Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail,
they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
(St. Luke xi. 1)
In last week’s Gospel we prayed that God’s never failing providence that ruleth all things both in heaven and in earth [might] put away from us all hurtful things and [might] give to us those things which are profitable (Collect: Trin. VIII) for our salvation. And this week Jesus illustrates how we might apply what we know of God’s providence to our present lives. He does this through The Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it He commends the virtue of prudence for our consideration.
In The Parable of the Unjust Steward, we read about a steward or manager of a rich man’s treasure who has been accused of wasting his master’s goods. The steward had been careless and irresponsible with the oversight of the rich man’s business. The rich man summons his employee to call him to account. How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) The rich man is surprised, and appears to go away to give his worker time to give account of his stewardship. The employee is struck dumb with fear and trepidation over his fate and future. Because he can make no excuse for his sin, he says to himself, What shall I do? For my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. (Ibid, 3) He is proud of his education and ability and so is not about to resort to manual labor to repay his master. He will neither dig ditches nor be reduced to begging. He has a good mind and is determined to use it to make good out of a bad situation. Though he has failed to manage the rich man’s business properly, he will nevertheless use his business acumen or prudence to recoup his master’s losses.
So he makes a deal with other men who have taken out loans with his Master. He asks them what they owe that he may return at least a portion of their debt to him. He ends up collecting fifty percent of what one man owed, and eighty percent from another, and returns to give to the Master what he has collected. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely. For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. (Ibid, 8) Jesus tells his listeners that in earthly and worldly terms, here we find a man who used his prudence and worldly wisdom to make the best of a bad situation. In so doing, he admitted that his imprudence was in some way responsible for their inability to repay. Both he and they were in need of the Master’s mercy. The steward in today’s Gospel humbles himself and became one with the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God. (St. Luke vi. 20)
So, what does Jesus mean when he says that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light? And why does He say that we are to make us friends with the mammon of unrighteousness? It seems to contradict what He commands elsewhere – i.e. that we cannot serve God and Mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) We might learn more about it in the verses that follow today’s Gospel lesson. There Jesus says that, He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? (Ibid, 10-12) Unrighteous mammon is a term used to describe money or material possessions. If a man has been dishonest when another has entrusted him with his earthly fortune, how can such a man be trusted to increase the worth of his spiritual treasure? The unjust steward was irresponsible and unfaithful with his master’s fortune. But he repented of his error and was determined to use prudence to repay what he could. In the Parable Jesus seems to suggest that the prudence of the unjust steward is a virtue to be imitated. Of course, it is not any obsession with the unjust steward’s future financial security that interests Jesus, but rather the prudence or practical wisdom that moves the man to be reconciled with his Master. Making friends with the mammon of unrighteousness involves acquiring the habit of prudence, which discovers its limitations. The mammon of unrighteousness is false mammon, ‘the meat that perishes’, the riches of this world, perishing things that disappoint those who raise their expectations from them. (M. Henry. Comm. Luke xvi.) Prudence teaches us that the mammon of unrighteousness can never bring lasting and eternal happiness. But it teaches us also that we can make ourselves the friends of it if we understand it rightly in relation to salvation. St. Bonaventure tells us that prudence rules and rectifies the powers of the soul for the good of the self and one’s neighbor. (Bonaventure: C. M. Cullen, p. 98) St. Bonaventure tells us also that prudence helps us to remain close to the spiritual center. (Idem) The center for the Christian is the practical knowledge of man’s temptations in relation to the mammon of unrighteousness. We and all others do well to remain on intimate terms with the mammon of unrighteousness, knowing its dangerous potential and power. Prudence encourages us to see in our neighbor another self, and to love our neighbor as ourself. And so when we are practically wise or prudent in relation to the mammon of unrighteousness, we enable our neighbor to see that the perishable commodities of this world are not what are nearest and dearest to the generation of our happiness. What mattered most to the unjust steward was reconciliation with his ruler. What should matter most to us is reconciliation with God. Jesus says that he that is faithful in that which is least, is also faithful also in much. (Ibid, 10) He means that we with others must use prudence to become faithful and honest with these lesser and least of things because only then can we all become far more consumed with serving one Master and looking for one reward. Prudence enables us to join all other men in labouring not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life. (St. John vi. 27)
Christ makes it very clear in using this parable that most men are rather more prudent in preparing for their worldly futures than His followers are prudent in readying themselves for their spiritual futures. If spiritual men would take as much time, care, and caution in preparing for salvation, as earthly men take in preparing for their financial future, the world might become quite a different place. So the parable has a more literal meaning. If the Christian man would only see that he and his neighbor shared a common indebtedness to God, their spiritual Master, he would be swifter to help his poor neighbor out of material want and poverty. Being conscious of every man’s indebtedness to God for creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, and furthermore for the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, he would see that neither he not any other man can ever repay God for His manifold goodness and mercy. And because he has profited spiritually from the unmerited and undeserved Treasure of God’s goodness and mercy, he would want all of his fellow men to likewise partake of so great a treasure. If there are men around him who are driven desperately to feed, clothe, and house their children, they will lack the leisure to receive and treasure the generosity of God the Divine Master. The rich like to quote Jesus, when He says, the poor always ye have with you, (St. John xii. 8), as if the latter’s predicament should not stir us to a prudence which sees in them a necessary help to our salvation. But Christ is suggesting those who are not rich towards God, and then to their neighbors, haven’t ever really appreciated that all of men together owe to God what they can never repay. Thus, if we share with others what we have, then when [we fail], (i.e. die)…they [will] receive us into everlasting habitations. (St. Luke xvi. 9) When we die, we shall realize that the poor have assisted us out of our obsessive materialistic idolatry, by helping us to embrace, cultivate, and treasure with them the unmerited and undeserved means of Grace and hope of glory!
So making friends with mammon of unrighteousness, (Ibid, 9) involves cultivating the Cardinal Virtue of prudence that is on the way to being perfected through faith, hope, and love. First, the prudent man imitates the unjust steward who acknowledged his sin and was thus assiduously and conscientiously determined to make right with his Master. Second, the prudent man knows that he is always an unjust [spiritual] steward of God’s mercies and gifts because of his fallen nature, and thus can never repay what he owes to Him. And, third, realizing this, the prudent man is determined to help others with what he’s got, thus enabling them to join and assist him on the Christian pilgrimage. For, as Calvin warns us, Those persons…who act improperly and unfaithfully in the things of small value, such as the transitory riches of this world, do not deserve that God should entrust to them the inestimable treasure of the Gospel. (Harmony of the Gospels: Vol. xvi.) So the prudent man shares his earthly treasure with others because only then will God entrust to him the deeper truth of the Gospel and the power to embrace and share it.
So today my friends let us begin to study and discover the virtue of prudence. Prudence looks with foresight and vision into a Christian future that is meant for all men. Prudence discovers those moral principles that God’s Grace will bring to birth in us in order to ensure our common salvation. Prudence is the spirit to think and do always such things that are right and what enables us to live according to [God’s] will by His Grace. (Collect: Trinity IX) Christian prudence asks, with St. Bernard, What is the value of this for eternity? Christian prudence concludes that the value of all others’ gifts is of indispensible worth in the journey to the Kingdom of Heaven. Christian prudence concludes also that God has called us to make to ourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness so that from the low plain of spiritual neediness they might receive us into everlasting habitations. Amen.