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by Al Maxey

Issue #760 ------- November 19, 2018
Mammon is like fire: the usefulest of all
servants, if the frightfulest of all masters.

Thomas Carlyle [1795-1881]

Unrighteous Mammon
Christ's Peculiar Pronouncement
Within His Most Puzzling Parable

John Milton (1608-1674), the English poet and polemicist, in his epic poem titled "Paradise Lost," wrote the following memorable characterization of Mammon, typically regarded by medieval theologians as a fallen angel/spirit (the demon of covetousness), "Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell from heaven; for ev'n in heaven his looks and thoughts were always downward bent, admiring more the riches of heaven's pavement, trodden gold, than aught divine or holy." Quite an interesting picture Milton paints for us here of a spirit-being enticed by the pavement (pure gold) in Paradise. It would be this creature's undoing, just as it's been the undoing of countless beings down through the ages. The lure of riches is great, and its power over those who fall prey to it is vast. Lord Byron (1788-1824) observed, "Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare, and Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair." Our fleshly natures are easily distracted from that which is holy by the godless glare of that which glitters and sparkles, and we too easily fall under the power of this heartless master. "Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang" (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Yes, mammon is a heartless tyrant, and it's largely for this reason that Jesus said, "You cannot serve God and mammon" (Luke 16:13b; Matt. 6:24b). Both desire our devotion, and both battle mightily for it within us (Luke 16:13a; Matt. 6:24a).

The word "mammon" is an interesting one. It only appears four times in the NT writings. It is used once in our Lord's Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:24) in the context of His caution against laying up treasures here on earth. It is used the other three times in our Lord's Parable of the Unrighteous Steward (Luke 16:9, 11, 13). The reading of Matt. 6:24 is identical with that of Luke 16:13, with only a couple of minor differences: "no one" instead of "servant," for example, which leads many scholars to believe this was one of the core teachings of Jesus; one that He felt comfortable employing in various instructional settings. The concepts of split loyalties and divided love are applicable on many levels. This word only appears on the lips of Jesus in the NT writings, and biblical scholars are not in agreement as to its origin. "The etymology of the term is disputed," states the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [vol. 3, p. 232], and The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible concurs, characterizing it "a word of uncertain Semitic origin" [vol. 3, p. 234]. Dr. Charles Ellicott insists "the word was Syriac in its origin" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 321]. Others suggest it is a transliteration into Greek (and then into English) of "a Syriac or Aramaic word" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 914]. "It is a common Aramaic word," says Dr. W. E. Vine in his Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, and this same statement, word for word, is found in The New Strong's Expanded Dictionary of Bible Words [p. 1220]. "It is absent from the OT, but common in rabbinic literature" [Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 850]. It is found in the apocryphal writings of the so-called "Intertestamental Period," and it "was of frequent occurrence in the Targum" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 47].

Regardless of the term's ultimate origin, which is hard to trace for it is "a term found in several ancient languages" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible: The NT, vol. 1, p. 354], the meaning is almost unanimously declared to be: "riches, wealth, treasure, material possessions of almost any kind." Perhaps the late George Carlin (1937-2008) encapsulated it best when he said, "It's all your stuff." We like our "stuff," we want even more "stuff," and in the end our "stuff" owns us! Perhaps, at least in part, in keeping with Christ's caution about laying up treasures on earth instead of in heaven, this may have been somewhat on the mind of the apostle Paul when he wrote, "Set your mind on things above, not on the things that are on earth" (Col. 3:2). That which we "treasure" reflects where our heart is, says Jesus (Matt. 6:21), and far too many of our hearts, if we're honest with ourselves, are focused on what is below, rather than on what is above (like the stooped-over spirit Mammon, who, according to Milton, couldn't take his eyes off the pavement so as to behold the blessings of Paradise which were all around him). Jesus discussed all of this in principle in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:19-21, 24), and He illustrated it in a parable in Luke 16:1-13 (Parable of the Unrighteous Steward). It is a statement Jesus makes in this parable, as well as a phrase He uses, that will be the focus of our study in this current issue of Reflections, for it has proved to be very problematic for disciples over the centuries.

