This Sunday's Gospel speaks out against worshiping "mammon." Time to rethink that prosperity gospel?
“No servant can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
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 saying is adapted, doesn’t use the word “money” (although “money” is in certain popular translations of Scripture). Rather, the word used by Jesus in the parable is “mammon,” a Phoenician term for economic security and success in business.
Reflecting on mammon, Pope 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.”
More than just making an indictment of material wealth, this Sunday’s Gospel is speaking out against those who have made financial security an idol—a god—that they are willing to serve at any cost. This is what we hear Amos condemning in this Sunday’s First Reading:
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 “prosperity gospel” or “health and wealth gospel.” Essentially, this theology understands the Bible as a contract between God and humanity. And, in this view, if we have 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, poverty, and disappointment being a sort of punishment for infidelity.
Unfortunately, perspectives like 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 ideology 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 gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6).
In the end, Christians can never embrace any ideology that is opposed to a spirit of poverty or authentic generosity. The Readings for this 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, the Readings 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 sacrificed 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).
What place do your monetary and materials resources have in your life? How do you use these for the good of those who have less than you?
What does Paul’s statement that Jesus came “as a ransom for all” say to you about the mission of Jesus? How do the words of the prophet Amos invite you to join in that mission?
Words of Wisdom: “Let those of us who possess earthly wealth open our hearts to those who are in need. Let us show ourselves faithful and obedient to the laws of God… Let us do this so that we may receive what it is our own, that holy and admirable beauty that God forms in people’s souls, making them like himself.”—Saint Cyril of Alexandria