In his book Retire Inspired, Chris Hogan tells of meeting with a client named Michael who was desperate to get his financial affairs in order. Michael’s favorite aunt had called him and asked if he would mow her two-acre yard. He did so and about noon he went into her kitchen to rustle up some lunch. When he opened her fridge all that was in it was some expired milk and a bottle of catsup. He searched the cabinets only to find dishes. And when he came to her cupboard all he saw was 7 cans of dog food. Michael said to Chris. “Chris, my aunt doesn’t own a dog.
We are called the richest nation in the world but let me give you some statistics and averages, and they are not good news. 76% of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, which means that ¾’s of us are not planning for our future. The average American family is $8,000 in credit card debt, which conservatively means that they are wasting over $1,400 a year in interest. The average Millennial has $29,000 in personal debt, most of which is student loans. The average American spends $1.25 for every $1 that they make. And how about our nation? By the end of this Mass we will have added over $100 million to the national debt.
What about the other 24% that are not living paycheck to paycheck? They may be doing well, they may even be wealthy, but are they honoring God with their wealth? Just because you are wealthy does not mean that you are being a faithful steward. I read of a Rapper that spent $600,000 in ONE NIGHT in a club in Atlanta. Or how about a TV preacher in Texas living in $12 million mansion? Or another in Atlanta who appealed to his audience to buy him yet another private jet? (I would remind you that Jesus had to borrow His donkey to enter Jerusalem.) The 24% may not all be millionaires, but by the standards of the rest of the world they are rich. If they are praying the Lord’s Prayer ever day, for God’s kingdom to come on earth, the next question is what are they doing with their resources to see that happen?
But these challenges about money are not just an American problem. Problems with money are a human problem. In fact misuse of money is a sin problem. Scripture tells us that it is the love of money that is at the root of all kinds of evil. And so today we hear Jesus address this problem and tell us what we are to do about it.
He begins with this parable about an unfaithful servant who is about to be fired so he cuts a deal with the Master’s debtors and thereby one again rips off his Master. He does this to try to secure his future with his newfound friends. Then what is even more shocking is that he gets commended for it! This seems like a very strange parable to tell us how to deal with money.
Here is where we need to turn to the principles of biblical interpretation. As a general rule a parable is not an extended metaphor to be picked apart as if it is filled with code. Most of the time a parable is intended to teach one point and I believe that the point of this parable is contained in the following line. “The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Jesus is telling them that they must be shrewd when it comes to money. St. Augustine put it more eloquently than I. He said, “Jesus is recommending to the disciples the steward’s foresight, prudence and ingenuity.”
But why would Jesus recommend that we be shrewd when it comes to money? He does so because money is like a snake. You had better learn which end with which to pick it up or it will bite you. Notice that Jesus doesn’t just call it “mammon” He calls it “unrighteous mammon.” Why is it unrighteous? Because again, the love of it is the root of all kinds of evil. It is unrighteous because some times money is gained by hurting others, as we just heard from the prophet Amos. It is unrighteous because some times the motives for getting it are unrighteous. We seek it for selfish purposes or falsely believing that it will bring us security.
I had a relative that had a sign on her refrigerator that read, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Unfortunately that was her creed instead of the Nicene Creed. And she fulfilled her creed. She was wealthy and she was very attractive. I was with her when she died and to this day it was one of the worst deaths that I have witnessed. Disease had taken her looks and she passed screaming, filled with terror. Her riches were useless to her at that moment. That is why in this lesson Jesus says of money not “IF it fails” but “WHEN it fails.”
Mammon is unrighteous because it can have a corrupting influence on a person, like the ring did to Gollum. So that brings us back to the need to be shrewd when picking up this snake. Jesus shows us how.
First He says that we are to use money to make friends. He says “I tell you make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon…” Now when Jesus begins a command with “I tell you” that is like being aboard ship and hearing “Now hear this.” He is not whistling Dixie here; He wants us to pay careful attention.
That part is clear but what does He mean that we are to use money to make friends? That hardly sounds Christian. We don’t want people to love us for our money. We want them to love us for who we are.
The key to understanding what He is telling us to do here is found in the rest of the sentence. “So that when it (unrighteous mammon) fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” (Boy that sure clears things up doesn’t it?)
I wrestled with this idea for some time until I saw that the next story He tells in the same chapter is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. You will recall that in this story the rich man feasted every day while the poor man Lazarus sat at his gate covered with sores. Lazarus would have been happy to have eaten whatever fell off of the rich mans table but he did not even get that. They both died and while Lazarus went heaven, to the bosom of Abraham, the rich man went to Hades. The point is that if the rich man had used his mammon to care for Lazarus, then Lazarus would have greeted him in heaven. But he didn’t, so he didn’t.