Although the overall message of this parable centers on Jesus' teaching about material possessions, and how we are to be responsible, and even creative, in our use of these possessions (regardless of their nature), yet "the interpretation of this parable is notoriously difficult" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 986]. Dr. Bruce Larson even went so far as to declare, "This story of the unrighteous steward is the most difficult of all the parables" [The Communicator's Commentary: Luke, p. 233]. The problem lies in the fact that Jesus seems to praise the "unrighteous steward" in this parable for his shrewdness with respect to "unrighteous mammon." Jesus even lifts him up as an example for His own disciples to follow. Several things must be kept in mind here. First, Jesus was not pointing to this steward as an example of righteousness, but of shrewdness. "The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light" (Luke 16:8, English Standard Version). Yes, there are things the disciples of Christ can learn even from those who are unrighteous. When instructing His twelve apostles, Jesus gave them this advice: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, but innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). The Greek term used in these texts for the English word "shrewd" means "to consider, give thought to; prudent, sensible, practical wisdom."

This steward in our Lord's parable found himself in a difficult position; it was going to take some creative thinking and action to extricate himself from this mess with a somewhat favorable outcome. So, he considered his options, thought it through, and took the action he did to obtain the result he desired. Jesus was certainly not condoning this unrighteous steward's lack of honesty, but rather He praised his prudence, creativity and forethought. "Jesus commended the steward's foresight, not his method. ... Jesus pointed out how one may best use wealth, tainted or otherwise, with a view to the future" [Holman Bible Dictionary, p. 915]. In short, one may approve a principle without necessarily approving a particular practice. "Unrighteous mammon" is the "coinage" of this worldly realm, and it may oftentimes be acquired dishonestly as well as employed dishonestly, immorally and unethically. There are spiritual riches, and there are earthly riches; there are treasures on earth, and treasures in heaven. The Lord asks us to focus on obtaining the heavenly, but not to shun responsible use of the earthly for the purpose of advancing His cause. "As the children of the world aim steadily at their selfish objects, and with ever-watchful prudence seize upon the means necessary to secure them, so the children of light are to keep constantly before their eyes the relations of life to the Divine Kingdom, and to press everything into their service on its behalf" [Dr. William Taylor, The Parables of Our Savior, p. 378]. I like the way The Message has rendered this portion of the Lord's parable: "Now here's a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way - but for what is right."

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) observed, "The things of this world are the 'mammon of unrighteousness,' or the 'false mammon,' not only because often got by fraud and unrighteousness, but because those who trust to it for satisfaction and happiness will certainly be deceived; for riches are perishing things, and will disappoint those who raise their expectations from them. Though this 'mammon of unrighteousness' is not to be trusted to for happiness, yet it may and must be made use of in subserviency to our pursuit of that which IS our happiness. ... This is a good reason why we should use what we have in the world for the honor of God and the good of our brethren" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. The noted Greek scholar Dr. Gerhard Kittel, when reflecting on the phrase "mammon of unrighteousness," stated the following, "The ethically unobjectionable and religiously prudent use of earthly riches in the service of love for others is something which the righteous may learn from the ethically unjustifiable but clever use of money for corrupt purposes as this may be seen in the world. Even in respect of modest earthly wealth, the righteous are under the obligation of faithfulness. Faithfulness in small things is the presupposition of participation in the eternal (great) things which are the true wealth of the disciples" [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 389].

