Why Does Jesus Tell Us to Use “Dishonest Wealth”?

blog11-8There was a puzzling reference in Saturday morning’s Gospel (Saturday of the 31st week in Ordinary Time) 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).

What does He mean by “dishonest wealth”?

The Greek expression μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας (mamona tes adikias) is more literally translated as “mammon of unrighteousness.” Mammon is a Hebrew and Aramaic word that has a wider meaning 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 (literally, unrighteous) wealth”?

There are various opinions and theories. None of them absolutely excludes the others, but each has a different emphasis. Here are three theories about the meaning of “dishonest wealth.”

1. It refers to wealth that has been 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 to others. If one has stolen, the usual remedy is to return the stolen items, not give them away to others. While it is true that the Lord’s advice follows a parable in which a man stole (or embezzled) money, He is not praising the man’s theft, but rather his determination to be clever in worldly matters. The Lord wishes that his disciples were as clever and thoughtful in spiritual matters. So it seems unlikely to me that when the Lord refers to “dishonest wealth,” He means things that we have stolen. If we steal we ought to return the items to their rightful owner, not give them away in order to ingratiate ourselves with third parties for our own gain.

2. It refers to the fact that money and wealth tend to lead us to dishonesty, corruption, and compromise. Because 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 us rather than to the 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 to unrighteousness. Hence mammon is called “unrighteous” or is followed by “of iniquity.”

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 are just more fertile than others; some regions have more oil, etc. Corrupt governments often play a role in unjust distribution as well. We are sometimes unable to help the needy effectively in certain countries because corrupt governments and individuals divert what is intended for the poor. We in America live at the top of the economic system and cannot ignore the fact that our ability to buy inexpensive goods is often due to the fact that workers in other parts of the world are paid a mere pittance to manufacture or harvest those goods. Many of the conveniences 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; 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 while many others do not. Our high standard of living is often the result of 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 people who made and packaged this shirt probably don’t live nearly as well as I do. And the fact that they earned very little for their work is part of the reason that I can buy the shirt for less than $20.

Now I’m not calling for boycotts (they probably just hurt the poor anyway), and I’m not sure exactly how we got to such inequity in the world. I also know that it annoys me when some people want to blame America for every ill there is in the world; there are other factors such as international corruption, poor economic theory, etc. There’s certainly 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 the inequities in our world 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 are we to do? Jesus is not unclear: He counsels 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. In this world the poor need us, but in the next we are going to need them. If we have been good to them here, then they will testify for us on the Day of Judgment and welcome us to our eternal dwelling. For indeed, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. If they say, “Be merciful to this one, Lord. He was good to us,” then God will hear them. While we cannot buy our way into Heaven, God will be more merciful to us if we are merciful to others. For indeed, the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. We should befriend the poor and needy here, because they will be powerful intercessors for us there. Jesus said to the greedy leaders of his time, Give alms and all will be made clean for you (cf Lk 11:41).

There is a powerful passage in Scripture that is addressed to us who have so much. If we follow its plan, it seems to offer hope for us.

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).

I would value your thoughts, distinctions, and additions.

About 20 years ago I toured an old coal mine near Scranton, PA. I was amazed at the conditions and hardships the coal miners had to endure. I often think of them and that tour when I turn on a light or an appliance since our local power plant is fueled by coal. My comfort comes at a higher cost than my bill suggests.

19 Replies to “Why Does Jesus Tell Us to Use “Dishonest Wealth”?”

  1. Defenders deserve to eat well and have strong armor so that they will have the strength and capability to protect the weaker from an evil enemy. The measure, then is whether the defenders do their jobs according to their wealth and capability or become strong and powerful for their own sakes, just accumulating and rarely serving.

  2. Perhaps by “dishonest wealth” Jesus was referring to all forms of usury, for example: money-changing, where no honest, i.e. productive, work is performed to obtain it.

