Today’s Gospel contains that oft-quoted line, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” The key here is not the word mammon or money, but the word serve. If we let our concern for money or material goods overmaster us, we will be in trouble. Maybe not in the short term, maybe not in how we appear to others, but our eternal soul will be in peril. Someone, perhaps Benjamin Franklin, said, “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” Sir Francis Bacon said, “If money be not thy servant it will be thy master.” These quotes and others like them are commonplace, almost cliches, because there’s a deep truth to them.Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ parable, we get distracted by the fact that he seems to be praising the steward for what we might see as dishonest business practices. In fact, some commentators have suggested that the amount the steward was taking off the bill was the amount that would have been his self-determined commission. But if we focus too much on the business details, we miss Jesus’ point.
The steward seems to have realized that he has come to a point in his life when he needs to rely on the generosity, even the charity, of others. If he has been treating his business associates harshly in the past, he knows that he has no chance of getting another job. If he’s only been concerned about his proficts and doing well for himself, he will find himself alone and destitute. So he sacrifices his profits, uses his money to buy at least some sort of good feeling from others. While he’s probably as aware as any parent of a teenager that you can’t buy friends, he’s still at least on his way to a deeper truth, the awareness that he does need the good will of other people.
The prophet Amos reviles the people of his day who resent the sabbath for the way it interferes with their business, particularly as their business seems to involve not only commerce but a particularly vicious cheating that shows a complete disregard for others.
His words still hold a bite for us today. We pride ourselves on abolishing slavery, and yet when Amos says, “We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals,” we might recall images from the nightly news of children in developing countries being paid pennies a day for working in a sweatshop sixteen or seventeen hours a day making high-priced sneakers and brand-name clothing.
The underlying message throughout Scripture is that if we’re right with God, our only true master, we will be right with other people. If we put something in place of God, that misplaced desire will throw our other relationships out of whack. Money can never be more important than God. It can’t be more important than God’s creation, either—other human beings, the earth that supports us, the air that surrounds us.