In a stunning contrast to previous weeks, Jesus teaches about the right way to pursue comfort in this week’s lectionary reading. Of course, the comfort that Jesus tries to draw his hearers to is eternal dwellings rather than passing wealth. Indeed, he insists that people should rid themselves of unrighteous wealth in order to follow God more faithfully.
To begin the lectionary reading, Jesus tells a frequently misunderstood parable. A manager has been accused of mismanaging his master’s assets. Before he is removed completely from his post, the manager goes to each of his master’s debtors and, depending on your reading, either drastically slashes what they owe or gives them credit for fictitious payments. Either way, the manager has made friends of the debtors and has even impressed his boss with his shrewdness. Please note: Jesus is not telling his followers to cheat on their bills. Far from it!
After Jesus tells the parable, he makes a wry observation: The children of this age are shrewder when dealing with their generation than the children of light (Luke 16:8). People outside the kingdom of heaven know how to use money to win friends and influence people. People in the kingdom of heaven aren’t so clever with the use of money. If ordinary folks know how to use unrighteous mammon (9, 11), or wealth/greed personified, in order to build up resources for themselves in this life, why don’t the citizens of the kingdom of heaven know this skill? After all, Jesus’ followers, as we have been reading this summer, are to seek to divest themselves of their wealth. One cannot seek to build up wealth for themselves and at the same time follow God (13). It’s simply not possible. Mammon is an alternative lord, who is served by acquisitiveness and wealth accumulation.
Of course, Jesus isn’t the first one to point out this simple binary choice between serving God and acquiring wealth. One of the fieriest prophets in Israel’s history, Amos, observed the situation in the prosperous Northern Kingdom: the rich trampled the needy and caused the deaths of the humble. The rich couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to be over so they could again use fraudulent weights and measures to cheat their customers. They plotted to reduce the price of humans so they could enslave people for less cost and greater profit. They even plotted to sell chaff as if it were grain, literally selling worthlessness as if it were life-giving food (Amos 8:4-6). The pursuit of wealth has always led some humans to abuse others—whenever they can and for whatever profit. Maximizing wealth at the cost of others’ well-being was as incompatible with the worship of God in the eighth century as it was in Jesus’ day and in the 21st century too.
Mammon is an alternative lord, who is served by acquisitiveness and wealth accumulation.
Jesus calls his followers to be trustworthy and faithful in using the wealth of unrighteousness for building up the kingdom, rather than themselves (Luke 16:10-11). He calls us to turn our backs on greed and wealth, and to get rid of money in such a way that it will be a blessing to God and others. Using resources, not just money but time and talents as well, to undo injustice is a great start.
Sarah Driver (my spouse) wrote a helpful primer on practical ways to reject mammon and be richly involved in justice work. Another easy way that we can follow Jesus in his calling is through ethical investing. The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment is a great first step toward making sure that our resources aren’t involved in stocks or companies that perform evil in the world. If you are involved in Thrivent, its financial counselors can help you invest ethically as well, to ensure that your resources help others rather than hurt them.
In the modern world, with scary news all around, it’s all too natural to want to build up a nest egg as a hedge of security against very real financial threats. Jesus says that impulse is itself a threat to our ability to follow God. Instead, Jesus insists, we must be at least as shrewd as others in this world to find ways to use the resources that we have to bless God and our neighbor. These will then welcome us into eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).