1 Samuel 2:12-17,22-25+Psalm 49:1-2,5-9,16-17+(1 Timothy 6:6-16)+Luke 16:10-13
Today’s Hebrew scripture reading could be labelled “Men Behaving Badly.” Whether it’s the sons of Eli or Eli himself, they don’t come off looking too good.
You may recall that Eli was the priest of Shiloh, descended from Aaron, responsible for the worship life of the people of Israel. This was in the days before Jerusalem was established as the place where God’s tabernacle would rest, and it was Eli’s responsibility to make sure everything was done in good order, the sacrifices properly performed, and the ark of God safe and protected. Eli took in the boy Samuel and was responsible for raising up this son of Hannah and Elkanah to follow in his footsteps.
Apparently, Eli had a couple of sons of his own, and while the New Revised Standard Version says that they were “scoundrels,” Dr. Wil Gafney puts a finer point on it and calls them “worthless.” They are kind of like the sons of certain really wealthy people who think they can do anything because their dad’s position will protect them or, at a minimum, pay for a good lawyer.
But there is no good lawyer to protect them from the wrath of God. They took for themselves the best parts of the sacrifices intended for God alone and solicited the women who stood at the entrance of the temple, and the best Eli could muster was a “Stop, boys. Don’t do that.” They continued in their sinful ways, disregarding Eli’s fairly weak admonishments, because, as the text tells us, God had it in mind to kill them.
Isn’t that a comforting thought?
We don’t get to this part today, but Eli’s sons, Phinehas and Hophni, go into battle against the Philistines and are, in fact, killed. The Israelites had taken the ark into battle, thinking it might be a good luck charm, but the Philistines captured it. When Eli hears the news that his sons are dead and the ark captured, he, too, dies, and his line dies out after him.
This is not one of the happier stories in the Hebrew scriptures.
Our reading from Luke drops us down in the middle of a discourse about money. Jesus talks about money a lot. A good number of the parables have to do with money, and he has just told one of those about a guy who manages the finances and property for a rich man. The boss gets wind of a rumor that his manager is squandering his money, so he calls him in and fires him. So this manager goes to all those people from whom he has collected debts to the rich man, skimming off a slice for himself, and says to forget about that part. You only owe the rich man this smaller amount.
It would be like your Visa company having a collector who overcharges what you owe, keeping the difference, and passing along to Visa the actual amount. Something like that. Like I said, men behaving badly.
However, in this parable, the rich man commends the manager for fixing things, which leads me to believe that maybe the rich man was already violating the law against usury and his manager had made him less culpable for that. And so Jesus, also, commends this as being faithful in dishonest wealth, because if you don’t get that right, you certainly won’t get the good wealth part right.
The larger point, of course, comes at the end when he says, “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Luke 16:13). In other places, he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).
Jesus is trying to forge a new way of being community, or maybe he’s restoring an old way of being community that the current crop of religious leaders seems to have forgotten. If anyone is too rich, it means that someone is going without, someone is suffering, and that is simply not the way it is in God’s reign.
The older translations of this, like the King James Version, say that you cannot serve both God and Mammon. μαμωνᾷ is the Greek word for money, and it is interesting how this Mammon found its way into Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen where Mammon guides people into the underworld where they will learn to mine gold. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Mammon is an ally of fallen angels, leading people astray. Milton wrote
Mammon led them on–
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven; for even 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 else enjoyed
In vision beatific. By him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught,
Ransacked the centre, and with impious hands
Rifled the bowels of their mother Earth
For treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Opened into the hill a spacious wound,
And digged out ribs of gold…
– Paradise Lost, Book i, 678-690
In this interpretation, μαμωνᾷ is not just some neutral thing like a coin or even a bank account. Mammon is a tempter.
In a modern world, we generally don’t hold to such things, but I would invite you to take a look at where your money goes. It is likely that you devote more time and energy to those things than you might to those places where you don’t spend a lot of money. If you give to your kids’ schools, chances are, you are paying attention to what’s going on there. If you spend all your money on season tickets to the Yankees (but why would you do that?), you might find that you spend a lot of time following what is going on with the Yankees.
Similarly, if you give a lot of money to the Church, you’ll be focusing your attention much more on what the church is doing, increasing your own investment of time. If you give to anti-poverty or fair-housing or immigrant organizations, chances are, you will be very committed to addressing those issues.
Phinehas and Hophni were interested in themselves. The rich man in the parable was building up wealth for himself, as was his manager.
So, whom do we serve: God or money? Jesus is pretty clear that it can’t be both. It was a challenge in his own time, a challenge in the time of Spenser and Milton, and it is certainly still a challenge. No wonder Jesus talked so much about it.