the holy habitations of God’s kingdom. Second, we should know that we are all unjust [spiritual] stewards God’s mercies and gifts, and so we are in good company with a world full of men who also owe God much and can never repay what they owe him. And, third, realizing this, with whatsoever means we have, in earthly terms, we should help others with what we’ have got, so that they can join us on our spiritual quest. For, as Calvin warns us, Those persons…who act improperly and unfaithfully in the things of small value, such as the transitory riches of this world, do not deserve that God should entrust to them the inestimable treasure of the Gospel. (Harmony of the Gospels: Vol. xvi.) So let us then share our earthly treasures with others, that in so doing we may invite others into our conscientious quest for and determined pursuit of the treasures of God’s heavenly habitations. As Richard Baxter says, Stretch your purse to the utmost, and do all the good you can. For then we show where [our true] treasure is…[and] where our hearts are also. (St. Luke xii. 34) Amen.
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