In today’s gospel Jesus says you can serve either God or mammon, but not both. According to Martin Luther in his explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism, mammon serves as a personification for the acquisition of wealth, the “most common god on earth.” In English Renaissance literature Mammon was a character who led people astray. In Spencer’s the Fairie Queene Mammon escorted people to the gates of hell where they would learn how to smelt gold in the eternal fires. No matter how we define mammon, it is very difficult to understand this parable. Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran Seminary of Theology in Chicago, offers the clearest explanation I have seen of this text in this week’s edition of the online resource Working Preacher.
As Rossing explains, we need to understand the economic system of Galilee, which was occupied by Rome, in the first century. Charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited those who were poor and vulnerable. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our trespasses,” which actually means debts. But then we encounter the debt collector in today’s gospel who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% — in other words, reducing their debts to an amount much closer to the original amount actually borrowed, without hidden interest charges. We know that he is doing this mainly to benefit himself, so that when he has lost his job he will still be accepted in the community. But it is difficult to tell whether or not Jesus considers him righteous or just shrewd.
In Roman-occupied Galilee, rich landlords and officials were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to acquire more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, which was in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man and his manager, or debt collector, were exploiting peasants who were desperately poor. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus invokes the biblical concept of Jubilee and debt forgiveness. From the first chapter of the gospel, economic restitution is part of the joy of Mary’s Magnificat and continues throughout, for example the joy of the gospel proclaimed to tax collectors such as Zacchaeus. You remember Zacchaeus, the guy who was vertically challenged so he climbed a tree and had his come to Jesus moment. When Zacchaeus pledges to restore anything he had “defrauded” four-fold, he is also restored to the community, as proclaimed by Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house”
Although the word “defraud” is not used in today’s parable, those who were listening to Jesus would know that debt contracts included exorbitant interest easily hidden from illiterate peasants. Today, we might use the analogies of high-interest student loans and predatory pay-day loans. Poor people often do not have bank accounts and so pay up to 14% interest just to cash their paychecks. In some poor areas where people do not have access to transportation, the only grocery stores within walking distance charge much higher prices. Another injustice is the harsh austerity measures imposed on countries whose citizens had no role in agreeing to a debt. In accordance with Jesus’ teaching, the Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries “illegitimate debt” and condemns it because of its crushing effects on the future of ordinary people.
Wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day employed a lot of creative methods in order to charge interest under other names, such as hiding interest by rolling it into the principal. New Testament scholar William Herzog explains, “The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.” In addition, the steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and an additional payment for Rome. When he reduced the payments, the steward may have been just forgiving his own cut of the interest, or he may have been doing what the law of God commands, which is to forgive all the hidden interest in the contracts. Today, even educated people have to be on guard for hidden terms and obscure language in contracts.
Where does the rich man come in? It seems that the rich landlord was Jewish, because then he would know the Torah teaching against interest. And so, as Herzog puts it, the rich man, “suddenly recognizing that he needed at least to appear to be observing covenantal laws, commended his steward.” Although he may not have been happy about losing interest, he was forced to appear as though he was a righteous man.
Aside from trying to understand the economic system of first century Galilee that exploited the illiterate poor people, we are also challenged to figure out who Jesus wants us to side with. There are many interpretive possibilities to this parable; and each opens up questions. Rather than trying to figure out the ethical standing of each character in the story, we need to focus on the bottom line, which is to follow Jesus’ teaching on economic relationships. Jesus was attempting to revive village life by reminding his hearers of the biblical covenant laws regarding economic ethics, which meant forgiving debts and giving people new hope. In Luke, the primary joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, which includes economic relationships. Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor.
Our first reading from the prophet Amos, who lived eight hundred years before Jesus, condemns widespread economic and social practices that took advantage of those who were poor and illiterate. Amos reminds the people that God is defined as being just and desires justice for all God’s people, not just those who have the advantages of wealth, social position and power. Although we do not live in the same social context as Amos did, or as Jesus did almost two thousand years ago, we can clearly see the connections between those who exploit others and those who are exploited. It seems that the inclination of some human beings towards greed at the expense of others never changes.
As Luther warned in his explanation of the first commandment in the Large Catechism 500 years ago, “‘Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property, in them he trusts and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely such a man also has a god — mammon by name, that is, money and possessions — on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth.” Jesus commands us to follow a different way, to serve God and others by living his message of compassion, mercy and justice for all. Amen.