What Does Jesus Mean by "Dishonest Wealth?"

In the Gospel for this past Sunday (which I commented more on here: 25th Sunday),    Jesus makes reference to “dishonest wealth.” What does this expression mean? More literally the Greek μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας  (mamona tes adikias) is translated, “mammon of iniquity.”  Now “mammon” is a Hebrew and Aramaic word and has a wider concept than just money. It refers to wealth in general and, even more generally, 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:

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. But the usual remedy, if I have stolen from others, is to return what I stole to them. It is true the Lord’s advice follows a parable where 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 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 true 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, 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, neither is wealth.  But they do tend to lead us into many temptations, to corruption and 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.

Over all this position has merit but I personally think it is incomplete and needs to be completed by a wider sense of unrighteousness. Simply chalking something up to Jewish hyperbole (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 my not be a total exaggeration after all and, that  there is 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 where the distribution of wealth, resources and money are very unevenly and unjustly distributed. Now world wide economies 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. Other areas have more oil etc. There is often a role that corrupt governments play in unjust distribution as well. It is a true 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 we cannot wholly 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 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 a 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, earned very little for the work  at that I can buy the shirt for less than $20 for reasons like this.

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 inequities in this 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 and the like. 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 and at 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 it’s 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 question of poverty and or 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 on 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.

26 Replies to “What Does Jesus Mean by "Dishonest Wealth?"”

  1. I have always had a hard time trying to understand what exactly Jesus is talking about in this passage. What’s the point? What do I do differently in my life because of what Jesus is saying here? What is he saying?

    I don’t think I have found the answer to this question, but I did have this reflection recently as I read this passage about the dishonest steward: People use their intelligence, their cleverness, and their talents to do everything they can to help themselves. Most people put every ounce of effort into getting ahead or making more money. Some people use great intelligence in deceiving others and taking advantage of people. But what if we used our intelligence and effort to do everything possible to become holy and to help our neighbor? What if, instead of meditating on how to make a few more dollars, we spent our days and nights laboring to help one another? What if, instead of dreaming of riches, we dreamt of holiness? The dishonest steward used his cleverness to successfully make a way for himself after being fired. What if we used our cleverness to love one another? The dishonest steward put his talent to use to forward his cause. What if we used all of our talents to strive towards holiness and charity?

    1. This and the previous article make me wonder what would happen if each of us had the same zeal, determination and devotion for God’s Kingdom that Bernie Ebbers and co. had for Worldcom? That Bernie Madoff and co. had for ponzi schemes? That Kenneth Lay and co. had for Enron? That Wall Street and co. have for financial derivatives, hedge funds and short sales? etc., etc., etc.

    2. Yours is the best reading of this parable I have come across. Thanks for that. It is one that has puzzled me too, and your interpretation makes it make perfect sense.

    3. MATT: Best interpretation,compliments to God and the Holy Spirit, throught Jesus to have have used you to give use such clarity, right thinking is always in season.

  2. The Catechism was helpful to me on this one:

    2424 A theory that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity is morally unacceptable. The disordered desire for money cannot but produce perverse effects. It is one of the causes of the many conflicts which disturb the social order.
    A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity. Every practice that reduces persons to nothing more than a means of profit enslaves man, leads to idolizing money, and contributes to the spread of atheism. “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

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  3. A pertinent quote from St John Chrysostom:

    “Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone? Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold form the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first – and then they will joyfully share their wealth.”

    From “On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom” — http://www.amazon.com/Living-Simply-Golden-Voice-Chrysostom/dp/0764800566

    St John illustrates, more clearly here than I’ve read anyplace else, the spiritual benefits of both giving and receiving and, at the same time, the dangers of Robin Hood style “social justice.”

  4. Msgr. Pope,I am trying to learn New Testament Greek all by myself at home from books. I love it when you analyze Greek words. There is a word that is given various meanings. It seems difficult to translate. It is biazetai, in Luke l6:l6. I wish you would talk about that one some time.

  5. The world inhabited by Man is corrupt and imperfect, and tainted with evil. It’s a result of the Fall of Man. This is Catholic Theology 101. We cannot escape this fact until Christ returns for the Last Judgement. Not only wealth is tainted with evil. All of human existence is so, and will be until the End of the World. This is not to say we Christians should be passive in the presence of evil. Instead, we should do our best to eliminate it insofar as it is within our power, but we should not obsess about it – to do so would hint that we think we are more powerful than we really are in our Fallen world. I was thinking this morning that one of the reasons we have the current secular move toward “social justice” and its enforcement by secular government is because of the dereliction by Christians of their duty to adequately service such needs. I think a great political policy initiative by any political party would be to reduce the secular government funding of “social services” to the extent that the slack is picked up by the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) which could include religious organizations like the Christian Churches. Then, Christians could continue to support social services but with their contributions to their churches, which would give them a tax deduction, cut the size and power of government, strengthen the subsidiarity aspect of social services, get more “bang for the buck” out of the contributions made (because the substantial overhead and waste inherent in governmental bureaucracies), and, I would surmise, a lessening of the attitude of “it’s OK to be permanently on welfare because they owe it to me as a civic duty.” I would be very much appreciate Msgr. Pope and others considering this idea in their comments and future articles. Thank you, Monsignor (sp?), very much for this blog – I always find it intellectually and thoughtfully written on topics of genuine interest to thinking Catholics of most political persuasions.

