A few weeks back, I had the opportunity to teach a Sunday School class that focused on Jesus’ teachings on wealth and material goods as found in the New Testament. Part of the assigned reading came from Luke 16 and the parable of the unjust steward. I will confess that I have always thought this particular story and especially the moral that Jesus seems to draw from it incredibly puzzling. Following the parable (which briefly is the story of a servant, who upon being notified that he is being fired, cheats his master by writing down the debts of his master’s debtors), Jesus proclaims, “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when y fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.” (Luke 16:9). Like I said before, I find this advice puzzling. Jesus (both through the parable and in his counsel afterwards) seems to applaud the actions of the dishonest steward, and encourage his followers to make friends of those who appreciate ill-gotten gains. That feels strange to me, and not an entirely accurate reflection of the Savior’s ethics.
As with many things, the problem is partially remedied by consulting a better translation of the Bible (KJV –> NRSV). The NRSV renders the same verse “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” The phrase “by means of” seems to entirely change the meaning of the passage, from one of seeking friends with questionable morals to using dishonest wealth to make the kind of friends that will be able to advance your spiritual progression. Read in conjunction with the parable that follows, that of Lazarus and the rich man, this seems like a teaching that is much more consistent with the remainder of Jesus’ sayings.
But what are we to do with “dishonest wealth” (or in the KJV, the “mammon of unrighteousness”)? As I read it, Jesus has completely glossed over the issue of teaching how wealth ought to be obtained and moved ahead to how we ought to use it. In our time (not unlike Jesus’ own), the systems and methods of wealth accumulation are morally suspect. To a greater or lesser extent, the wealth and goods of this world and the economic systems that produce them necessitate the exploitation of the poor, the destruction of the environment, the tearing apart of the social fabric through inequality, and other assorted evils. Even if we do not directly participate in these systems on the production side, our mass consumerism taints our wealth (if not necessarily our income) and possessions by association and makes us, at the very least, complicit in such injustices. Thus, we all are proud owners of the model-year top-of-the-line mammon of unrighteousness and Satan controls the means of its production.
Again, I think that Jesus glosses over this step, not because it is not important, but because he assumes it. Only those of us most committed to radically separating ourselves from the world’s means of production and consumption (meaning a kind of “living off the grid”) could hope to escape this guilt-by-association. Rather, Jesus fruitfully turns to the question of what we can do to remedy the guilt. His answer: “make friends.” What does that mean? I believe that it means to use the mammon of unrighteousness to cure those ills and harms that were caused through its production– to feed and clothe the poor, to smooth the rough edges of the economy on the least fortunate, and to break down walls of class, privilege, and division.
This is not a call to renounce all money (though such an imperative is not difficult to find in the Gospels). Money and wealth are necessary to provide for our families and to aid in building up our communities. Out of this necessity, we make whatever psychological and spiritual accommodation we have to with the decidedly disinterested attitude that Jesus and the early Christians had towards wealth accumulation and a “middle-class” lifestyle, as contrasted with our contemporary dogged pursuit of both. Absent the most radical kind of renunciation, we cannot avoid the mammon of unrighteousness. What remains to be done is to use it in such a way that guarantees not only our present comfort, but our eternal happiness.