I was relieved to discover that some of the Church Fathers also interpreted this call to make friends by unrighteous mammon as a call to care for the poor. The challenge however is that there are so many charities and so many individuals with so many needs that it is difficult to know where to begin. Add to that the many scams out there. What to do? One idea is to be like the Good Samaritan and minister to what is in front of you rather than ignoring it and passing it by. This is a major reason that we raise money for Food for the Poor every year because they are ministering to the poorest of the poor in our hemisphere.
I know for a fact that I have been conned over the years, thinking that I was helping someone in need but it was a ruse. I have thrown good money after bad trying to help a parishioner only to have them turn on me. So I have wrestled with myself, wondering if I was doing the right thing. I am comforted by the words of St. Augustine who said, “When you give alms to all different types of people then you will reach a few who deserve it.” Evidently St. Augustine had been conned too but he was okay with that because He was fulfilling Christ’s command.
It is vital to understand that God’s call to be generous towards that poor is not just about the poor. He calls us to learn generosity because that is who He is. The more we learn generosity the more we will be like God, who causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
The second thing that Jesus says, to help us to be shrewd about money, is when He gives us this perspective. “If then your have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust you with true riches.” Or to put it in the positive, if we are faithful over unrighteous mammon then we will be entrusted with true riches.
A couple things jump out to us about this verse. One is that Jesus contrasts mammon with true riches. From the perspective if the Kingdom of God, mammon is Monopoly money. I love how Beth puts it when I get upset over how much something costs. She says, “What the heck, its just dead presidents.”
We become shrewder when we realize that mammon with which we have been entrusted, are not true riches, but are a vehicle to make us truly rich. If God can trust us to use this Monopoly money properly then He will grant us true riches. And what are they? Eye hath not seen nor ear heard but surely in part it is to rule and reign with Him in a new heaven and new earth. That would be worth all of the Monopoly money in the world.
Another thing that confronts us from Jesus’ words is that stewardship is not an option. Our only options are if we are going to be faithful stewards or unfaithful stewards.
I have to confess to you that I was a hypocrite in this area for too long. I knew that verses like these on stewardship existed, I just ignored them. I always paid my tithe and I always paid my bills, but money was more of an irritant to me and I didn’t think of myself as a steward.
Then when we married, Beth was better at finances than I was, so I just gave her my paycheck and stuck my head in the ground. That put an unfair burden on her as we were in that 74% category that lived paycheck to paycheck. And when we looked into our future, other than modest pensions, we had no idea how we would retire. It took going through Financial Peace University that I was confronted with the fact that I was an unfaithful steward. So we began working together and we worked hard to become faithful with all that God had given us. We are not doing it perfectly but I don’t feel like a hypocrite any more.
And we have discovered that one of the joys of living into the Scripture that says, “owe no man anything but love” is that it has freed up resources to give offerings beyond our tithe to the Church. We have added a number of charities that are doing God’s work. One ministry that I really like giving to is out of California. It is made up of veterans who go around the world and perform military type strikes to free children from being sex slaves. There is so much greater joy in giving than there is in receiving.
A third perspective that Jesus gives us to make us shrewder with unrighteous mammon is when He says that we cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and Mammon. But how do we know whom we are truly serving? It is revealed through our priorities. God says that we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, but if instead I choose to pursue the almighty buck then I am showing who I truly serve. If I ignore God’s call to care for the widow and orphan so that I can store up riches for myself, then I am showing who I truly serve. If I am so enslaved by debt that I cannot answer the call of God then I am showing who I truly serve.
I recently got to hear the story of Pastor Ronnie’s call to Zimbabwe. Years ago he met an apostle type leader who came to the States seeking teachers for his Bible School. Ronnie came home and told Margaret about meeting him and she said, “Ronnie I’ve seen that look in your eye before.” Through a couple of clear signs they knew that they were supposed to go to Zimbabwe, even with young kids in tow. They sold everything they had, packed up what they absolutely needed, and answered the call. He even had to raise his own salary before going because the Bible School did not have the money to pay the teachers. It was a great experience for them and they have kept ties with Zimbabwe over these many years. My point in telling you this is that if Pastor Ronnie had loved money, he would not have WANTED to answer the call. Or if Pastor Ronnie had been enslaved to debt he would not have been ABLE to answer the call, no matter how much he may have wanted to do so. Our life priorities tell us whom we truly serve.
If I may be so blunt and boil it all down, this teaching of Jesus confronts us with two options and whether or not to choose is not one of them. When we boil it all down, we will either love God and use money or we will use God and love money. The shrewd knows that the eternal destiny of his soul depends on making the correct one. So choose wisely beloved, choose wisely Amen.