Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail,
they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
(St. Luke xvi. 9)
In last week’s Gospel, we prayed that God’s never-failing providence that ruleth all things both in heaven and in earth [might] put away from us all hurtful things and [might] give to us those things which are profitable (Collect: Trin. VIII) for our salvation. And this week Jesus illustrates how we might apply what we know of God’s providence to our present lives. He does this through The Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it, He commends the virtue of prudence for our consideration.
In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, we read about the administrator or manager of a rich man’s treasure who has been accused of wasting his master’s goods and being a careless manager of the rich man’s estate. The rich man summons his employee to call him to account. 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 is disturbed but gives his worker time to give account of his stewardship. The employee is struck dumb with trepidation over his future. Because he can make no excuse for his sin, 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) He is proud of his education and ability and, thus, will not lower himself to menial labor to repay his master. He will not beg by reason of the same shame. He has a good mind and will use it to make good out of the evil that has befallen him. He thus muses:
I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So, he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore.
Though he has failed to manage the rich man’s business properly in the past, he will nevertheless use his practical perspicacity and prudence to begin to call in his master’s debts. So, he makes a deal with others who have loans with his master. He asks them what they owe that he may return at least a portion of their debt to his boss. He ends up collecting fifty percent of what one man owed, and eighty percent from another, and returns to give to the master what he has collected. So, 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) He has used unrighteous mammon and made friends through it. Jesus tells his listeners that in earthly and worldly terms, here we find a man who used his prudence and worldly wisdom to bring good out of evil. He has made friends through the mammon of unrighteousness. (Ibid, 9) Having realized his careless negligence, he calls in prudence to reclaim his master’s debt.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says that in this instance the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light? And why does He say that we are to make us friends with the mammon of unrighteousness? It seems to contradict what He commands elsewhere – that we cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) We learn more about it in what follows today’s Gospel lesson. There Jesus says that 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) Unrighteous mammon is a term used to describe money or earthly treasure. If a man has been dishonest when entrusted with earthly riches, how can he be trusted to increase the worth of his spiritual treasure? The unjust steward was irresponsible and unfaithful with his master’s fortune. But he repented of his error and was determined to use prudence to find favor in his master’s eyes once again. In the Parable Jesus seems to suggest that the prudence of the unjust steward is a virtue to be imitated. Of course, it is not the unjust steward’s concern with making up for his fraud that interests Jesus, but rather the prudence or practical wisdom that moves the man to recover from the mistakes he had made. Making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness involves acquiring the habit of prudence. The unjust steward is still unjust, and the unrighteous mammon is always unrighteous. The mammon of unrighteousness is false mammon, ‘the meat that perishes’, the riches of this world, perishing things that disappoint those who raise their expectations from them. (M. Henry. Comm. Luke xvi.) So, is Jesus encouraging us to make use of it to advance spiritually and progress with God? No. This is not Jesus’ intention. Rather, he is using the parable to show that all men should know that they are unjust stewards, by reason of sin, and should, therefore, always make friends with what is always unrighteous mammon, with prudence.
The prudence in the parable restores the unjust steward to his lord or master. Jesus encourages us to translate the unjust steward’s prudence first into practical prudence. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that prudence is the application of right reason to action. Prudence is a virtue that makes its possessor good and his work good also. Similarly, St. Bonaventure tells us that Prudence rules and rectifies the powers of the soul for the good of the self and one’s neighbor. (Bonaventure: C. M. Cullen, p. 98) He tells us also that prudence helps us to remain close to the spiritual center. (Idem) The center for the Christian must include the practical knowledge of how to use the mammon of unrighteousness properly. A prudent man then befriends unrighteous mammon. Because a prudent man is on intimate terms with the mammon of unrighteousness, and knows only too well its dangerous potential, first he will use it to assist others. Prudence encourages us also to see in our neighbor another self and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So, when we are practically wise or prudent in relation to the mammon of unrighteousness, we use the perishable and disposable wealth of this world for those in need. Jesus says that he that is faithful in that which is least, is also faithful also in much. (Ibid, 10) He means that we must use prudence to become faithful and honest with these lesser and least of riches because only then can we reveal what truly moves and defines us. If we can dispose of unrighteous mammon effortlessly and easily, then we show others that we are far more intent upon serving one Master and looking for one reward. We shall also make friends for Christ. Charity, generosity, liberality, and kindness overcome other men’s basic needs so that their souls can join ours in laboring [spiritually] not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life. (St. John vi. 27)
Christ makes it very clear in using this parable that most men are rather more prudent in preparing for their worldly futures than His followers are prudent in readying themselves for their spiritual destiny. If spiritual men would take as much time, care, and caution in preparing for salvation, as they do in worrying about money, the world might become a more Christian place. Thus, the parable has a more spiritual meaning. Spiritual men need to be more prudent about their spiritual future, converting the earthly prudence they use in relation to mammon to higher ends. Making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, (Ibid, 9) must involve cultivating the Cardinal Virtue of prudence that is on the way to being perfected through God’s Grace.
First, the prudent spiritual man imitates the unjust steward who acknowledged his sin and was thus assiduously and conscientiously determined to make right with his Master. We should intend to make ourselves right with God. Second, the prudent spiritual man knows that he is always an unjust [spiritual] steward of God’s gifts because of his fallen nature, and thus can never repay what he owes to Him. So, he must live under God’s Grace praying always that God, like the rich man in today’s parable, might be merciful. Third, the prudent spiritual man is determined to help others with what he has been given, thus loving him spiritually as a fellow pilgrim on the journey to God’s Kingdom who will receive him into everlasting habitations (Ibid, 9) if he himself has been merciful like his Lord. Luther tells us that those whom we have helped and who have gone before us will say to the Lord: ‘My God, this he has done unto me as thy child!’ The Lord will say: ‘Because ye have done it to the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.’ Therefore, these poor people will…be…our witnesses so that God shall receive us. (Luther: Trinity IX)
Today my friends let us begin to study the virtue of prudence. Prudence looks with foresight and vision into a Christian future in Heaven. As Isidore of Seville says (Etym. x): A prudent man is one who sees as it were from afar, for his sight is keen, and he foresees the event of uncertainties. (STA: Summa, II, ii, 47, i.) Prudence sees things from afar and weighs Heaven as far more important than earth and its perishable mammon. As our Collect reminds us prudence is the spirit to think and do always such things that are right and what enables us to live according to [God’s] will by His Grace. (Collect: Trinity IX) Thus, Christian prudence sees that God has called us to make to ourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness so that we might be humbled, not arrogantly thinking that we are standing above those whom we help but taking heed lest we fall. (1 Cor. X. 12) After all, if Jesus stoops down to suffer and die for us on His Cross, from the low plain of doing it to the least of these [His] brethren, we should humbly allow them, then, to receive us into [His]everlasting habitations from Heaven because we have served not Mammon but God through His Life of perfect suffering and service from the Cross of His Love.
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