"The point of this parable of Jesus is to inculcate the wisdom of making provision in the present life for the life which is to come. The temper commended by Jesus is that of a man who has wit enough to see that his future prospects depend on his present exertions. ... Thus, instead of serving God and mammon alike, the Christian is to use mammon wisely in the interests of his relation to God and the heavenly Kingdom. ... The object of the parable is to point out how one may best use this tainted possession in view of the future, and the teaching is on the lines of the later Jewish Rabbis, who attached high religious significance to alms" [Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 106-107]. I like what one source wrote, "Money is foreign currency to the person whose citizenship is in heaven." Though it may have worth and power on earth, it has no value (it can buy you nothing) in the heavenly realm. On the other hand, the children of God, as they sojourn in this earthly realm, can and should make use of the coinage of this realm to advance the cause of the heavenly realm. In this way, we embrace the principle promoted by our Lord in this parable. "Material wealth (whether money or gems or landed property) is a resource open to misuse and characteristically employed by wicked, unscrupulous men for wicked purpose. Yet, it is possible for a true servant of God to use wealth for good and salutary purposes, and thus procure for himself treasure in heaven such as money cannot buy" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, p. 48]. "Jesus uses the story of the manager's actions not to commend graft, but to encourage the prudent use of material wealth" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 987]. "So, disciples should use their worldly possessions, which are only on temporary loan from God, in deeds of mercy to store up treasures for themselves in heaven" [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 3, p. 232].


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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

I am still VERY supportive of your mission, and I am so sorry that some people (like those described in your last article) are just "not getting it." You have made it very clear from the beginning the purpose and intent of your Reflections. I "got it" right away, and your messages have been consistent with that purpose and intent. I like the old saying, "If they're shootin' atcha, ya must be doin' somethin' right!" This nation has been bombarded with negative rhetoric from those who think that the social media is a perfect place to bash others, and the nation has become deeply divided (and this comes from both sides). I shall NOT get into my political beliefs, except to say that I am a moderate, and I feel that ANY "ultra" faction of a party is just as bad as religious legalism. It seems the nation has forgotten that "Faith and Trust" are the backbones of any democracy! I think the negative responses by some to your Reflections are perhaps related to this spirit of polarization. Social media has become an avenue for this as well, which is unfortunate. I am sorry to see what this has done to people, especially among Christians, whose words on Facebook (and other social media outlets) do not reflect their faith and respect for God or their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Because of you and your mission, I have learned more than ever before about being able to give answers about my faith and beliefs. So, be BOLD like Paul. Keep Truth coming, brother, and keep stressing grace and faith and the necessity of keeping our eyes on Jesus, and showing the love that God has for us. It is so easy to criticize. Too easy. I am sure that every pastor is subject to this type of criticism. I thank you, Brother Al, for helping me deepen my faith and for the education you have provided, which, at the tender age of 74, I find invaluable. Thank you for helping me "Never Let Go," as the song says. My very best to Shelly and your family. God bless you always!

From a Reader in Florida:

I just finished reading "Peter's Colonnade Sermon: Reflecting on an Apostolic Revision" (Reflections #758) and "Reviewing Reader Reaction: Questions, Comments and Criticisms on the Previous Issue of Reflections" (Reflections #759) while drinking my coffee this morning and waiting for the rest of the family to wake up. The "Gospel" is so very basic, yet all WE seem to be able to do is screw it up! I mean seriously: it is far from being Rocket Science, yet that is what too many Christians try to make it out to be, and so only a truly learned man who has been "approved" can understand it and explain it to the rest of us "fools." In my opinion, the biblical "message" boils down to this: LOVE and RESPECT. If you love God, then everything else falls into place. It really IS that simple, but we make it all so convoluted. LOVE GOD, and if you love God then of course you will do A-Z. Yes, you may screw up A-Z, but therein lies the repenting and forgiving that comes from love. Parent/child relationships really, in my opinion, were designed to give us a glimpse of what God intended our relationship with Him to be. Okay, it's early, and I feel this sounds like "ramblings," but I think you understand what I mean.

