Monday, September 23, 2019

Serving Mammon

When I was first ordained I was part of a small group of clergy and each of us served as an Assistant to a Rector.  We met monthly to support one another and to grow in our understanding of the priesthood.  I remember one gathering when we discovered we all had been assigned by our bosses to preach on the upcoming Sunday.  The gospel reading that day is the gospel reading today.  I realized then no matter how disorganized a rector may be, if he or she has an assistant than he or she has enough on the ball to look ahead in the Lectionary in order to pass the miserable readings to the underling. 

The Parable of the Shrewd Manager is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ stories to understand.  There really seems to be little (if anything) worthy of applause in the lead character’s makeup and actions.  The details of the story appear to make its meaning and message devoid of redeeming values.  This week I read several commentaries on the passage to try to get a better sense of how scholars approach the parable.  Most of their explanations felt like an attempt to bring order to a bowl of spaghetti.

Jesus commends the manager because when push comes to shove, when the chips are down, and when his back is against the wall, he comes to his senses and in desperation reprioritizes his life around what he now realizes matters.  That Luke adds to the parable’s end several of Jesus’ teachings about wealth suggests he understands it in some form or fashion to be a commentary on materialism.  Remember how I said last Sunday’s gospel reading focused on rules verses relationships.  Today’s reading hones in on something similar in Jesus’ mind and central to his teaching: riches verses relationships.  Plain and simple, prior to his hitting bottom, we can say of the shrewd manager he loves things and uses people rather than he uses things to love people.  Jesus commends him because what he had backwards he gets straightened around.

The last of Jesus’ teachings on wealth included here by Luke is the most well known: “You cannot serve two masters… you cannot serve God and money.”  It is a teaching that puts us on the defensive, compelling us to make the case this is not me.  Being challenged to look at yourself is not necessarily a bad thing and it is something Jesus does often through his stories and sayings.  But do most of us suffer from priorities this far afield?

The King James Bible translates this verse famously as “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”  Some subsequent versions follow its lead, but most now use the word ‘money’ because, well, no one today knows what mammon means.  When was the last time one of your children said, “Can I have some Mammon to go to the movies?”

Mammon does means money, but it means a lot more.  It actually takes a physical thing – money – and personifies it, making it a living thing… an idol.  It is a pejorative term meant to refer to the absolute worst and most corrupting aspects of money and wealth, how they can take over a person’s life.  4th Century writers such as Cyprian, Jerome, and John Chrysostom thought of Mammon as being an evil and enslaving master.  It became one of the names given to demons and even the Devil.  Thomas Aquinas metaphorically described the sin of Avarice as “Mammon being carried up from Hell by a wolf, coming to inflame the human heart with Greed.”

Ask yourself if this sounds like you? 

I once knew the owner of an expensive car sporting a bumper sticker stating, “The One with the Most Toys Wins!”  He is one of a small number of people I have known I would describe as enslaved by Mammon.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic candidate for President, states health insurance companies made 23 billion dollars in profit last year, and every penny came from saying “no” to a person’s request for medical treatment.  I am not saying her figures are accurate (I don’t know) or that I agree with her view of corporate profit, but from her perspective I think she would say health care insurers are serving Mammon.  She is not the only person who believes the corporate world is overrun with greed, and in some cases I am sure it is true.  “I’d do anything for money”, whether an individual’s motto or a corporate mission statement, is the banner slogan of those enslaved by Mammon.

Greed, as one of the Seven Deadly Sins, is an interesting temptation.  There are some for whom greed is pure.  They want things and/or money for its own sake.  But for most people enslaved by it, Mammon is just a means to an end.  They seek power or they desire pleasure and comfort or they want notoriety or prestige (a sense of self).  For them, Mammon is a means to one or more of these ends. 

If you have money you get to call the shots in a way those who don’t have it can’t.  There is one sure way to get the president of your college to take your call.  You have got to be a huge donor.  Money talks!  If you have money you can live it up – take it easy, travel, dine out, dress up, and feather your nest with the finest.  You may daydream about these possibilities from time to time, but some people are completely driven by it.  You may want to be known, admired, and respected – not only to be important in the eyes of others, but even more so to yourself.  Perhaps nothing else can do it for you.  Only wealth can validate who you are and what you have done with your life.

Is any of this descriptive of you?  If so, then Jesus says to you, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

The alluring thing about idols is their promise to confer on you things God wants to give to you.  God promises power to those who open themselves to the movement of the Spirit.  It may not get a university president on the line, but I have seen faith move mountains – especially when people of faith pull together.  God promises to feed and clothe us, to lead us to green pastures and still waters.  God’s riches are at our fingertips.  God provides a comforting life no dollar amount can purchase.  And God created you to be you.  You are unique, special, and called to a glorious purpose.  God’s love for you is so deep and so sure God asked the Son to come into this world to make it known to all.  You are so important God’s Son gave his life to redeem you.  

Perhaps this sounds more like how you look at the world and yourself.  If so, Mammon does hold sway over you.

The truth is none of us lives at one end of the spectrum between Mammon’s lies and God’s promises.  In truth, each of us oscillates back and forth on the continuum, being pulled in the wrong direction at times while responding to God’s invitation at others.  This is why I appreciate Jesus’ challenging words.  They invite us to reexamine our lives, motivations, and actions.  They invite us to move toward God’s dream and away from the enslaving effects of Mammon’s charm.  Today I give thanks for the awkward Parable of the Shrew Manager and Jesus’ powerful and poignant reminder we cannot serve both God and Mammon.