Mammonists versus God.

Luke 16.8-15.

the Shrewd Butler Story, Jesus commended the butler for using his boss’s money to generate goodwill instead of profits, and his moral was for his followers to do likewise.

Mammonists stumble all over this story. To them the point of money isn’t to use it as a resource, but to accumulate it and gain power by it. To their minds the butler was completely untrustworthy. He was already accused of squandering it, Lk 16.1 and then he turned round and deliberately squandered it by changing his boss’s debtors’ receipts. Lk 16.5-7 He made it look like he collected more money than he actually had; like his boss was owed less than he truly was; and he did it to benefit himself instead of enriching his boss—which was his job, wasn’t it? He embezzled from his boss. He stole. He’s a thief. There’s a command against theft in the bible somewhere; it’s one of the bigger ones!

So Mammonists really don’t know what to do with Jesus commending this butler… except to conclude, “I guess Jesus appreciates shrewdness over goodness.”

No he doesn’t. As I pointed out when I dealt with the story, the butler had full authority over his boss’s estate, and could legitimately do whatever he wished with it. Including forgive debts. He stole nothing. He embezzled nothing. It might be improper, ’cause you certainly can’t afford to do such things all the time. But it wasn’t sin.

…Well, unless losing money is a sin. And to Mammonists, that’s an egregious sin. Isn’t wise at all. Indicates you’re not worthy of having money in the first place, and deserve to lose it all. (There’s a lot of karma-based thinking in Mammonism, ’cause it helps Mammonists justify the iffy things they do to gain and hoard wealth.)

Jesus isn’t Mammonist, and neither are the butler and his boss in the story. They rightly recognize money as a resource, not a raison d’être. It’s a means to an end; it’s not the end itself. By contrast Mammonists figure it is the goal, and the Christians among ’em figure the whole point of turning to Jesus is so we can gain stuff. Mansions in New Jerusalem. Golden crowns full of jewels. Treasures in heaven, which they constantly imagine as material possessions they get to keep forever. And, if they’re into the prosperity gospel, they can even tap into some of that wealth now.

As a non-Mammonist, the plutocrat in the story recognized money—even “filthy lucre,” as I translated τῷ ἀδίκῳ μαμωνᾷ/to adíko mamoná (KJV “the unrighteous mammon”) —is here today, gone tomorrow. Friends can be just as transitory, but when friendship is done right, it doesn’t have to be. And the goodwill his butler generated with his debtors, was gonna come in handy in future—and not just for the butler. It was a wise move, and a wise boss would keep such a guy around.

Luke 16.8-9 KWL
8 “The butler’s master 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 out of improper mammon,
so when it runs out, they might take you into their great houses.”

“Their great houses” is how I rendered τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς./tas eoníus skinás, “the eternal tents” (KJV “everlasting habitations”). Y’get many Christians who insist it’s about God accepting us into heaven—despite a plural they letting you into plural tents—or the idea that once we get to New Jerusalem, we’re greeted by all the needy people we’ve helped. But properly it’s a euphemism for old money, for great families who’ve been indirectly running the country forever, and they’re the very best friends to have whenever we run afoul of temporal political leaders. That is what the butler was thinking of when he came up with his scheme: He wanted to be taken in by some other plutocrat. Lk 16.4 And it’d be just as shrewd of us Christians to have a few plutocrats in our corner.

Can we handle money? Or really anything important?

Of course Jesus had more to say on the subject of money, and continued:

Luke 16.10-13 KWL
10 “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things.
Improper in little things means improper in big things.
11 So when you’re not trustworthy with filthy lucre, who will trust you with truth?
12 If you’re not trustworthy with another’s things, who will give you your own things?
13 No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

Pharisee logicians taught the principle of light and heavy (Hebrew קַל וחומר/qal v’khomér), which westerners call the argumentum a fortiori, “argument from the stronger [point].” Jesus’s statement “Trustworthy in little things means trustworthy in big things” is a great example of it: If it’s true in a small instance, in a simple case, it’s just as true (and way more consequential) in a big instance, in a complicated situation. If the butler can’t be trusted with money, he can’t be trusted anywhere. If we can’t be trusted with money, we can’t be trusted anywhere.

Mammonists regularly misinterpret this to say we oughta have our financial houses in order. And by “in order,” they mean profitable. We oughta reduce our unnecessary expenses, ’cause they’re bleeding us dry. We oughta eliminate debt, ’cause the interest payments are largely keeping us in debt. Cut up those credit cards! Buy, not rent. Buy used instead of new. Buy generics instead of name-brand items. Use coupons. Squeeze those pennies till Lincoln farts.

Um… was what the butler did profitable? No.

“But in the long run it is,” Mammonists sometimes claim: The goodwill generated by forgiving a few debts, means people are more likely to do business with the boss in future. They’ll think, “He knocked off a few jars of oil from my debt, so I kinda owe him one,” or that maybe he’ll give them another surprise discount in the future. More business, more profits. Shrewd.

And again, not what the butler did. He wasn’t thinking of his boss’s reputation, but his own. He wanted people to think well of him—and if they thought well of his boss instead of him, and didn’t even think of him at all, his scheme would’ve failed. He was offering the debt reduction, not his boss. Spin it all you like into it being good business, good public relations. But you’d be missing the point.

Likewise if you take the other extreme and conclude the butler wasn’t trustworthy. He’d only be untrustworthy if he lied to his boss. He didn’t. His boss would know about the scheme, ’cause it’d be kinda obvious: His debtors had marked up the receipts. Lk 16.5-7 There was no such thing as correction fluid back then: The old amount would be crossed out on the papyrus, and the new one written down. (Or, if they wastefully used parchment for bookkeeping, the old amount was scratched off—but still visible.) Didn’t take a genius to figure out what had happened—and the boss immediately recognized what was up, and found it clever.

Lastly Jesus’s comment about not being a slave to both God and Mammon. I’ve commented more than once how Americans are kinda determined to prove Jesus wrong. We’ve done a lousy job of it so far. We’ve mostly just reimagined Jesus till the version of him we follow approves of all our greed and materialism. But at that point we’re not following Jesus anymore; just our own desires, mainly our desire for wealth.

Mammonist Pharisees.

No surprise, the Pharisees in Jesus’s audience balked at this lesson. Same as Christians do nowadays—the difference being that Christians pretend to follow Jesus anyway. Pharisees figured they could take or leave him, and in this case they figured they could even mock him.

Luke 16.14-15 KWL
14 Hearing these things, the silver-loving Pharisees mocked Jesus.
15 Jesus told them, “You justify yourselves before people—and God knows your hearts.
Those who are exalted before people, are disgusting before God.”

Sounds kinda rude of Jesus, but knowing his character, we know the reason he said this was not to slam his hecklers. It was to warn ’em of reality: Their wealth is not the indication of God’s approval they believed it to be. Some people are wealthy because God enriches ’em. The rest are wealthy because they stole it, inherited it, are idiots who were given wealth by other idiots (but then again I did just mention inheritance), or they got it through dumb luck. Institutional biases keep certain groups poor, and of course the wealthy have rigged things so they can keep their wealth. There’s a lot of unfairness in the system, and people have been tricked into thinking nothing but hard work can overcome it.

But like Jesus said, God knows our hearts. Exalting ourselves in order to justify our wealth, or to justify materialism, or to claim our riches make us better and worthier and greater: God finds it disgusting. Not just because Mammonism is idolatry; because it blinds us to all the sins we commit so we can hold onto our stuff, and put it ahead of God’s kingdom.