Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fleeting Mammon for a Permanent Home

Alright, I’m getting closer. Sunday’s gospel lesson (Luke16:1-13) is tough, but I’m getting closer to an insight worth preaching. Thanks to Steve Pankey for the back-and-forth about staying on the surface or not. Go read his post. Yes, we do need to dig a little deeper, but not so deep that we lose sight of the parable. Here’s where I am today:

  • A “rich man” (not a term of endearment for Luke’s Jesus) hears his steward is “squandering his property” and fires him, asking for an account of his management.
  • The man panics and begins making underhanded deals with his master’s debtors so that they “may welcome [him] into their homes.”
  • The rich man (not God, not Jesus, not anyone to be admired) praises the steward for his shrewdness.
  • Jesus (although Luke doesn’t give us an indication of when the parable stops and the interpretation starts) points out to his disciples that the children of this age (again, not a term of endearment) are more shrewd than are the children of light (the people we’re supposed to focus on).
  • Jesus gives the confusing instruction “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” as a way of encouraging shrewdness (not dishonesty) and identifying wealth as purely a means to an end.

It’s the last piece, of course, that I’m least sure about. That makes sense since the rest of the parable is easy-going in comparison. For me, the problem parts are “dishonest wealth” and “they may welcome.” What is it about that wealth that is dishonest? And why are those friends (the presumed “they”) the ones doing the welcoming?

I will confess that I looked at the Greek text, which helped me out a little bit. You can read it word-for-word at this link. Notice that the word for “mammon” (mamona) is used as is the word for “unjustness” (adikias). When you read the whole gospel lesson and get to the end—“you cannot serve two masters”—mammon reminds me of serving it as a master. Perhaps the subtle suggestion made by Jesus isn’t to praise the dishonesty but to criticize the mammon.

The dishonest steward shows us the treachery of money/mammon itself. But his real goal is to be received into people’s homes when he can’t afford it anymore. Mammon is temporary. Mammon is transient. Mammon fails (another word from the Greek text). What really matters is getting home safely. The owner (who is likewise bound by the treacherous system of mammon) praises the steward’s shrewdness because he, too, recognizes that mammon isn’t an end in itself but only a means to an end. Jesus’ message to the disciples, therefore, is to let go of an attachment to mammon in this world and, instead, use it as a means to an end; i.e., do whatever it takes to get to the eternal habitations.

The next problem, of course, is the “they.” Who are they? Why are they receiving the crafty disciples into the eternal habitations? I still don’t know. The Greek uses a middle aorist 3rd-person plural form of the verb for “to receive” (dexOntai) and thus implies “they” without telling us who “they” are. Maybe Jesus meant another “they.” Or maybe it really the parallel with the parable is intentionally sloppy. In other words, Jesus says, “Remember that mammon is temporal and fleeting. Like all things, use it purely with heaven in mind—not because you can buy your way into heaven but because heaven is the only thing that lasts.”

Still, I’m not sure about much. I’m not preaching this Sunday, but I’m enjoying struggling with the text. Prayers for all those who are preaching this week.

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