Sunday, September 22, 2013

God and Mammon: A Lesson in Stewardship

There is a well-known phrase that is often used as a sort of “proof text” against the vice of greed: “You cannot love both God and money.” At the surface, God and money aren’t incompatible. In fact, Saint Augustine even encouraged people to provide for their eternal happiness by using the goods of the earth (cf. Discourses 359, 10). But the parable of the dishonest steward, from which this quotation is adapted, doesn’t use the word “money” (which does appear in certain popular translations of Scripture). Rather, the word used in the parable is “mammon,” a Phoenician term for economic security and success in business. Reflecting on mammon, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, “we might say that riches are shown as the idol  to which everything is sacrificed in order to attain one’s own material success; hence, this economic success becomes a person’s true god.”
The Dishonest Steward
from Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1594)
More than just making an indictment of material wealth, Jesus is speaking out against those who have made financial security an idol that they are willing to serve at any cost. It was about this same tendency to idolize security and success-at-any-cost of which Amos (8:4-6) spoke:
Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”

There is within certain Christian groups a movement that espouses a theology that is often referred to as the “health and wealth gospel.” Essentially, this theology understands the Bible as a contract between God and humanity. And, in this view, if one has faith in God, God will, in turn, grant security and prosperity to the faithful. Alongside the financial dimensions of this theology is the belief that health is also a benefit of faith, with sickness and poverty being punishment for infidelity. 

One of the fundamental truths about God that movements such as this forget is that God is the God of the poor. Christ came among us for the sake of the poor, the sick, the alienated, and for all sinners. Any theology that presents God as favoring only the wealthy and healthy denies the reality of a God whose love for creation is so dynamic that it was incarnate in Jesus who, as Saint Paul reminds us, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). 

Christians can never embrace any ideology that is opposed to a spirit of poverty or authentic generosity. The Readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time invite us to reflect on how we see ourselves in relation to others—do we see others as a means for our advancement and security, or are we willing to invest in others and put our wealth and resources to the best possible use? In other words, they challenge us to evaluate our stewardship of the gifts that have been entrusted to us by God and by society. The dishonest steward in the Gospel used his power to ensure his own safety and security; by focusing solely on his own welfare, he had offered his integrity and humanity at the altar of Mammon. We are called to more: "Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God's varied grace" (1 Peter 4:8-10).

A Prayer for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
O God, who founded all the commands on your sacred Law
upon love of you and of our neighbor,
grant that, by keeping you precepts,
we may merit to attain eternal life.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)


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