    1. “The world inhabited by Man is corrupt and imperfect, and tainted with evil” and the Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are part of it, and so are Christians.
      We don’t need to make unsupported hypotheses as to what would happen with the downsizing of social security systems, it has occured in various places “with consequent grave danger for the rights of workers, for fundamental human rights and for the solidarity associated with the traditional forms of the social State” as Pope Benedict XVI deplored in his encyclical “Caritas in Veritate”

      1. canu,
        Yes, NGOs, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists, agnostics, and atheists are all part of the imperfect world. And as B16 says in “C in V” para#25, “Being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering. I would like to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity: “Man is the source, the focus and the aim of all economic and social life.””
        We in the USA have a constitution unique in the history of the world that allows unparalleled personal freedom to create wealth for broad populations. That, coupled with the will of the individuals in those populations to contribute to social justice in a manner concomitant with subsidiarity would, ideally, maximize the beneficial effect of such contribution.
        We FREE citizens of the USA do need to use the reason God gives us to MAKE reasonable hypotheses as to how BETTER help our fellow human beings than is currently possible through the present sorry welfare situation in the USA. I find that your references to “rights of workers”, “human rights”, etc. provide nothing new or substantively helpful to the discussion at hand.

  6. Your explanation of dishonest wealth makes sense.

    But what does this whole phrase mean? “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth,
    so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

    I can’t figure what Jesus means by this.

    1. In effect it means that when we are generous to the needy and the poor we befriend them and this helps assure our salvation. There is a saying, “The Rich help the poor in this world. The poor help the rich in the next.” Almsgiving and generosity to the poor have a lot to do with our final judgment and we ought to befriend the poor and needy on this account.

  7. I always figured that the term “dishonest wealth” could (certainly not exclusively) refer to the fact that wealth, itself, is in a way dishonest. It promises things (happiness, fulfillment, etc.) that it just can’t deliver. So, in a sense, it lies.

  8. Someone with better skills in Greek can perhaps check me on this, but I suspect that the words translated in the lectionary as “(dis)honest” and “trustworthy” and “true wealth” are all closely connected and perhaps interchangeable. “Dishonest wealth,” then, could mean: earthly wealth; wealth that is not truly wealth; it is not trustworthy; it does not last; it is temporary. “Dishonest” would then contrast with “eternal.” So if we “re-translate” the passage, we could get the following sense of it:

    “I tell you, make friends for yourselves with [temporary or earthly wealth], so that when it fails [as it surely will], you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. The person who is trustworthy in very small [i.e. earthly] matters is also trustworthy in great ones [i.e. heavenly or eternal]; and the perosn who is [not trustworthy] in very small matters, will also not be trustworthy in great ones. If, therefore, you are not trustworthy with [earthly wealth], who will trust you with true wealth [i.e. the things of heaven]?

    If you are not trustworthy with what belongs to another…

    [i.e. everything we have in this life actually belongs to Another (i.e. God); we are merely stewards, as Jesus clearly is saying]

    …who will give you what is yours?

    [i.e. your heavenly reward]”

  9. Jon,
    I agree with most of what you said, but I think the reasons for the secularization of caring for the needy are more complicated than that the government is doing it because no one else will. In fact, that is probably the least of the reasons for the government taking away people’s earnings to spend as it sees fit. The number one reason is that people in our government are using this as a tool to keep themselves in power and people have just allowed it to happen. Mismanagement of that money has yielded poor results. Pretty soon the government will just take all our earnings and deposit what they feel we need to live on, into our bank accounts.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Pope Benedict XVI when he said, “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.” The care of the needy should be privatized as much as possible and the use of NGO’s that are properly monitored should be employed. And that includes religious organizations. Americans are the most generous people on earth. But if they think the government is doing the job for them, they will leave it up to the government. I think this is the way to spiritual bankruptcy and eventually leads to the oppression of all free people.

    1. Marian,
      You wrote, “…the reasons for the secularization of caring for the needy are more complicated than that the government is doing it because no one else will.”
      In principle, I agree with your statement. In practice, the fact is that, unless we remove this reason (“no one else will provide adequately for the social welfare of the needy”) from the arsenal of those people who want to use it to increase the power of government, those power-hungry people will continue to use that reason effectively to increase their (the government’s) power.

  10. This passage has always puzzled me a bit as well, so thanks for the discussion. I imagine it may well have puzzled some of the Apostles too.
    My way of looking at it now is that wealth and the economy are human creations. Using these imperfect and often unjust creations to somehow further God’s Kingdom seems the point of it to me. I know the dishonest servant only appears to be furthering his own place in the Kingdom, perhaps by putting himself into a situation where he can no longer simply be the self – seeking, dishonest servant. We’ve all got to start someplace, I guess.