  3. Genesis 12 tells us God’s position on blessing. We are blessed to be a blessing to others. We hear much on the providence of God in our daily lives but little on the issue of why we are blessed.

    A fascinating subject for discussion is the number of times the prophets of the Old Testament present God’s position on taking care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed. Every prophet has something to say on this.

    In Jeremiah chapter 22 we are told:

    “Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him.

    16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?” declares the Lord.

    Thinks about this for a moment. God has told us that taking care of the poor, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed is an reflection of our intimate knowledge of our creator. So I challenge all who call themselves Christian whether Roman Catholic or not to think on this when they see a person on the roadway seeking donations so they can live.

    It is not our responsibility to determine what they do with that money but rather to show God’s love for them by blessing them as we have been blessed.

  4. Nothing in this world belongs to us by right, only by gift of God. To claim even in the smallest way that any material thing, especially that which would constitute wealth, belongs by right is to be dishonest, hence ‘dishonesty wealth.’ This dishonesty can only be remedied by humbly acknowledging that everything is a gift from God, and then to act accordingly…. Just a thought.

  5. Nothing in this world belongs to us by right. Everything is a gift from God. Therefore anyone who claims to possess anything by right, particularly that which would constitute wealth, is being dishonest, hence, ‘dishonest wealth.’ The only remedy to this dishonesty is to humbly acknowledge the gift that all things are and to act accordingly thereby storing up treasure (honest wealth) in heaven, the eternal dwellings…..Just a thought.

  6. The steward was making money on the side, hence his ability to take such a huge hit to his own piggy bank to bring down the outstanding debt owed to his master. Maybe what he was doing was not illegal, but it was obviously underhanded. But he was willing to take the bath for the sake of keeping everything going as before, he knew that even with this monetary hit he was better off here than most other places. He didn’t try and kill his master like in another parable, he adapted. He remained faithful to his master and wound up being an even better steward through the way he handled the problem. Long term was more important than short term gain, and now he brings to his master a servant that will look out for his masters concerns with a watchful eye to all the details. Now I am not saying the steward has been converted just yet, but you can see how he has been through the fire. Just for a comparison, you can think of a hedge fund trader, making millions and it’s legal, but what do they do with such wealth? Is it just make their neighbors jealous? Is it all just one Friday night after the next? Or do they have a more humble take of it all. Or a chemist who develops a drug that will cure some horrible disease, the whole world beats a path to your door but to whom do you give the glory? And what happens if the drug becomes a nightmare after 10 or 20 years? Acknowledge God in all you do and He will direct your steps

  7. “And I say to you: Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.”

    Is it possible that Our Lord was being ironic?

    1. I think He means to use the wealth to make friends with those destined for Heaven, I.e., the poor and down-trodden, orphans, widows of soldiers/firemen/deputies/policemen, and so on.

  8. i.e. If you ‘re going to engage in the devil’s works, he will prepare a place for you in eternal life

  9. When we look at Genesis we see that before the “Fall” there was no need for wealth; Adam and Eve were contempt with not having any possesion, living in a state of inocence, i.e., a state of sainthood. After the Fall, loosing their inocence, they were forced to provide for themselves, thus entering in a diinamics that made accumulation of goods, i.e., weath, a strategy for the insurance of their survival. Thus, one can say that such dinamics was brought upon us by the Original Sin, making wealth a direct product of it, marked by it, and with all the problems associated with it.

    Yet, for the survival of his most loved creation, such survival strategy must be agreeable for a God that creates us from his Love alone, admirably reedemed with the blood of his only begoten Son, and ardently loves us. The argument can be supported by the numerous times the Bible shows us our Lord rewards those that: 1) Love Him, and 2) Obey Him; notably Job 42:10 and King David 1 Chr 29:28.

