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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Mammon, Mammon, my dear old mammon... (C25O)

“I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles...”

“Mammon” is one of those words that translators tend to leave alone in the Scripture. Words like “maranatha,” “alleluia,” “hosanna,” “talitha cumi,” “ephphetha,” and the jarring phrase “eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani,” tend to be left alone in translation. Even the word “sabaoth,” a word from Isaiah that summons visions of armies, but has a subtler and wider meaning, is retained in the Latin editio typica of the Sanctus as “Dominus Deus Sabaoth,” translated ultimately in English as "Lord God of hosts." “Mammon” comes up in Sunday’s gospel, and rather than dealing with it, we just glide right over it like we understand what it’s talking about, or else we substitute words like “money” and “wealth” for it in the gospel:
No servant can serve two masters. 
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other. 
You cannot serve both God and mammon.

According to what I’ve read, “mammon” doesn’t exactly mean wealth or riches or money; there were other words to convey those meanings in Aramaic and Greek. Rather, mammon means something like “whatever it is about money that causes people to become corrupted.” Mammon exudes the scent of an evil spirit, something that calls people to its service and leads down a way to the loss of self. It is, apparently, an option to God. One can serve it or God, but not both. And as Bob Dylan reinforced with us, “ya gotta serve somebody.”

Then there’s that mysterious parable preceding the little poem about money of which “mammon” is a part. It strikes me (and this thought is not original with me, at all) how many details of this parable are like the parable of the two lost sons: the word “squandering” appearing in both with reference to the main characters; both find themselves in a crisis, both hatch a plan, both throw themselves on the mercy of another character, the father in the case of the son, and the master in the case of the steward. We have the troublesome (to some) detail that “the master” (ho kyrios - did Luke mean Jesus?) praised the steward for his ingenuity in what appears to be an act of embezzlement. What I love about these parables is that even with our best scripture scholarship, literary and anthropological commentary, we’re still pretty much guessing about what people might have heard, even about what Jesus actually said. One enlightening account simply summarizes the story this way: what is it that the steward is good at, for what is he commended? Forgiveness of debt, which we have already seen in Luke, in Jesus’s prayer, is at the heart of the experience of the reign of God. In other words, forgiveness (particularly the measurable, physical forgiveness of debt) is everything. Risk everything to do it, and throw yourself on the master’s mercy, and you can be sure of the outcome! 

Yet another commentator sees the marks of class rivalry in the story, so that Jesus sets up the crowd of peasants to expect the master to act with justice and punish the steward for selling him short to his clients, but instead, he praises the steward for his ingenuity. The class war is thrown aside by the empire of God. If masters don’t act like masters, what’s going on in the world? The prejudice of the peasants would be exposed, in a non-threatening, humorous way, for what it is. Another reading sees that the steward’s action to save his own skin by “making friends with dishonest wealth” also preserves the honor of the master, whose merciful reduction of debt would be seen as prodigally generous. Having created a win-win situation, perhaps the steward could look forward to a Lucan “reversal,” and find that he’s back into a job that he had so recently lost. Who knows?

The thing is, because the set of lectionary readings we have is a sort of “canon within the canon” of scripture, because the other reading(s) and psalm are a context and illumination of the Gospel message, we have an idea what the Church’s wisdom is on the text, even as we struggle to make sense of the difficult story ourselves. The short reading from the prophet Amos, from whom we will also hear next Sunday, is a warning to the rich who don’t get the meaning of the Sabbath, who participate in Sabbath rituals but don’t let their deeper meaning change their behaviors so that the poor receive some measure of mercy from the abundance of the rich. Psalm 113 today and Psalm 146 next Sunday both are hallels which praise God precisely for being a good who “lifts up the poor.” Psalm 113 exults:
He raises up the lowly from the dust;
from the dunghill he lifts up the poor
to seat them with princes,
with the princes of his own people.
So there’s not so much ambiguity when the readings are taken as a unit, it seems to me. Serving God, rather than mammon, means using one’s wealth, however much one has been given to steward, in a particular way. People with money in the empire of God are expected to make life easier with their money for those for whom life is hard. (One giveaway for this interpretation, it seems to me, is the option to use a “shorter version” of the gospel, a version which completely omits the parable of the crafty steward, and only keeps the little poem on the use of wealth as the reading for the day.) 

As we’ll see next week, Luke’s Jesus keeps hitting away at this theme of the relationship between the rich and poor, making clear that the rich bear a responsibility in this world for the plight of the poor. Recall that it is Luke who follows his beatitude blessing the poor (not just Matthew's "poor in spirit") with a “woe to the rich,” and who tells his amazed disciples that it is easier for camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich person to enter the reign of God. I see no reason to spiritualize that saying. It’s hard for me to be generous with my money, and I’m only rich in the sense that everyone who lives in this country is rich. I can’t imagine how hard it must be for people with tons of money to keep hearing that they have to give it up for the poor in order to enter the reign of God. I might just take the other side of Pascal’s wager! But even the infancy narrative in Luke alludes to this theme, when the mother of Jesus sings her “Magnificat” in the presence of her kinswoman, confessing that God “has filled the poor with good things, and sends the rich away empty handed.”

Still, the parable might be reminding us not to get too fixed on the little guy, because the empire of God just might be so different from our expectations that our idea of justice is just out the window. Stewards write off debts, and rather than being punished for their dishonesty, they are praised by their master for being creative. Maybe the key is just that: stop thinking so much, forgive everyone as best you can, and throw yourself on the mercy of   the master.


  1. Nice post, Rory (as always). FWIW I think we have a pretty good English equivalent to Mammon: The Almighty Dollar. I can hardly think of a more succinct and apropos expression for the deification of money. My two cents (pun intended). -Mark

  2. Great insight, Mark! Works for me.

  3. Excellent - remember doing a class exegesis for Fischer on this story and, if memory serves, I missed some of your key points.