What is Mammon, Anyway?
Homily for the
25th Sunday in Ordinary Times, Cycle C
Given at St. Jude September 16, 2022
By Deacon Ken Steponaitis
Readings for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Times
When I was beginning to learn more about scripture, I was always confused by the phrase used in our Gospel today that says you cannot serve both God and mammon. What is mammon anyway and how does one serve mammon? At first, I thought the word Mammon was a derivative of the word “man” but as I came to find out later, the word being used in the Gospel refers to a Hebrew word or the Latin derivative meaning wealth. In some translations of the bible the word Mammon as used here, is capitalized intentionally because Luke wants to personify mammon. Much like how we capitalize the word God when we mean the persons of the God. Mammon could properly be capitalized because anyone who serves Mammon, or wealth, serves Mammon like it is a god. What Luke is saying here is that if we idolize wealth, if we treat the pursuit of wealth as our end or goal, we cannot possibly serve God because wealth becomes a replacement for God. Our goal, then, is to see why it is prudent to see wealth as a means to serve God, and not make it an end in itself.
This phrase about God and mammon can only be understood in light of the parable that starts our Gospel reading. The real question then, is how do we take this story of the steward and somehow make sense of it in light of this very powerful statement that says we cannot serve two gods?
As with many if not all parables of Jesus, they include something that we as humans would think was crazy. Something that most of us would never conceive of unless we take on the mind of God. There is something odd about this story.
The first part of the story is understandable. The steward was squandering the wealth of his master and so the master prepares to fire him. But what is odd is the steward’s reaction. Rather than try to convince the master he will pay back whatever is owed, he instead decides that his best move would be to tell the two debtors, people who owe the master, they don’t have to pay back all that they owe. They only have to pay back a portion. And nothing in the story says that the steward was going to make up the difference. Yet the steward was commended for acting prudently.
So why was it prudent that the steward allow the debtors, to pay back less than what they owed to the master, without somehow making up the difference?
Again, I want to emphasize, whenever Jesus tells a parable Jesus wants us to take on the mind of God. He wants us to see things as God sees them. So, to make sense of the parable we need to be aware of a few things:
1. The Greek word for master in this story is Kyrios. This is the same word used in this Gospel to refer to Jesus himself. So, think of the master, the Kyrios, as Jesus himself.
2. Wealth, or Mammon isn’t just monetary wealth. I tell my kids all the time, we may not have a lot of money, but we are most definitely rich. Wealth in this context should be thought of as time, talent and treasure, the very gift of life. And as strange as this may sound, our life does not belong to us. It belongs to the master. It belongs to our creator, God.
3. The steward, or manager of this wealth needs to be thought of as us. We are the stewards of our wealth, our time, our talent and our treasure, our very lives; even though it doesn’t belong to us. The story is about us squandering that wealth and how we can take on a whole new perspective when we become aware of our sin.
4. Finally, the debtors. While we can certainly be seen as stewards of the master’s wealth, we are also debtors. We owe God everything, especially when our debt is seen from the perspective of sin. So, in this story we are both stewards and debtors. What is interesting about the debtors is what they owed, and it was a lot! A measure of olive oil is equivalent to 8 or 9 gallons. So, we’re talking about 800-900 gallons of olive oil that was due! A kor of wheat is equivalent to 10 or 12 bushels, so we are talking about 1000 to 1200 bushels of wheat!
So, what does the master say after the steward forgave part of the debtors’ debt? “For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” A way to interpret this is, people who deal with life from the perspective that they own their own wealth, they own their own lives, they see themselves as more prudent when dealing with people who have the same mindset. Children of the light, people who see themselves as stewards of their wealth and their life, will take their time, treasure and talent and use it for what it is that the master wants of those gifts, and they’re seen as foolish.
In the eyes of people thinking in human terms, what the steward did by allowing the debtors to pay less than what they owed, seems from human terms to be making matters worse. But in the eyes of the master, the steward, who is acting on behalf of the master, he eased the burden of the debtors. So, from Jesus’ perspective the steward was doing exactly what Jesus would have done. That is how God deals with us. God wants to remove the burdens of our debt. God wants to remove the burdens of our lives. What the steward was doing was more like alms giving. Or another way to look at this is, the steward was acting on behalf of the master. The steward was doing what Jesus, the owner of the wealth would do. That is who Jesus is. He wants so much to reduce for us what is owed. And at the same time, he wants us to be like him, easing the burdens of peoples lives.
This is the good news for today. Jesus wants to ease the burdens of our lives and our sins. But sometimes for us to see that, we must be caught in our dishonesty and realize the ramifications of that sin. By taking on the perspective of God, we see the huge benefit of serving God rather than Mammon!