Friday, July 29, 2005

Unrighteous Mammon

One of the most obscure sayings of Jesus (in my opinion) is this one: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations” (Luke 16:9). Since I don’t understand it very well myself, I thought I’d explain it to you.

The saying is found in the context of the s
tory of the dishonest steward, the teaching on serving two masters, and the story of the rich man and Lazarus. First of all, does “unrighteous mammon” have a counterpart of “righteous mammon”? It doesn’t seem so. “Mammon” is a semitic term that means money or riches, but that can also mean anything in which one puts one’s trust. The Lord never has praises for earthly riches, so mammon in general must be “unrighteous,” i.e., a kind of “necessary evil” for our bodily survival. But it can be even worse than that—if it becomes the “master” one chooses to serve instead of God.

Yet Jesus tells us to make friends by means of it, as a way of securing salvation (being “received into the eternal habitations”), as the steward in the parable used money (though deviously) to make sure he’d have hospitable friends after he lost his position. It seems that in our case charity can redeem the unrighteous mammon. Whatever we do to others, we do to Christ, as He has said elsewhere, so a righteous use of unrighteous mammon (for example, helping the needy, providing for loved ones, supporting the Church) will be blessed by God.

It also seems that there is a kind of test involved: “If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (16:11). So then, the counterpart to unrighteous mammon is not righteous mammon, but “true riches,” that is, spiritual riches that provide for our heavenly habitation. The Lord has said not to store up treasure on earth but in heaven.

We have an example in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man reveled in his unrighteous mammon, but did not make a friend with it (i.e., Lazarus, who needed help). So when the mammon failed—I think that “when it fails” must mean when material things are finally of utterly no use to us, i.e., when we die—the rich man was received into an infernal habitation but Lazarus into a heavenly one. Lazarus, who had no mammon at all, was comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man ended up “in anguish in this flame,” and at that point he even begged alms from the beggar Lazarus! But he learned too late where the true riches lay. He was not “faithful in the unrighteous mammon,” so he was denied the genuine, everlasting riches.

If our one master is the Lord, we will know how to be faithful even with unrighteous mammon, using it to “make friends” with the poor and needy, who will become intercessors for us and will be happy to receive us into pleasant eternal habitations. For mammon will ultimately fail, and we will be left only with the spiritual values and works of our lives. Will you be found to be worthy to be given the true riches?