And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Luke 16:9)
‘Mammon’ is one of the oddest words in the New Testament. It is a Semitic word meaning money or riches and is usually left untranslated, hence the curiosity. Untranslated it has a slightly sinister ring to it, almost as if Jesus is referring to something demonic or someone connected to the old Canaanite deities.
The passage is familiar from the gospel reading for the ninth Sunday after Trinity. It relates the parable of the Unjust Steward who makes friends for himself by defrauding his master. On a number of occasions I have been asked what Jesus means by verse 9 above. Is he recommending dishonest or worldly actions like those in the parable or there something else going on?
The parable of the Unjust Steward follows on from the parable of the Prodigal Son. As is often the case in the gospels context is key. Jesus has been explaining to the disciples all about God’s generosity to the outcast and sinner – especially those who are condemned by the scribes and Pharisees. At this point Jesus is addressing the disciples to remind them that the Pharisees did not have a monopoly on self-righteousness. Such an unattractive trait would be found amongst Christians as well in the future.
So what are the disciples to do? Jesus observes the behaviour of the dishonest astutely in this parable. Even the master has a certain admiration for the way the steward has attempted to make friends for himself. The biblical scholar T. W. Manson makes the point here that Jesus is fully aware of the ways of the world and of the need for his disciples to continue living in it. It is impossible to live without money of some kind so it is important to resolve to use it wisely and for unselfish purposes – in the language of the parable ‘to make friends’. In other words Jesus is saying to the disciples that they will live in the world and amongst the worldly, but that they can do better than the steward.
As a footnote some scholars are uncertain that verse 9 actually belongs to this parable, considering it instead to be a detached saying of Jesus that has ended up being included at this point. If that is so we are no nearer to understanding the verse even if the meaning of the parable remains plain. It is better to see verse 9 (and the subsequent verses) making a valid and memorable point about the practices of the worldly. Jesus is describing just how things are. The imperative is to seek to be a positive influence in the world – to do better than the unjust steward. Manson (who was a Presbyterian minister as well as an academic) makes the final point that if we are to seek to make friends in the world then the best thing we can do is to make friends with God first. Everything else associated with the Kingdom flows from that – and we will be able to put mammon in its place.
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