Let the Scriptures Speak

Prodigal Father, Two Lost Sons

I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth
[the mammon of unrighteousness], so that when it fails,
you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. …
You cannot serve both God and mammon. 
(Luke 16: 9,13)

The parable long known as “The Unjust Steward” may be the most puzzling of all the stories of Jesus. Since it appears to present an immoral person as a model, the story has been used by Christianity’s enemies to denigrate Jesus as teacher. But there is a way of reading it that makes powerful sense.

It is undeniable that the steward is called unrighteous and that he is also held up as some kind of an example. But just how is he unrighteous and exactly what aspect of his character or action is presented for imitation? Let us read it closely.

The steward of a wealthy landowner is told to turn in his books when he has been discovered as having squandered his master’s property. No details are given regarding the nature of the mismanagement. Remarkably, the steward is not jailed, just “let go.” Until he hands over the books, he still has authority over the land renters. He seizes this opportunity of his master’s lenient dismissal (no debtor’s jail) to curry favor with those renters. He moves quickly to “sweeten” their annual rent contracts (paid in kind according to their crop—i.e., in jars of olive oil or bushels of wheat). For example, he tells the farmer who cultivates olive trees that the rent this year will be cut by 50 percent. And a wheat grower will have to pay only 80 percent. They are instructed to alter the rates in their own hand because that is the usual way of formally acknowledging rental agreements.

They do not know the steward is being dismissed; they would presume that he has talked the master into these more favorable rates and would be only too happy to accede to the new contract, no questions asked. They would also think highly of the master for being so generous. When the landowner discovers what his steward has done, he has to hand it to him. The clever action of the steward has not only put the rascal in good favor with the renters it has also brought to the land-owner an honor which he would be foolish to try to undo.

If you are a child of light, you place your ultimate trust in God, not in mammon.

Verse 8b suggests that the steward is some kind of example: “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Obviously, to imitate the steward literally, i.e., by acting deceptively, would simply be to act as a child of this world. Something else is required of the children of light. Jesus urges the latter, those trying to live the way of the kingdom, to “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth [the familiar “mammon of iniquity” in the Rheims and the KJV], “so that, when it fails, you may be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (v. 9). Clearly this draws a parallel with the parable: Jesus urges us to use wealth in such a way as to gain favor with the One who is both the ultimate client and the ultimate landowner—God. Jesus spotlights the opportunistic shrewdness of the steward. The application for the “children of light” is that they too are to be clever opportunists, by using wealth in the ways that Jesus elsewhere advocates the use of resources—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lending but asking nothing in return.

The next four verses spell this out by way of a poem on mammon. “Mammon” is an Aramaic word meaning wealth or property. It is related to another Semitic word familiar to us—“amen.” Root mn forms a verb that means to trust in or believe. Thus property or wealth is called mammon because wealth is precisely what most people (“the children of this world”) trust in for their security. If you are a child of light, you place your ultimate trust in God, not in mammon.

Once we focus on that root sense of mammon (“the trusty stuff”), we can hear some meaningful wordplay in verses 11-14: “If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with [“the mammon of iniquity”] who will trust you with true wealth? If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another [i.e., the Ultimate Landowner], who will give you what is yours [a place in the “eternal tents”]? No servant can serve two masters. … You cannot serve both God and mammon.” This is precisely the basis of Jewish and Christian social ethics. The goods of the earth belong to God. Human beings are stewards of those resources, to serve the needs of all.

Pull a dollar out of your billfold and prayerfully consider that we routinely print “in God we trust” on our mammon. Meditate on the question: “What in God’s eyes would be my cleverest use of the wealth I steward?” Why have the Popes been as critical of materialistic capitalism as they are of atheistic communism?

Dennis Hamm, SJ


**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson