Mammon in the Shrewd Butler Story.

Luke 16.1-9.

As you know, Jesus said you can’t be a slave to both God and Mammon, Mt 6.24 and as a result people tend to think of Mammon as a person. It’s not really. Whenever Jesus and the Pharisees spoke about mammon, they meant money, and they were speaking of it negatively. Exactly like we do whenever we describe money as “lucre.” Nobody ever talks about clean lucre; it’s always filthy lucre; it’s always money used wrong, used for evil.

Same deal with mammon, which is why I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) as “filthy lucre.” You come across lucre in this story, it means mammon. Got it? Good.

Jesus tells this story right after the Prodigal Son Story, Lk 15.11-32 if that context helps: A man squandered all his money, and when he came home his father threw him an expensive party; and his brother objected to the wastefulness (or to use old-timey English, the prodigality) of both the wasteful man and his extravagant father. And since we’re on the topic of wastefulness…

Luke 16.1-9 KWL
1 Jesus also told his students, “There’s a certain plutocrat who had a butler.
This plutocrat accused him of wasting his possessions.
2 Calling the butler, the plutocrat told him, ‘Why do I hear this about you?
Turn over your books, for you can’t run the house.’
3 The butler told himself, ‘What can I do?—my boss is taking the house-running from me.
I’m not strong enough to dig; I’m ashamed to beg.
4 I know what I’ll do—so when I’m fired from being butler,
other plutocrats will take me into their houses.’
5 Calling each one of his boss’s debtors, the butler told the first, ‘How much do you owe my boss?’
6 The debtor said, ‘A hundred jars olive oil.’
The butler told him, ‘Take the receipt, sit, and quickly write fifty.’
7 Then the butler told another, ‘And you: How much do you owe?’
The debtor said, ‘A hundred cors [37,000 liters] grain.’
The butler said, ‘Take the receipt and write eighty.’
8 The butler’s boss praised the impropriety, for the butler acted shrewdly,
for the children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation.
9 I tell you, make yourselves friends with your filthy lucre,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

This story really weirds out Christians, because most of us cannot for the life of us understand how Jesus could make the butler the hero of this story, and point to his example as one to follow. Didn’t the guy just totally rip off his boss? He was gonna get fired for squandering money; he turns right around and squanders more money in order to suck up to his boss’s creditors; and his boss is actually pleased with this behavior. What the what?

It makes more sense once it finally sinks in Jesus isn’t a Mammonist… and we largely kinda are.

What’s the proper place of money?

What’s money for? Duh; it’s so you can buy things. Money can be traded for goods and services. This isn’t just Economics 101; kids learn this as soon as they watch their parents buy stuff. “So that’s what those shiny discs are for; no wonder Mom gets upset when I swallow ’em.”

Money’s a resource. Need stuff? Money helps you buy it. Need food, clothes, shelter, transportation, electricity, internet? Money. Does the government need to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare? Money; your money, ’cause the rich always seem to create loopholes so it’s never their money. Everything runs on money.

So we need money. How much? Enough to cover the bills, really. A little extra so we can afford to be generous and help the needy, and a little extra to sock away in case of unexpected problems.

But that’s not a mindset our culture encourages. We’re told we oughta have enough money so we can afford anything we want. So we can buy anything our hearts desire. So we can live in comfort, if not luxury. So we need never work for money again. We’re told we ought to want to be rich… and if we don’t want that, there’s gotta be something dangerously wrong with us. If you don’t wanna be rich, you must be a Marxist or something.

Why this sudden pivot to a fearful extreme? Duh; spiritual warfare. Tempters don’t want you to think. They want you to freak out at anything which threatens their grip on you. Right now they got us by our desires for wealth, comfort, and power. Take those desires away, and they got nothing.

Hence Paul’s warning about the love of money. 1Ti 6.10 The worship of money, materialism and Mammonism, gets people to lose all sense of money’s proper place. It becomes their meaning of life: Get money, and get more. Then blow most of it on luxuries—at the expense of your bills, your emergency funds, and especially the needy. Heck, the needy should be earning their own money. How dare they ask for mine?

Does God’s kingdom run on money? Nope; that’d be grace. Although you’d never know it to hear some churches, ’cause they’re constantly begging for money. But either that’s because their members aren’t generous, or because their leaders are greedy. In other words, they’ve been infested with Mammonism. It’s when money takes priority over grace.

And our interpretations of the bible likewise get infested with Mammonism. It’s why people read this story and don’t understand what Jesus is teaching. So they skip it, and teach on his other stories. Or they tackle it, and come up with gobbledygook.

We gotta begin by understanding the proper place of money in Jesus’s mind. It’s a resource. Is it the only resource we have? Of course not; we have the Holy Spirit’s power, which is how Jesus could make bread out of nothing. Having him cure you is way cheaper than American healthcare. Money is finite, but God’s power is infinite; it’s the dynamo of the universe. He wants us to depend on that, on the Spirit, not money. If anything money’s a workaround; a way to respond to the Spirit’s “No” with “Fine; I’ll buy it myself.”

Gotta wonder how many churches are following the money instead of the Spirit… but I expect that’d take another article.

Nope, this isn’t embezzlement.

When a πλούσιος/plúsios (plutocrat; KJV “rich man”) put an οἰκονόμος/ikonómos (house-runner, or butler; KJV “steward”) in charge of his estate, the butler really was in charge of the estate. He didn’t have to run anything past his boss; he effectively was the boss. He had the boss’s signet ring. He could order anything in his boss’s name. His boss’s money was his money; his boss’s property was his property; they were totally interchangeable.

Well, so long that the boss was pleased with his administration. At the top of this story, the boss had decided to fire his butler, ’cause he felt his estate had been squandered. Jesus doesn’t say why and how, and we needn’t speculate because it doesn’t matter. What matters is how the butler decided to act.

While the butler was still in charge, before he handed over the paperwork, he quickly had his boss’s debtors come over, and he forgave part of their debts. Many interpreters claim this was theft or embezzlement on the butler’s part; how dare he change the receipts? But the butler had the authority to do exactly as he did: He was in charge of his boss’s money, and he was authorized to forgive debts if he so chose. Really he could’ve forgiven the entire debt if he wanted… and if he had, maybe Mammonists wouldn’t struggle so much with this story. “Why, he forgave debts like God forgives debts. How generous.” Instead he only forgave the debtors in part… so people now get hung up on the financial loss.

Why’d the butler do this? He said it himself: “Other plutocrats will take me into their houses.” Lk 16.4 He did this to set himself up for a future job. He expected other wealthy families to hear of this, and hire him because he lowered the debtors’ bills. Hire him knowing he might do this with their money too.

If you’re fixated on money, this story makes less and less sense as we go. Forgiving his debtors pleased his boss? Forgiving debtors might please future bosses? Aren’t these plutocrats trying to make money?—how on earth is this butler of any value to them? How would this behavior curry favor? Why is the boss pleased with his behavior?

I’ve heard one interpretation which claimed the debtors couldn’t afford to pay that much oil and grain at that time, so the butler lowered the bills till they could pay it—and now the boss had oil and grain, whereas if the amounts remained as high as they were, the boss would never get paid back. Kinda like when banks forgive the interest on certain debts so they can get something instead of nothing. Yeah, that’s a clever spin on the idea, but if that were so, Jesus would’ve said so. He didn’t.

The reality is the boss was impressed with something more valuable than money: His butler’s shrewdness.

To Mammonists, nothing’s more valuable than money. If it’s not gonna make ’em money right away, or in the long run, it’s not a worthwhile investment. But the plutocrat in this story isn’t a Mammonist, and Jesus isn’t a Mammonist. They recognize wisdom’s more important than money—and no, not just because wisdom can make you money. Wisdom’s not just a means to an end.

But money is. The butler used money to make the debtors appreciate him. Wise plutocrats, who were used to the Roman Empire’s tendency to use money to grease the wheels of leaders, judges, officials, taxmen, everyone, would immediately realize here’s a man who knows when to make money, and when to buy favor. In an empire where there’s really no such thing as civil rights, favor make all the difference between life and death.

“The children of this age are more shrewd than the children of light of the same generation,” Jesus pointed out. Lk 16.8 Worldly people know how to work the system. Less-worldly people get so hung up on their principles, they sometimes lose sight of what’s really important. Like favor with others. If people like you, they’re less likely to line you up against the wall and shoot you when the revolution comes. If you have favor with pagans, it’s way easier to share Jesus with them.

Whereas if you’re a jerk about it, or prioritize your mammon over everything else… well, so much for God’s kingdom.