Sunday, September 18, 2016

18th Sunday after Pentecost

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

This morning we have one of the most difficult of our Lord's parables. The most obvious difficulty is that our Lord commends the unjust steward, even though his actions are not only unjust, but unethical and immoral. The steward gave away part of his employer's property without his permission or consent. This morning, I'd like to try and make some sense out of this challenging parable, but first we have to define our terms. Mammon is a word that we don't use much anymore, but it's a helpful one. Mammon is external material goods, principally money though not exclusively so. Mammon is all those things of which our Lord said that life does not consist, that is, the abundance of possessions. He also said that you cannot serve God and mammon. My mentor and rector in Oklahoma City, Fr. Bright, used to talk to me about mammon. On several occasions I came into church bemoaning some calamity that had happened to me—car troubles and a minor flood in the garage come to mind. Whenever I'd start in on this, he would often just say one word: mammon. He said this not so much to chide me for my excessive concern but indirectly pointing out that we live in a world where cars inevitably break and garages flood. This is what mammon does, and it's why we don't serve it as god. I think that is the reason why our Lord calls mammon unrighteous. He is not saying that money or material things are evil. That was a later heresy that was soundly rejected by the church. No, our Lord is saying that too often the human heart is drawn away into the service and worship of mammon—a service that inevitably leads to heartache and sorrow when that money disappears or material thing breaks. In fact, if we listen carefully, our Lord is definitely not saying money is evil because he advises us to make use of unrighteous mammon by gaining friends, that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

This is still quite perplexing though. Who are these friends that we are to make with money? How is that these friends will be the ones to receive us into eternal habitations? I thought it was God who takes us to himself in that greater life? One of the great English Reformers during the reign of Henry VIII was William Tyndale who wrote an entire tract on this particular parable of our Lord's. Tyndale's claim to fame is that he was the first to translate the New Testament into English after the Reformation began. When it was first printed, it had to be done so illegally and smuggled into England where it became hugely popular. A priest once chided Tyndale for his translation efforts, arguing that Tyndale was being disobedient to God, the king and the church. Tyndale famously responded that “If God spares my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.” Writing in short book about the Parable of the Unrighteous Mammon, Tyndale informs his readers that the common interpretation for the parable is his day is that those who had money should to give to the church in honor of some saint. When they did this the saint would be pleased with them—the rich would make a friend of the honored saint--and then no matter what their moral life was like or their faith in God, the saint would receive the person into everlasting habitations. The gist of this interpretation was that you get into heaven by honoring the saints. 

One of the problems with this line of interpretation, as Tyndale noted, is that it places too great an emphasis on the saints as intercessors and intermediaries with God. The saints should be honored for their valiant faith and works of love, but they are no substitute for Christ who is our high priest, our mediator, and our intercessor before his Father. Furthermore, even more problematically is that we could take from this interpretation of the parable that somehow it is our works that get us into heaven. It is impossible for us to keep God's law, as we testify in our liturgy when we respond to the summary of the law with the plea, Lord have mercy. The Law actually convicts us because it reveals the ways in which we've walked apart from God's justice and righteousness. Tyndale and the Reformers sought to recover Paul's teaching that what saves us—what gets us into heaven if you like—is not our good works but the merit of Christ and his shed blood. In his commentary on the parable Tyndale writes, 

When temptation ariseth, and the devil layeth the law and thy deeds against thee, answer him with the promises. . . Remember that he is the God of mercy and of truth, and cannot but fulfil his promises. Also remember, that his Son's blood is stronger than all the sins and wickedness of the whole world ; and therewith quiet thyself, and thereunto commit thyself. At the hour of death, bless thyself with the holy candle of faith in Christ. What does it matter if thou hast a thousand holy candles about thee, a hundred ton of holy water, a ship-full of pardons, a cloth-sack full of friars coats, and all the ceremonies in the world, and all the good works, deservings, and merits of all the men in the world, be they, or were they, never so holy. God s word only lasteth for ever; and that which he hath sworn doth abide, when all other things perish.

One of the frequent responses to this teaching that we are saved by our faith in Christ is what then of good works? Does it not matter what we do? Tyndale and the other reformers again get their answer from Paul: what is supremely important, to paraphrase Paul's word in his letter to the Galatians, is faith showing itself by love. If you have faith in God, trust in his promises and know of his love for you in our Lord's death on this cross, this will change the way you live and think. In fact, the Bible speaks of this new way of living as resurrection. Our good works don't save us. Rather they testify and bear witness of the faith you have within. Tyndale in combating the conventional interpretation on the parable concludes with these remarkable words about what kind of friends we should gain with our mammon. He writes,  

The saying of Christ, "Make you friends," and so forth, "that they may receive you into everlasting tabernacles," pertaineth not unto the saints which are in heaven, but is spoken of the poor and needy which are here present with us on earth : as though he should say, What, buildest thou churches, foundest abbeys, chauntries and colleges, in the honour of saints, to my mother, St Peter, Paul, and saints that be dead, to make of them thy friends ? They need it not. . . Thy friends are the poor, which are now in thy time, and live with thee; thy poor neighbours which need thy help and succour. Them make thy friends with thy unrighteous mammon ; that they may testify of thy faith, and thou mayest know and feel, that thy faith is right, and not feigned. 

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