Commentary on Luke 16:1-13
“Gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan sings.1
In today’s gospel Jesus says you can serve either God or Mammon, but not both. Mammon serves as a personification for the acquisition of wealth, the “most common god on earth,” according to Martin Luther (Large Catechism, Explanation of the First Commandment).2
We sometimes forget that charging interest on loans was forbidden in the Bible because it exploited the vulnerable poor.3 We pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts.” But when we encounter a debt collector who actually reduces poor people’s debts by 20% to 50% — namely, reducing their debts to what was probably the original amount borrowed, without hidden interest charges — our first instincts are to judge him.
Admittedly, it is hard to know how Jesus wants us to judge any of the characters in the story, including the debt collector. To try to understand this parable (Luke 16:1-8a) and the attached sayings (verses 8b-13) in the context of Luke’s narrative world, we need a mini-course on the economics of Roman-occupied Galilee in the first century. Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land, in direct violation of biblical covenantal law. The rich man or “lord” (kyrios, v. 3, 8), along with his steward or debt collector, were both exploiting desperate peasants.
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry invokes the biblical concept of Jubilee and debt forgiveness.4 Economic restitution is part of the joy of Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:53) and the joy of the gospel proclaimed to tax collectors such as Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus restores what he had “defrauded” four-fold, he is restored also to community, as proclaimed by Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8).
Even though the word “defraud” is not used in today’s parable (unlike the story of Zacchaeus), Jesus’ hearers would know that the debt contracts included exorbitant interest hidden from illiterate peasants. Today, analogies may be high-interest student loans, predatory pay-day loans, or harsh austerity measures imposed on countries whose citizens had no role in agreeing to a debt. It’s striking that the Lutheran World Federation calls oppressive debt terms imposed on Honduras and other Latin American countries “illegitimate debt” and likens such debt itself to “violence,” because of its crushing effects on people’s futures.5
Wealthy landlords in Jesus’ day created “ways to charge interest under other guises,” often hiding interest by rolling it into the principal. As New Testament scholar William Herzog explains, “The hidden interest rates appear to have been about 25 percent for money and 50 percent for goods.”6 The manipulative steward was probably extracting his own cut of the profits, on top of the 50% layer for the landlord, and the additional payment for Rome.
When he reduced the payments, the steward may have been simply forgiving his own cut of the interest. Or he may have been doing what the law of God commands, namely forgiving all the hidden interest in the contracts. As Richard Horsley describes, “To ingratiate himself with the debtors, he had them change the amount they owed on their bills to exactly the amount they borrowed, eliminating the hidden and prohibited interest.”7 If the rich landlord was not a Gentile, but a Jew (the text does not say), he would know the Torah teaching against interest. The rich man, “suddenly recognizing that he needed at least to appear to be observing convenantal laws, commended his steward.”
Although the rich landlord is called “lord” (kyrios, a word that can simply mean “sir”), Jesus does not want us to side with him, contrary to some traditional interpretations. The challenge in this parable is knowing where Jesus wants us to side. There are many interpretive possibilities to this parable; each opens up questions.
In the sayings that follow the parable, three times Jesus personifies wealth using the word “Mammon,” to warn about the danger wealth poses as a god or idol (Luke 16:9, 11, 13). The same adjective “of unrighteousness” (adikias, a genetive) describes both Mammon and the steward. The idea of using unrighteous Mammon to achieve everlasting dwellings is hard to fathom — unless perhaps the idea may be to use the master’s tools (unrighteous Mammon) to dismantle the master’s house (the unjust debt structure). The master’s word of commendation for the steward, sometimes translated “shrewd” (phronimos), also means “prudent” or “wise” (Luke 16:8).
In Luke 16:12, another difficult verse, our instincts may be to jump to the conclusion that “being faithful to what is another’s” means being faithful to what belonged to the rich landlord, including the interest he was charging. But what if, instead, the opposite might be equally plausible — that Jesus might be talking about being faithful to what rightfully belonged to the peasants who were being disinherited of their land?
We cannot know. What we can know is that Luke is making connections between debt structures, the urgency of impending judgment, and the idol of Mammon.
Recent translations of Luke 16 have shifted away from “Mammon” (King James Version, Revised Standard Version) to “wealth” (New Revised Standard Version) or “worldly wealth” (Common English Bible). But perhaps we need to retain the personified idol named Mammon, as a reminder of how a financial system itself can function as an idol or “religion,” as Harvey Cox noted in “The Market As God.”8 Our current financialized economic “religion” is structured around debt — including ecological debt owed to future generations. These are a few of the unsettling questions Jesus’ multiple references to Mammon, in the context of a parable about debt and impending crisis, raise.
English Renaissance literature portrayed Mammon as a character on a lower moral level than Avarice. In Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Mammon escorts people down into the underworld, to the gate of Hell, to learn to mine and smelt gold (2.7). Milton (Paradise Lost) and other authors portray Mammon in league with fallen angels to lead people astray.9
Preaching on the vivid parable in Luke 16 means following Jesus into questions of how we practice neighbor love in economic relationships, in the midst of unjust structures. What is important is to situate the parable in the broader economic context of how Jesus was reviving village life by reviving biblical covenantal economic life, forgiving debts and giving people new hope. In Luke, the joy of the Gospel is the joy of God’s healing of relationships, including economic relationships. Jesus repeatedly warns that we cannot be disciples while accumulating wealth at the expense of the poor.
As Luther warned about Mammon 500 years ago, “‘Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and property, in them he trusts and of them he boasts so stubbornly and securely that he cares for no one. Surely such a man also has a god — mammon by name, that is, money and possessions — on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth.”
1 “Gotta Serve Somebody: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan,” 1979.
2 Specifically, what concerned Luther most in the sixteenth century may have been the emerging capitalist system’s system of charging interest on loans. See Terra Rowe, ” Protestant Ghosts and Spirits of Capitalism: Ecology, Economy, and the Reformation Tradition,” dialog 55 (2016), note 27, p. 60. See also “Radicalizing Reformation, Provoked by the Bible and Today’s Crises,” http://www.radicalizing-reformation.com.
3 See Exod 22:25-27; Lev 25:36-38; Deut. 15:7-11; 23:19-20 for prohibition on charging interest.
5 Rev. Ángel Furlan, coordinator of the illegitimate debt program for LWF member churches in Latin America, referred to the debt system as “modern slavery.” See the 2013 report at https://www.lutheranworld.org/news/just-and-sustainable-future-without-illegitimate-foreign-debt
6 William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech, p. 246.
7 Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), p. 146
8 Harvey Cox, “The Market as God: Living in the New Dispensation,” The Atlantic, March 1999.
9 John Margeson, “Mammon” in Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. David Lyle Jeffrey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) p. 475