From a Reader in Nova Scotia:

I am sure that there is much about baptism that I don't know, but then there is this that I DO know and am sure of: Only Jesus Saves! Any action that WE are involved in, even as a response to a command, only constitutes "the right thing to do." That action itself is NOT my savior. Al, I don't always agree with everything you say, but my mind is an open sponge, so after additional study and lots of thinking for myself, I usually come around to your views. Brother, you have opened my eyes to more Truth than any other person I have ever known, with the possible exception of Edward Fudge, who was the first man in our "Faith-group" to do this for me (it happened when we met back in 1974); he shared with me the concept that we are under an "Umbrella of Grace." Before that revelation, I had been taught that with each sin we fell out of God's grace. It was like a yo-yo: in and out, in and out, depending on our actions. This was a frustrating way to live as a Christian. So, I thank God that you and Edward have opened the door to GRACE and PEACE for me, and for that I will always be grateful.

From a Reader in Korea:

Al, thank you for another very insightful article ("Reviewing Reader Reaction: Questions, Comments and Criticisms on the Previous Issue of Reflections"). I am so thankful for the work you are continuing to do. Hang in there!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Brother Al, I really enjoy your writings, even those I may not fully agree with. I don't know you personally, but I can tell from your writings that you love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul, and that you also love His people! Thank you for always writing about things that challenge me to think and study!

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, your writings have been a BLESSING to me! I don't always understand everything, but I do appreciate your hard work. You exhibit a spirit of peace and kindness even when disagreeing with someone. You are gracious in your responses. Your example is needed, especially in the public forum. So, thank you for ALL that you do!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I loved your article "Peter's Colonnade Sermon," but I had been too busy, until now, to tell you so. That study challenged my thinking, and it is one I will keep coming back to. Stay strong against the rock-slingers and the negative-Nellies. Most people don't want to THINK, and then when they have to, they are upset and lash out at any and all who are just trying to help them see things a bit more clearly. Keep the faith, brother!

From a Reader in Louisiana:

Brother Al, your critics, some of whom you mentioned in your latest Reflections, remind me a lot of the Democrats right now: they clearly can't win a discussion on policy, so they attack the character of all those with whom they disagree.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Well, there you go again, Al - insulting folks' faith by telling them Truth, and thereby making them your enemy (Galatians 4:16 - "Have I therefore become your enemy by telling you the truth?"). Fear and weakness move and motivate such people. Fear of reexamining their faith, and too weak to grow spiritually. Al, don't stop; don't you ever stop, brother!! You are our voice crying out from the wilderness!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, if I were in charge of rewriting the book of Hebrews, you would make the "Faith Hall of Fame" (Hebrews 11). The things you have endured over the years from your critics and enemies have surely been painful, yet you have continued to speak the Truth of the Good News for the "joy set before you." I admire courage! I admire you!!

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Al, I'm glad you referred us to Ephesians 2:8-10 at the end of your article "Reviewing Reader Reaction." I just recently reread the whole context of Ephesians 2:4ff and there is nothing regarding what WE have done. It is all God's work. Amazing grace! The only requirement on our part is faith. I have particularly become endeared to the writings of John, as they are the "closest" to us chronologically as to what it is that God requires (e.g. John 8:24 - "unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins"). How difficult is this to grasp?! I no longer believe salvation is a process. It is a decision. It is really quite arrogant and demeaning to suggest some sort of prescription. I have also realized that baptism, like many things, was developmentary, from Jewish custom, etc. Even circumcision in Acts 15:1 was acknowledged to be a "custom." The baptism of John had other reasons besides a testimony to repentance, for example: John 1:31 - "that He should be revealed to Israel," and as a qualification or benchmark for apostleship (Acts 1:22). One must realize that the Bible was a developing revelation through laws, etc., but the substance is Christ. God bless, brother.

From a Reader in California:

I've just read "Reviewing Reader Reaction." Loved it! It's one I want to keep, and hope I can find it again when it's applicable. I too seem to offend people with my suggestions. I only hear about their offense later, second-hand. Nobody really wants to set me straight, nor hear an explanation of my views. And I'm perfectly fine with people who want to believe something different. Not my business. But, I'm amazed: some people seem to think that by being offended, that is what makes them a superior person.

