Daniel J. Harrington
Image
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), Sept. 23, 2007
“You cannot serve God and mammon” (Lk 16:13)

The words “money” and “spirituality” are seldom found in the same sentence. Yet Luke and other biblical writers give a good deal of attention to money and possessions. In Luke’s own community there seems to have been some tension between rich and poor, and he took a special interest in addressing it. If we define spirituality broadly as how we stand before God and relate to others, then money is an inevitable and important aspect of Christian spirituality.

 

Jesus was not an economist, and we cannot expect from the Gospels master plans applicable to 21st-century economic conditions. What we can expect from Jesus the wisdom teacher are wise principles that can direct our thoughts and actions about money and possessions.

Today’s text from Luke’s Gospel consists of four units of varying lengths, all concerned with money and spirituality. Each unit can (and probably once did) stand on its own. As in other wisdom instructions, they have been joined together because they deal with the same general topic, not because they develop a logical argument on one point.

The first and longest unit (16:1-8) is traditionally called the parable of the dishonest steward. He is said to have been squandering his employer’s resources. The parable concerns the ingenious plan the steward devised to save himself from personal and financial ruin. There are two ways to interpret his plan. In one reading the steward is simply dishonest. He cheats his employers and involves others in his plot, thus setting up the possibility of blackmailing them in the future. In another reading he forgoes his own commission, sacrificing a short-term gain for long-term security. In either case it appears that the steward’s strategy is so clever that even his former employer had to admire it. The point of the parable is that many people in our world display enormous intelligence and energy in financial matters in comparison with the little attention that they pay to the state of their souls. The industry, creativity and tenacity that go into making money and securing one’s financial well-being often far outweigh the time and effort given to life’s ultimate questions: Who am I? What is my goal? How do I get there?

The second unit (16:9) urges people to use their money wisely (however they might make it), in order to gain good friends. If you should lose your money, such persons may help you out in your time of need. And when you die, they may welcome you into their heavenly home.

The third unit (16:10-12) suggests that there is some consistency between how one handles money and material possessions and how one handles spiritual matters. Those who are conscientious and trustworthy in material matters are very likely to be conscientious and trustworthy in spiritual matters.

The fourth unit (16:13) reminds us that “no servant can serve two masters…. You cannot serve God and mammon.” The word “mammon” derives from the same Semitic root as “Amen.” It refers to what one puts faith in or trusts, and so came to mean money. The saying warns against making money or material possessions into one’s god, or the ultimate good in one’s life. While few people might actually worship money in theory, in practice many seem to live as if they do.

The four units that make up today’s Gospel reading remind us that money and spirituality do not belong to separate realms. They urge us to apply some of the intelligence and energy to things of the spirit that we devote to money and possessions, to use money wisely, to be trustworthy and honest in money matters and not to make money into a substitute for God.

Today’s reading from the prophet Amos indicates that greed, exploitation of the poor and dishonest business practices are not new phenomena and that they have been and still are sinful in God’s eyes. The selection from 1 Timothy 2 offers a benign view of the Roman Empire (as in Rom 13:1-7) and urges prayers for political leaders and government officials. The idea seems to be that political tranquility will enhance the possibility of religious practice. A very different (and highly negative) view of the Roman Empire appears in the book of Revelation. The summary of Christian faith embedded in 1 Timothy 2 (“Christ Jesus who gave himself as a ransom for all”) features a financial image (“ransom”) and reinforces Luke’s message that Christians live out their faith in the world of economics and politics. How we deal with both reveals much about who we are and how we relate to God and to others. The connection between money and Christian spirituality is real.

 

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.

Readings: 
Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113:1-2, 4-8; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13
Prayer: 

• In practice, do you serve mammon better than you serve God? Do you use the kind of ingenuity in spiritual matters that you give to money matters?

• Do you use money wisely and well? How do you define those terms?

• Are you trustworthy and faithful in both financial and spiritual matters?