  11. Our Lord is not telling us to use “dishonest wealth” to obtain heaven. If the wealth has come in dishonest way, then we can be sure, Our Lord would not want us to use it. Certainly we cannot go to heaven by dishonest means and through dishonest wealth either. The expression MAMONAS DES ADIKIAS in that way cannot be understood as DISHONEST. Jesus makes a distinction between what of this world what is of the other world. Jesus is the King of the other world not THIS world (see John 18). He was telling Pilate about that. The real meaning is through the wealth of THIS WORLD, which is basically temporal and destructible attain the other world, THE HEAVEN. The interpretation of this passage requires correct foundation of theology. Jesus tells us how the unfaithful steward gave the money to the debtors. He was GIVING in order to attain something subsistent. It is the meaning of this parable. We must make use of the worldly goods (which are also God’s gift, not ours) which is of passing nature to attain the eternal life. This is possible by GIVING. The worldly goods are entrusted to us not to possess but to give. Giving is the best way of loving. The steward, made use of what was available and within his power, though limited on time, to get something which could bring him his later existence.
    This is the meaning: we must make use of the temporal goods in such a way, by GIVING, that they bring us eternal life. God bless you.

  12. Msgr,

    I like your insight that all money will have been ‘tainted’ from the “injustice and unrighteousness intrinsically attached” to its production.

    It makes me think of how infinitely discerning God is, that nothing is missed and everything taken into account, and that every act must be ‘squared’ as the accountant does, so that nothing, not even the miss-management of a single cent will not be addressed.

    For personally and peculiarly, despite the cultures of death, sexual liberation et al, I still think the biggest problem in the world is USURY in all its many and varied forms, insomuch as the powers it creates, some above nations and above law, themselves are able to enslave peoples and nations, and rail multitudes into poverty and so many into sin, while at the same time seducing all to believe it is just (or just business).

    And are these ‘powers’ part of the ‘beast’ who in Apocalypse “seduced them that dwell on the earth… that no man might buy or sell, but he that has the character, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”

  13. I work for an organization that received a funding grant to start up a used clothing thrift shop; the final result would have the thrift shop fully operational after two years of funding. As the bookkeeper I knew that the funding was only used to pay for the salaries and that the final goal would never be realized. I had a choice, to not work as the bookkeeper or to continue on, leaving aside my conscience. I knew it was dishonest wealth, but I also knew that I was a ‘child of the light’ so I continued on as the bookkeeper, knowing that the poor would also benefit from the sale of the low priced items. As Jesus sends us into the world he also teaches us how to deal with those of the world.

  14. it seems to me that you want to have your cake and eat it.

    You can’t say that wealth is “not evil by itself” and proceed to say that it is “tainted”. It is either the one or the other and your use of “somewhat” is a circiterism that only confuses the matter.

    On the inequality, please note that **absolutely everything is inequally distributed**.
    Beauty, intelligence, health, happiness, wit, tragic events are at least as inequally distributed as wealth.
    We Christians see in this a powerful reminder that this is not a Paradise, nor it is meant to become it.

    Without the Fall, we wouldn’t have any of this. But after the Fall, the Church must concentrate on how to gain the real paradise, not on how to try to eliminate inequalities. Inequalities will always be there, what counts is the salvation of souls.

    Yes, the rich has duties as to how to be a proper steward of the riches entrusted to him (which includes, of course, to make others participate to his wealth). Yes, riches can easily tempt. But poverty can easily tempt too and the vast middle class in Western countries is de-christianising itself at the same pace as the rich and the poor even without being tempted, so it is clear that wealth in itself is not such a big problem as, say, bad catechesis. If the Church would dedicate more energy to good catechesis and less to social inequalities, methinks many more souls would be saved.

    It is as you say: wealth is neutral. Neutral as in neutral, not neutral as in “but we still don’t like it”.

    The duty of the Church is to lovingly address the rich (don’t worry, I am not one of them) to the kind of compassionate behaviour the Lord expected from them when he entrusted to them those riches which are, in the end, His and just given on loan. ***Social engineering is not in the remit of the Church, Charity is***.
    The Church doesn’t work for this world, but for the next.

    Der Kater Murr

  15. Dishonest wealth always refers to wealth gotten that does not rightly belong to you. Since everything we own actually belongs to God and not rightly to us, this passage is telling us that since what we have gotten isn’t rightly ours we are best to use it to build relationships with our fellow human beings so that on the day we must give accounting of what we have done with it we will at least have made a lasting profit on what we have gotten.

  16. Want to use your Psalm 23, as a weapon, again? How about your Psalm 91? How about your 10 Commandments and Moses? While violating all of your own religious texts as hypocrites for people to your religious doctrines! Get my point down upon all of you? Huh! Trying to manifest some more of your inferiority complexes and problems about yourselves upon me! Showing the psychopath and sociopaths that you all are in manifesting your eboladeath squad upon everyone lately in the delusions, hallucinations and illusions of granduwr that your altered reality is about yourselves! Cause and be the effect of your own hypocrisy this month? Huh!

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