One way of looking at our Gospel today is rather than emphasising how wicked it is to be a slave to Mammon, we should begin with the joys of being a slave to God. After all, if no servant can have two masters, it is equally true that no servant can have no master. In inviting us to free ourselves from slavery to Mammon, Christ today urges us instead to enslave ourselves to God. But isn’t this a contradiction? Didn’t Christ come to set us free? If we are slaves to God, how can we be free?
We can solve this apparent contradiction by remembering that God and Mammon are not, in fact, opposites. We do not believe that the material goods of the world are wicked, in which Mammon is a sort of anti-God. We believe that God created these goods, and that they are indeed good. We believe that God created everything and saw that it was very good, that God so loved this created world that he took flesh, entering into our world of flesh and blood and bread and oil and wine and water…
God invites us to participate in his work of creation, not – as for Adam – with toil and tears but with joy and laughter and singing, as the created world is not overthrown, evaporating into nothingness, but transformed and redeemed.
And money is an important part of this. Its purpose is the allocation of goods – not of ‘bads’. Our ability to devise an economic system, to reason out the right way to allocate resources, is a sign of how God confides in us, allows us to participate in his providence. He gives us an opportunity to be faithful in little things, to be faithful in the stewardship of his creation.
So it is not a case of ‘God is good, money is bad’; in fact, not even of ‘money is good, but God is better’. Rather, money is good, and God is the source of that goodness, the meaning and perfection of all goodness. It makes no more sense to talk about God as if he were competing with Mammon, like captains of opposing teams, than it would to talk about the pot competing with the potter.
Yet money is tainted. Not in itself, but because of what we human beings have made of our good created world. We have made a world in which people can so easily become enslaved to money – to greed. Those who have enslaved themselves to money have thereby failed to put it to the good work for which it is intended, and instead drawn others into that terrible slavery. Mammon is unrighteous because we have made it so.
So it was with the steward in today’s Gospel. He is described literally as ‘servant of unrighteousness’ – but now his master has set him free. Perhaps we could say that he is now set free, albeit unwillingly, from service to riches, and by the end of the Gospel is just starting to make money serve him by using it to make friends. He has realised just in time, maybe, that friendship and love are more important than the false security of wealth.
Fr Richard Ounsworth OP
Lecturer in Theology and Religious Studies University of Oxford