It’s a blessing to have practice runs in life; dress rehearsals before the real performance, study sessions before the actual test, opportunities to learn and grow in an environment that stretches us, but that is also safe. In today’s gospel, Our Lord refers to our stewardship of money — “unrighteous mammon” — in this life, as if its purpose was some kind of cosmic dress rehearsal or practice run, for the life to come.
If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon (money), who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?
If we lay these verses side by side, the results are shocking; Our Lord essentially equates “unrighteous mammon” — that is, money — as “that which is another’s”. We humans tend to be pretty possessive in general, but this is especially so with our “unrighteous mammon.” The very notion that the money that is in my bank account is somehow not my money — that which is another — well that simply does not compute to the modern mind, or any mind really.
And yet, Our Lord connects unrighteous mammon as “that which is another’s.” There is profound truth here for the Christian life. It is the very same truth we profess week in and week out when we recite the offertory sentence from 1 Chronicles, “All things come of Thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”
It is a core Christian principle that everything we have is a gift from God; all things come of Thee O Lord. This begins with our very life, which is itself an incomparable gift from God. And if our very life is given to us by God — our bodies, minds, souls, our core character, and personality, our spiritual gifts and identity — it is not too much of a leap to acknowledge that all the accoutrements of this life — our worldly goods, earthly possession etc. are merely icing on the cake of God’s unfathomable generosity.
It’s really difficult to be faithful as Christians with “unrighteous mammon”, if we do not first understand and acknowledge this first principle: that all things come from God. None of it is ours to begin with. God has entrusted us with it. We are therefore merely stewards of what is already His.
If this is the starting point for Christian stewardship, Our Lord in today’s gospel adds an even deeper and more inspiring layer. Namely, that our relationship with “unrighteous mammon” in this life is, in a very real sense, the practice run, the dress rehearsal, for that life which is come: when God “entrusts us” with “true riches” for our very own.
What are these “true riches” that God desires to entrust us with as our very own? And how are we to attain them? The answers to these questions are embedded in the puzzling Parable of the Unjust Steward.
There is a rich man whose steward is wasting the goods entrusted to him. The rich man demands his goods be returned. The steward, in a bit of a panic, decides to strike bargains with his Master’s debtors. For the one who owe’s one hundred measures of oil, he settles for fifty. For the one who owe’s one hundred measures of wheat, he settles for 80.
The steward does this, not only to expediently collect as much as he possibly can, but also and perhaps more importantly as a way of maintaining good relations with these clients. The steward is actually thinking ahead here. He’s thinking a few moves down the chess board. If he is sacked by his master (and he has every reason to believe he will be), he has preserved for himself a number of relationships that he can rely on for future endeavors.
One could easily assume that the master would be upset by these bargains, but instead he seems to be impressed. Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness.”
Anglican bishop NT Wright has an interesting theory that the master in the parable was likely charging his debtors an illegal amount of interest. So what the steward is actually doing is returning to his master the original principle of the investment, knowing that for the master to condemn the steward, he would also have to admit to his illegal practices.
Whether or not this is the case, the point of the parable remains the same. The steward has the wherewithal to maintain relationships in good standing with his clients and business associates, so that if and when he falls on hard times, he will have many unburned bridges to travel. Jesus summarizes the parable saying, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.”
What are the “true riches” that God desires to entrust us with as our very own? And how are we to attain them? The true riches are union with Almighty God through his Son, and the everlasting life he entrusts us with as heirs of His eternal Kingdom. And it is impossible to inherit these riches as an individual. To be united with Almighty God through his Son is to be adopted as one of His many children, to be brothers and sisters in Christ with the multitude of apostles, saints and martyrs of the church.
How does our use of unrighteous mammon help us prepare for these eternal riches? By “making friends,” Which is to say by prioritizing other people — our relationships with others — our love of and service to God and neighbor over our personal acquisition of unrighteous mammon. Remember, none of this stuff is even ours to begin with. The reason God has entrusted “unrighteous mammon” to us, is that as stewards we would use it as a means of loving others, helping others, serving others, and creating and preserving and celebrating our relationships with others. “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon …”
The early church reverberates loudly the wisdom of this teaching.
St. John Chrysostom writes: “What excuse will we have if we heedlessly lock our money behind doors and barricades, and we prefer to leave it lying idle? Instead, we should make it available to the needy now, so that in the future we may count on support from them. Remember that Scripture says, ‘Make friends with ill-gotten gains so that, when you go down in the world, they may welcome you into their eternal dwellings.’”
St. Cyril of Alexandria writes: “Let those of us who possess earthly wealth open our hearts to those who are in need. Let us show ourselves faithful and obedient to the laws of God. Let us be followers of our Lord’s will in those things that are from the outside and not our own. Let us do this so that we may receive what is our own; that holy and admirable beauty that God forms in people’s souls, making them like himself, according to what we originally were.”
And Pseudo-Clement of Rome writes: “This world and the world to come are enemies. This one means adultery, corruption, greed and deceit, while the other gives them up. We cannot be friends of both. To get the one, we must give the other up.”
And that truth cuts both ways. The path then is clear for the Christian. Our stewardship of money in this life, is merely a dress rehearsal for that life which is to come. As is so often the case, today’s collect summarizes beautifully and succinctly Our Lord’s charge so clearly given to us in today’s teaching:
Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ Our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, ever One God, world without end. Amen.
Adapted from the sermon.