The Economy of Mammon and the Economy of God
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
For those who don’t know, I’m a big sports fan. I love the Red Sox and when I was in middle school, I went to a Red Sox game for a friend’s birthday. Afterward we waited for autographs, holding out pieces of paper through a fence on the way to the player’s parking area. So many players walked past us, but then Johnny Damon stopped and signed every single autograph. I talked to him and shook his hand and told him I’d be his teammate someday. From then on, Johnny Damon was my favorite baseball player. In 2003 I was heartbroken when the Red Sox lost in Game 7 of the ALCS to the “evil empire” New York Yankees. And I was overjoyed when the impossible happened in 2004 when the Red Sox broke the Babe Ruth Curse, defeating the Yankees after being down three games to none, and going on to sweep the World Series—our first championship in 86 years. Then a few years later something even more impossible happened, at least in my mind. Johnny Damon left and signed with Yankees! My favorite player had switched sides.
In a way switching sides is what today’s Gospel reading is about. It’s what the steward does when he learns he’s gonna lose his job. He goes from working for the rich and powerful to aligning himself with the poor, even if he has selfish reasons to do so, that’s what he does. And Jesus concludes the parable saying you cannot serve God and wealth. The Hebrew word is mammon. He seems to suggest there are two teams: you cannot serve God and mammon.
In this parable, a wealthy landowner learns that his financial manager (also known as steward) is not doing a good job. Maybe he’s still stealing from the landowner’s share for himself or maybe he’s not getting enough out of the peasant farmers. When he learns he’s been fired, the manager goes to the debtors and tells them to rewrite their contracts so that they owe less. We’re told he’s doing this so that they’ll be generous to him when he’s out of a job. Some scholars suggest he’s forgiving his own portion, what they owe him; others think that it’s part of the master’s portion. Either way he’s covering himself, so that hopefully he’ll be in the good graces of the debtors when he loses his job. And surprisingly, the master commends him for being shrewd—the Greek word is “wise”—and Jesus seems to commend him as well.
Why would Jesus tell a story like this? Does he want us to be selfish and wily with our own finances? Is he using a strange example to say that we should be wise but in an honest way? Is he saying we should be like Robin Hood and cut into the profits of the rich to help the poor?
It’s a difficult story to understand. Where’s the good news? Where’s the spiritual lesson? A lot of commentaries provide impressive historical context about first century economics, but don’t offer too much insight into why Jesus would share this story as a spiritual teaching.
Jesus was certainly critical of the economic system of his day. It was filled with usury and interest which were forbidden in Jewish law and which many other rabbis taught against as well. The economy exploited the poor and favored the rich. Sounds a lot like every human economic system. And when he learns that he’s expendable to his master, the manager decides to side with the debtors, to give them a break if he can. Whether the manager does so out of the goodness of his heart or for selfish reasons, it’s pretty clear that he switches sides. Instead of exploiting the poor, he gives them a break. He goes from working for the evil empire of mammon to doing favors for the little guys exploited by the system.
The manager, or steward, was of a class of people who served as a middleman between the wealthy elites and the peasant poor. The vast majority were poor peasants, but the retaining class—people like stewards, tax collectors, and merchants—were around too. And the steward may have thought he was on the inside with his rich master. But then, he lets him go. And just like that, the steward realizes just how expendable he was to his master. And the steward realizes who it is that he’ll need to depend on when he loses his job. The class of elites won’t take care of him, but the poor might. He realizes instinctively that the exploiters won’t be there for him, but the exploited will. Those who have next to nothing already are the only ones he’ll need to depend on. So he does whatever he can to cushion his fall and to take care of the peasant farmers indebted to his master.
Unlike the ancient economic system where middlemen were very few, our culture is full of middlemen and women. And the parable makes me wonder: How much am I on the side of the exploiters rather than the exploited? Do I serve God or mammon? As a middleman myself I need to listen to Jesus’ words and wonder if I’m truly on the side of the poor or if I’m on the side of the exploiters.
There’s an online test you can take at slaveryfootprint.org. It has information about modern sweatshops, child labor, and reports there are 27 million slaves in the world today. You can take a survey to see how many slaves are needed to support your lifestyle. Based on things like the kind of food you eat, how much clothing you have, what toiletry items you buy, and what kind of electronics you own, the website estimates how many slaves are needed to support your lifestyle. I like to think I live a pretty modest life by American standards, and when I took the survey, my results showed there’s an estimated 43 slaves working to support my lifestyle. It's a pretty convicting number. You can take the quiz yourself at slaveryfootprint.org and learn ways to help end exploitation in the world today.
I imagine most of us middle class Americans are stuck in this way of life. We can’t just stop driving cars or buying electronics or using plastic altogether. But there are ways that we, like the manager in Jesus’ story, can at least lower the impact we have on the suffering of others. Like the manager in the parable we should do what we can to lessen the amount of slave labor needed to support our lives. By purchasing fair trade goods and voicing our concerns to major corporations that buy materials from sweatshops to make their products. We can educate ourselves about the exploitative systems in the world today and do what we can to lower the suffering of others. The steward wasn’t able to completely eliminate the debt of the peasants, but he did what he could to help. Whether selfishly or with the best of intentions, he makes the world a little more like the Kingdom of God, a little more like the Kingdom economy. Lowering debts, eliminating interest, helping out the poor.
And so I think that may be why Jesus told this parable. To get his disciples thinking about doing something, anything, that could lighten the load of the less fortunate. To be wise about it. To encourage his listeners to serve God instead of mammon, to align with the economy of God rather than the economy of exploitation. Jesus taught that the economy of the kingdom will replace the economy of mammon. And Jesus’ commitment to that vision led him to the cross.
But we know he rose again, and we know that the kingdom of God will come on earth as it is in heaven. And when it does the economy of God, whatever that looks like, will be what directs all our finances and all commerce. Certainly no human economy has reached that yet, and I doubt we have very many good examples to even consider. But we are called, nonetheless, to make choices and push for change in the direction of the economy of God. To do as much as we can, even if it doesn’t seem like a lot, to ease the suffering of others. To eliminate some of the debt today’s poor are carrying. To challenge the powers that be to use fair trade materials in the products we buy. To hold companies accountable. And to help move society a little more toward the kind of world God dreams to have for us.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 9/18/2022