    There si no doublt that progress has made humanity to grow more rapidly, multiplying wealth with spectacular results that have improved the lives of millions of people along the whole world. The problem comes when this strategy is made an idol, a purpose in itself, having man to act disorderly, making him to run all over, not only over his breathren, but the whole planet. Thus, one can think that by “dishonest wealth” our Lord can refer to “disorderly wealth”, and that He is telling us to make it right by sharing it to make friends; and according the direction that all the Holy Scriptures points at, that is with the less fortunate.

  10. I think each of these interpretations has merit but I would add that the contrast between the eternal and ephemeral are what is being highlighted. Gain in this world is inherently illusory because it is also temporal and insecure. By contrast the next world is eternally stable. Further the embezzlers transition is analogous to the one we will all make toward judgement and hopefully heaven. I think the wealth is dishonest in the sense you can not trust in it.

  11. Wealth pursued as a goal without a purpose is dishonest wealth. Wealth obtained as a product of righteous living, for the purpose of fulfilling our vocations is not.

    Both the rich and poor can be guilty of pursuing wealth without purpose and by unrighteous ways. Anyone who has spent any time in the welfare office (as I have), surveying the wastefully expense clothes adorning those with a hand out to the government can see the service of mammon on full display. Success or failure in our unrighteous pursuit of wealth is not a moral factor in its righteousness and dishonesty.

  12. Can’t imagine the “poor” in America working in mines, or fields, or fast food…..heh……

    The difference between poor here in America, and REAL POOR in other places, is that they have NO OPPORTUNITY to advance in other countries! In America, the Land of Opportunity, everybody should be contributing somehow.

    Here the “poor” have been enabled by touchy-feely types to live their lives of indolence. How horribly uncharitable of you.

  13. The unintended consequences of material guilt when confronted by the meager wages of the overseas workers, is that boycotts shut down the factories they work in, or at least reduce workers,putting them out of work and in deeper and more dangerous poverty. This isn’t a black or white problem and no easy solutions – research must be done by those sincerely striving to help the poor. To truly aid the needy will cost one much time and personal expense researching where best to send donations.

  14. For the sake of the Pharisees Jesus referred to “their” wealth as “dishonest” but clearly ALL wealth is not “dishonest” (Luke 16:14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.)

    Jesus says “Store up your Treasure in Heaven” Matthew 6:19-21. I think Jesus is saying you who are worldly deal with money shrewdly to gain for yourselves the friendship of the world and a place in this world but I say give up your money, give it away and when it is gone you will have stored up your Treasure in Heaven. The servant unknowingly had also made friends for his Master those who were in debt to the Master by forgiving some of their debt. Later in the same Chapter of Luke 16 is the story of “the rich man” who sadly did NOT make for himself a “friend” of the poor man Lazarus by giving to Lazarus of his “dishonest” wealth and so Lazarus who later in the parable dies and goes to his eternal home of Heaven does not “welcome” Lazarus in. And so the rich man did not do as this passage says… Luke 16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

  15. I thank you all for your reflections on this passage. It has often baffled me. I have two comments.

    1. As I reflected on it this time, I side with JB: Is it possible that Jesus means what he says, “make friends with dishonest wealth so that when it fails, they will receive you in eternal dwelling places.”? In other words, “Go ahead and make friends (bad friends) with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails (and it will fail), they (the bad friends) will receive you in eternal dwellings (where the bad friends will be to receive you). Is “eternal dwellings” a nice place to go? What do you all think? Also, this is exactly what the Steward is doing, making friends with the wealthy, not the poor, so that he can be received by them in their dwellings, albeit not eternal at that moment.
    2. Having wealth is one thing, not necessarily evil in itself, but how you make it or how you spend/use it is another. The more talents you have been given, the more responsible you will be to give back. Is it possible for a rich man to enter into Heaven? ….Nothing is impossible for God, but that rich man better be awfully generous, especially with the poor who hopefully will receive him into their eternal dwellings (the good one).

  16. Regarding the poor who ask on the street or on the road side I am ambivalent because I fear some are hustlers. I give to the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul or Christian food banks because they do some witnessing and they tend to give the assistance out wisely.

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