The parable Jesus tells at Luke 16 is one of the odder passages in the canon of Scripture. The journey from verse 9 (“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes”) to verse 13b (“You cannot serve God and wealth”) feels long, circuitous, and counter-intuitive.
Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press) helps a bit, drawing as it does from the earlier Revised Standard Version: “It is called ‘unrighteous mammon’ because it is too often acquired unjustly and used for unjust ends. It is ethically neutral in itself; it is people’s attitudes to it and ways of dealing with it that are reprehensible.”
It helps as well to remember that this baffling parable is followed immediately by a parable with a clearer point. Next week’s reading from Luke tells the familiar parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
This American Life once told the story of Christians who learned the art of counting cards in order to beat casinos at their own game. One could imagine such Christians taking solace in this parable of the crafty financial manager. Other Christians have struggled with the ethics of using money to free people from sexual slavery. Is paying money to a violent pimp helping to perpetuate his evil, or is the liberation worth that risk?
Most Christians in North America will not need to answer such questions unless they choose a ministry on the front lines of human suffering. By the standards of nations’ wealth and of recorded history, the people of 21st-century America live in luxury. We sleep and wake in homes with air conditioning, heating, and indoor plumbing. We watch television at will. We use microwave ovens to heat quick meals. Many of our tedious daily tasks, such as laundry and dishwashing, require little more than loading and unloading machines, if we so choose. We probably own not one personal computer but several, some of which double as cameras, phones, and wristwatches.
Within this setting, how do we focus on not serving two masters and not allowing wealth to lure us away from God? Evaluating our comforts and our professed beliefs is a great place to start. How often do we blur the line between needing something and merely wanting it? How often do we convince ourselves that we’re entitled to a moment of self-indulgence? In contrast, how often do we spend time with suffering people and try to salve their wounds? How often do we make ourselves vulnerable to them? Is there something about the poor that frightens us?
One of the more tiresome aspects of American political rhetoric is its tendency to treat wealth and poverty always as someone else’s problem. That can range from a heartless “Get a job” aimed at a panhandler to thinking that all could be set right with the world if only the widely despised One Percent were not such greedy plutocrats.
Such attitudes should trouble and even repel Christians, because they function as a shield against culpability and they hinder our willingness to repent. As long as we deflect responsibility away from ourselves we decrease the odds of ever hearing the still, small voice of God asking if we are ready to begin dying to self.
Look It Up: Use a concordance or an online tool like BibleGateway.com and search the Scriptures for the word poor.
Think About It: What have you found most surprising, good or bad, when you have met the poor in mutual weakness?