Use or Abuse of Money

The readings for Sunday, September 18, 2016, Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Amos 8:4-7; C1 Timothy 2:1-8; and Luke 16-1-13.

After a half century and more of studying, teaching, and writing about the Gospels, it should be possible to some extent to observe at work the mind of the author of a given Gospel. The authors are not writing biographies of Jesus but catechetical instruction about Jesus. They use oral and written traditions about Jesus. They combine these traditions with their own theology and the superb knowledge they have of their Scriptures — our Old Testament. During this liturgical year we are engaged with the mind of Luke and that mind’s production in his Gospel. On this Sunday we have the story of the cheating steward. He managed, it seems, with full authority, (today’s power of attorney), the property and assets of his employer, “a rich man.” Someone snitched on this manager. He was reported to be squandering his employer’s assets.

Why would Luke place this story in this spot in his document? He had just completed instruction on repentance and forgiveness in the story of the free-spending son and the forgiving father. One feature of that story was the use or abuse of money. So Luke decides to add the story of the greedy manager who got caught embezzling his employer’s assets. The theme of Christians and wealth runs throughout Luke’s Gospel. The manager gets a call, “Give an account of your management because your job has been terminated.” Before meeting with his now former boss, the manager takes quick action. He does this to impress his former boss and to set up favorable conditions for future employment elsewhere. Using his “power of attorney,” he quickly settles outstanding accounts owed by granting huge discounts to the debtors, if they settle now.

We may assume for the sake of the story that they settled their debts on these favorable terms. Why? Because his former employer praises him for acting prudently. Luke adds a saying of Jesus which is an observation and a comparison of Christians with outsiders, “The children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Were Luke’s Christians (the children of light) really so guileless, so innocent?  Luke’s Gospel is overwhelmingly the Gospel of the poor.  Sources, including Paul in his writing to the Corinthian congregation, indicate that Christianity attracted the poor, the slaves, the women. In those days it was difficult for a woman to get an education. Thus “the children of this world,” who often took advantage of the poor, knew much more about financial matters than most Christians.

Luke inserts another saying of Jesus — advising the correct use of wealth. “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails, they may receive you into eternal dwellings.” The translation used in our churches, “dishonest wealth,” can be a misleading translation. It gives the impression that one should use wealth gained by fraud, like the chief actor in the story above, “to make friends for yourself, etc.” That is hardly Luke’s intention. The word mammon is a Semitic word of unknown origin meaning “money, property, assets.” Luke does not like money. He would not have done well in a capitalist society. It seems to him money is simply bad, therefore “unrighteous.” His Gospel is full of the elevation of the poor and the pulling down of the rich. Towards the end of his Gospel, Luke seems to repent just a bit when he praises a very rich Zacchaeus for his use of wealth. That is why he advises to make friends with that bad stuff by helping the poor, so they will be a cheering section for their benefactors.

After reminding readers of the matter of trust,  Luke still has the concept of mammon bothering him, and adds, “If therefore you are not trustworthy in unrighteous mammon, who will trust you with true wealth?” What is “true wealth” for Luke? “Sell your possessions and give alms. Provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.”

Luke returns to the crooked manager, “If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another, who will give you what is yours?” He implies that all wealth belongs to God. If Christians with wealth do not use it to make friends for themselves with the poor, they will never receive true wealth, “treasure in the heavens that never fails.” Finally he summarizes the dangers of wealth, “No servant can serve two masters.  Then once more that word, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” This does not exclude the use of wealth to serve God. But to allow wealth to gain mastery of us is the idolatry Jesus rejected in the temptation at Luke 4:5-8. When offered all the wealth of the world, he replied, “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”