Staying in a kind of reflective mode from last Sunday’s Gospel on greed and how to avoid it, let’s ponder why Jesus called some mammon (wealth) unrighteous. The phrase occurs in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus says, I tell you, make friends for yourselves by your use of dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, they will welcome you to eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9). We discussed yesterday what it means to be welcomed into eternal dwellings and who these friends who welcome us really are. But in this post perhaps we can consider what the expression “dishonest wealth” means.
More literally the Greek μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας (mamona tes adikias) is translated, “mammon of iniquity.” “Mammon” is a Hebrew and Aramaic word that has a wider concept than just money. It refers to wealth in general and, even further, to the things of this world on which we rely. But what is meant by the expression “dishonest wealth”? Why is it called dishonest?
There seem to be various opinions and theories. None of them absolutely exclude the other but they do include some differences in emphasis. Here are three theories:
1. It refers to wealth that we have obtained in dishonest or illegal ways. Now I personally think that this is unlikely since the Lord’s advice is to take this “dishonest wealth” and give it others. If one has stolen from others the usual remedy is to return the stolen items to them. It is true that the Lord’s advice follows a parable in which a man stole (or embezzled) money. But the Lord is not praising his theft, but rather, his determination to be clever in worldly matters. The Lord wishes his disciples were as clever and thoughtful in spiritual matters. Hence it seems unlikely that the Lord means by “dishonest wealth” merely things that we have stolen. If we steal we ought to return it to the rightful owner, not make friends for ourselves of third parties for our own ultimate gain.
2. It refers to the fact that money and wealth tend to lead us to dishonesty, corruption, and compromise. Since it tends to lead to iniquity it is called (literally) the mammon of iniquity. It is a fact that Scripture generally has a deep distrust of money. For example,
- How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24).
- Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).
- Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God (Prov 30:8).
It’s funny that despite knowing passages like these most of us still want to be rich! But at any rate, this interpretation sees the expression as referring more to where money and wealth lead rather than to money and wealth themselves. Of itself, money is not evil and neither is wealth. But they do tend to lead us into many temptations, to corruption, and to unrighteousness. Hence mammon is called “unrighteous” or “of iniquity.” Some also consider this manner of speaking to be a type of Jewish hyperbole since it assigns unrighteousness to all wealth even though it only tends to lead there.
Overall this position has merit but I personally think it is incomplete and needs to be expanded by a wider sense of unrighteousness. Simply chalking something up to Jewish exaggeration may miss the fact we are not simply to dismiss hyperbole in Scripture. I have often found that the Jewish hyperbole found in the Scriptures is there for a reason. The usual reason is that we are being asked to consider that the exaggeration may not be a total exaggeration after all and that there is actually more truth than exaggeration in the hyperbole. This notion is developed in the third theory.
3. It refers to the fact that this world is unjust and thus all its wealth has injustice and unrighteousness intrinsically attached. We live in a world in which the distribution of wealth, resources, and money is very uneven and unjust. Now economies around the world are very complicated matters and there may be any number of reasons for this. Some areas of this planet are just more fertile than others; some areas have more oil, etc. There is often a role that corrupt governments play in unjust distribution as well. It is a fact that we are sometimes unable to effectively help the needy in certain countries because corrupt governments and individuals divert what is intended for the poor. But there is just no getting around it: this world has a very unjust and unequal distribution of wealth and resources for any number of reasons. We in America live at the top of the system and cannot totally ignore that our inexpensive goods often are so because workers in other parts of the world earn a mere pittance to manufacture or harvest our cheap goods. Much of the convenience and comforts of our lifestyle are provided by people who earn very little for what they do, often without medical benefits, pensions, and the like.
Now again, economies are very complicated and we may not be able to do a great deal to suddenly change all this. But we ought to at least be aware that we live very well and many others do not, and that our high standard of living is often the result of the cheap labor elsewhere. When I buy a shirt in the air-conditioned store and take it in my air-conditioned car back to my air-conditioned house with its walk-in closet, it ought to occur to me that the person who made and packed this shirt probably doesn’t live nearly as well as I do. And the fact that he earned very little for his work is part of the reason I can buy the shirt for less than $20.
Now I am not calling for boycotts (they probably just hurt the poor anyway), and I am not sure exactly how we got to such inequity in the world. I know it annoys me when some people simply want to blame Americans for every ill there is. There are other factors such as international corruption, bad economic theory, etc. There’s plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is, this world is an unjust place and every bit of wealth we have is somehow tainted by that injustice.
So this final theory is not so quick to call Jesus’ expression “Jewish hyperbole.” Rather it considers as quite real the notion that worldly inequities are so vast and exist on so many levels that all the goods, comforts, and conveniences of this world are tainted, are steeped in unrighteousness and inequity. None of it is clean; none of it is fully righteous. In this sense Jesus rightly calls it “dishonest wealth.”
If that is the case, then what to do? Jesus is not unclear, for he goes on to counsel that we befriend the poor with our “unrighteous mammon,” that we be generous to others who are less fortunate. We who live so well need to remember that the monetary cost of a product may not fully express its true human cost. If we have been blessed (and boy have we been blessed), then we are called to bless others.
A final disclaimer – The questions of poverty and worldwide economies are complicated. I do not propose simple solutions. I am not an economist; I am not a socialist; I am not a communist. I am simply a Christian trying to listen to what Jesus is teaching. I am trying to internalize His teaching that I ought not be so enamored of the wealth of this world. For it is steeped in unrighteousness even if I don’t intend that unrighteousness. I think I hear the Lord saying, “Be on your guard with money and worldly wealth. It’s not as great as you think. In fact, if you don’t learn to be generous, it may well be your undoing.” There is a powerful Scripture addressed to us who have so much. It seems to offer hope for us if we follow its plan. I would like to conclude with it.
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).
You know I would value your thoughts, distinctions, and additions.
About 20 years ago I toured an old coal mine in Pennsylvania near Scranton. I was amazed at the conditions and hardships the coal miners had to endure. I have often thought of them and that tour when I turn on a light or an appliance since our power plant is fueled by coal. My comfort comes at a higher cost than my bill suggests.