There was a puzzling reference in Saturday morning's Gospel (Saturday of the 31st week in Ordinary Time) in which Jesus says,

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by your use of dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, they will welcome you to eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

What does He mean by "dishonest wealth"?

The Greek expression (mamona tes adikias) is more literally translated as “mammon of unrighteousness.” Mammon is a Hebrew and Aramaic word that has a wider meaning than just “money.” It refers to wealth in general and, even further, to the things of this world on which we rely. But what is meant by the expression “dishonest (literally, unrighteous) wealth”?

There are various opinions and theories. None of them absolutely excludes the others, but each has a different emphasis. Here are three theories about the meaning of “dishonest wealth.”

1. It refers to wealth that has been obtained in dishonest or illegal ways. Now I personally think that this is unlikely, since the Lord’s advice is to take this “dishonest wealth” and give it to others. If one has stolen, the usual remedy is to return the stolen items, not give them away to others. While it is true that the Lord’s advice follows a parable in which a man stole (or embezzled) money, He is not praising the man’s theft, but rather his determination to be clever in worldly matters. The Lord wishes that his disciples were as clever and thoughtful in spiritual matters. So it seems unlikely to me that when the Lord refers to “dishonest wealth,” He means things that we have stolen. If we steal we ought to return the items to their rightful owner, not give them away in order to ingratiate ourselves with third parties for our own gain.

2. It refers to the fact that money and wealth tend to lead us to dishonesty, corruption, and compromise. Because it tends to lead to iniquity, it is called, literally, the mammon of iniquity. It is a fact that Scripture generally has a deep distrust of money. For example,

  • How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24).
  • Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).
  • Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God (Prov 30:8).

It's funny that despite knowing passages like these, most of us still want to be rich! But at any rate, this interpretation sees the expression as referring more to where money and wealth lead us rather than to the money and wealth themselves. Of itself, money is not evil; neither is wealth. But they do tend to lead us into many temptations, to corruption, and to unrighteousness. Hence mammon is called “unrighteous” or is followed by “of iniquity.”

3. It refers to the fact that this world is unjust and thus all its wealth has injustice and unrighteousness intrinsically attached. We live in a world in which the distribution of wealth, resources, and money is very uneven and unjust. Now economies around the world are very complicated matters and there may be any number of reasons for this. Some areas are just more fertile than others; some regions have more oil, etc. Corrupt governments often play a role in unjust distribution as well. We are sometimes unable to help the needy effectively in certain countries because corrupt governments and individuals divert what is intended for the poor. We in America live at the top of the economic system and cannot ignore the fact that our ability to buy inexpensive goods is often due to the fact that workers in other parts of the world are paid a mere pittance to manufacture or harvest those goods. Many of the conveniences and comforts of our lifestyle are provided by people who earn very little for what they do, often without medical benefits, pensions, and the like.

Now again, economies are very complicated; we may not be able to do a great deal to suddenly change all this. But we ought to at least be aware that we live very well while many others do not. Our high standard of living is often the result of cheap labor elsewhere. When I buy a shirt in the air-conditioned store and take it in my air-conditioned car back to my air-conditioned house with its walk-in closet, it ought to occur to me that the people who made and packaged this shirt probably don’t live nearly as well as I do. And the fact that they earned very little for their work is part of the reason that I can buy the shirt for less than $20.

Now I'm not calling for boycotts (they probably just hurt the poor anyway), and I’m not sure exactly how we got to such inequity in the world. I also know that it annoys me when some people want to blame America for every ill there is in the world; there are other factors such as international corruption, poor economic theory, etc. There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is, this world is an unjust place and every bit of wealth we have is somehow tainted by that injustice.

So this final theory is not so quick to call Jesus’ expression “Jewish hyperbole.” Rather, it considers as quite real the notion that the inequities in our world are so vast and exist on so many levels that all the goods, comforts, and conveniences of this world are tainted, are steeped in unrighteousness and inequity. None of it is clean; none of it is fully righteous. In this sense, Jesus rightly calls it “dishonest wealth.”

If that is the case, then what are we to do? Jesus is not unclear: He counsels that we befriend the poor with our “unrighteous mammon,” that we be generous to others who are less fortunate. We who live so well need to remember that the monetary cost of a product may not fully express its true human cost. If we have been blessed (and boy, have we been blessed!) then we are called to bless others. In this world the poor need us, but in the next we are going to need them. If we have been good to them here, then they will testify for us on the Day of Judgment and welcome us to our eternal dwelling. For indeed, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. If they say, “Be merciful to this one, Lord. He was good to us,” then God will hear them. While we cannot buy our way into Heaven, God will be more merciful to us if we are merciful to others. For indeed, the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. We should befriend the poor and needy here, because they will be powerful intercessors for us there. Jesus said to the greedy leaders of his time, Give alms and all will be made clean for you (cf Lk 11:41).

There is a powerful passage in Scripture that is addressed to us who have so much. If we follow its plan, it seems to offer hope for us.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).

I would value your thoughts, distinctions, and additions.

About 20 years ago I toured an old coal mine near Scranton, PA. I was amazed at the conditions and hardships the coal miners had to endure. I often think of them and that tour when I turn on a light or an appliance since our local power plant is fueled by coal. My comfort comes at a higher cost than my bill suggests.