From a Reader in Unknown:

I just read part of Reflections #232 ("Christians Bearing Arms: May Disciples of Jesus Christ Serve in the Armed Forces?"), enough to know that I agree with the tenor of the article, even though I haven't read all the details yet. I am not a pacifist, but I am a "just war" theorist. I don't believe all the wars and engagements our leaders get us into are just; some clearly are not. But, I don't believe in berating the men and women who serve in uniform for the decisions of the corrupt politicians. As you know far better than me, these politicians put our youth in harm's way often without proper equipment and protection, and then often don't care for the injured ones properly afterwards. These young people deserve our respect, not our derision. I appreciate you for serving, Al.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

My brother Al, tomorrow is not just the Lord's day, but it is also OUR day (as Vietnam combat veterans). So, thank you for your service, my friend. I believe that the fight you now fight on a daily basis (against spiritual darkness and those who promote it) is probably tougher than the one you fought in Vietnam. These jerks who come across as so self-righteous in their attacks on you remind me so much of the people Jesus referred to (who had ears to hear, but didn't hear; who had eyes to see, but couldn't see; and I'll add one: who have brains to think with, but wouldn't think). I'm afraid I would be much like Peter in the garden: I'd lop off someone's ear, or maybe a head or two!

From a Minister in Arkansas:

I just wanted to send a note to let you know about our new email address so that we could continue to receive your Reflections. Thanks for your introspections and writing skills. I appreciate so much your scholarship and insight. Godspeed!!

From a Reader in Idaho:

Al, I just reviewed your Reflections Archives on the topic of the Holy Spirit. I did not find an article addressing the current emphasis on "tongue speaking" as a "sign" of having "received the Spirit." I would love to hear how you feel about this practice (including your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:1; 14:2; and other such texts). By the way, thank you so much for sending your book "From Ruin To Resurrection." I haven't finished it yet, but am really appreciating your thorough treatment of this topic. It makes good sense to me that a loving God would not endlessly "torture" His creation!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, I would like to order your CD titled "From Law to Liberty: Reflecting on our Journey away from Legalism and into Freedom in Christ." My check is enclosed. Also, I always enjoy reading your topics in your weekly Reflections. God bless!

From a New Reader in Unknown:

I came across your article "The Law of the Husband: Reflecting on Romans 7:1-6" (Reflections #106) and it really blessed me. Thank you! Would you please add me to your mailing list? God bless you.

From a Reader in Ohio:

Good Morning Brother. Almost 14 years ago you wrote a Reflections article titled "Evangelizing the Enslaved: Breaking the Bonds of Sectarian Slavery" (Reflections #162). I have found it to be extremely helpful and encouraging in my efforts to help my brethren in the One Cup fellowship to see their own enslavement. I have no real intention of leaving this group for several reasons: (1) I have no real place to go. Neither my wife nor I would be comfortable using multiple cups. It is a conscience thing with me, but I won't let it rule my brothers' faith. (2) If I did leave, I feel it would be taking "the easy way out" for this congregation and for others in this One Cup fellowship. Those I left would just label me as "another liberal who left the faith," and would discard me as they have many of my brethren. I would lose access to and credibility with those I actually think I can help. Also, they would use me as another example of those who "follow the errant teachings of Al Maxey and others like him." Sorry, no intent to disparage you, but that is pretty close to exactly what would be said! (3) I want to force them to deal with me; force everyone in my congregation to actually give some thought to the issues at hand. It is time to take a stand. I honestly think my staying will create conversation with those who don't even know they are enslaved. Many are just unsuspecting followers of legalistic patternism who have never given it a second thought. It's all they've ever known. Thus, Brother Maxey, to the point: In the 14 years since you wrote this Reflections article, is there anything you would add or change based on your experience and what you have learned since then? Thank you for your courage and determination in His service. May God continue to bless you and yours.

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