Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; and when it fails you, they will receive you into everlasting habitations. (Luke 16.9)
Those who enjoy working out solutions to complicated puzzles will be attracted by the Collect, Epistle and Gospel set for today. They are connected by a single leading idea, and once this is discovered the apparent complexity dissolves along simple lines. The key to the puzzle is supplied by St. Augustine, whose theology strongly influenced those who put together our liturgy. St. Augustine said that all Scripture had as its goal the correction of our love. Our love, our charity, is the spiritual gift which endures forever and is that by which we are joined to God now and in heaven. Our love is made right only when we learn to love God first and foremost, with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, as the good to be loved and enjoyed entirely for his own sake. We then come to love all else as the means to the true love and complete enjoyment of God. Correcting our love is a matter of learning how much to love each good thing. The key is to love God as the perfect goal and end, and then to love all else as means. The result is that we love God first and then our neighbour in God. According to St. Augustine, this is the interpretive formula which will unlock the complexity of Scripture. Indeed when it is used, today’s Gospel becomes plain.
The Gospel story does surprise us. Jesus seems to be commending the actions of an unjust steward, or in plain contemporary language, a crooked manager. The fellow had been a bad manager: he was wasting” his master’s goods and so the master, the owner, resolved to fire him. The steward is distressed because he was used to his exalted position and his soft life: “I cannot dig, to beg I am ashamed.” So he determines on a plan which would secure his future. He calls each of his master’s debtors, all the people who owe him money, and he discounts a portion of their bill:
How much owest thou to my master? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill and Sit down quickly and write fifty.So he makes himself friends by giving away the owner’s money. After the steward was fired, the grateful debtors took him in. They received him unto their houses and he was saved both from beggary and from work. Jesus gives praise to this wicked man for his prudence. That is to say, for his knowledge of how to use means to get what he wanted in the end.
And his master praised the unrighteous steward, because he had acted with prudence: for the children of this age are in their generation more prudent than the children of light. That is to say, those who are successful in this present world, in respect to the things of this world, are successful because they know how to use the means at their disposal to gain their ends. They are good at shaping the means to their ends. Now St. Augustine tells us this prudence is what Scripture teaches through and through, from start to finish. Indeed, Jesus concludes his parable by recommending that we learn prudence from the successful of this world. The only qualification is that we must completely change the terms, for we do not seek to be received into homes here on earth, but into heavenly habitations. The treasure that we have to spend to such an end is that of our heavenly father, the creator of all, of whose earthly goods we are the stewards. Jesus concludes that we must shape every least action to the great final end, that all we do here must be treated as a means: Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness (the goods of this world): and when it fails you they will receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much; and he that is unrighteous in that which is least is unrighteous also in much.So our parable confirms that St. Augustine has given us the right key. Interpreting Scripture is a matter of learning what is the true final end and learning what are only means, so as to love each in true proportion. The Epistle for today may be unlocked by the same key. It concerns the relation of material things and spiritual things, means and ends, especially in respect to the sacraments. First, St. Paul tells us that the people of the old Israel were in a spiritual circumstance like our own:
they lived in the presence of God. Their passage through the Red Sea, when the waters stood on either side of them, was like Baptism. Thus they were received as God’s people. They “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud in the sea.” Moreover, the rock, struck by the rod of Moses to yield water for drinking in the desert, and the manna, which fell by night so that they might eat in the wilderness, were both signs. Both were signs that they were God’s people, “the people of his pasture,” “the sheep of his hand,” whom God would feed and for whom he would always care. But the people of Israel did not discern this nor treat them as means of their life with God. Rather they treated them as things to be enjoyed for their own sakes and forgot God. “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” The people saw nothing but the outer reality and behaved as if it were the final reality. They tried to gather and save the manna, as if they could have security in this world’s goods. God had commanded them to save only enough for each day, promising that he would provide daily bread,” but they demanded more. After bread they wanted meat, and so on. Because they mistook the means as the end and sought the means instead of God, their lusts made them idolaters. With respect to this matter, St. Paul warns:
Now these things were our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted. Neither be ye idolaters, as some of them were.And St. Paul goes on to tell us how to treat this blessed sacrament which we are celebrating here this morning. It is of no use to us unless we here discern the presence of the body and blood of Christ. The offering on our altar of bread and wine makes present Christ’s heavenly intercession for us and his sacrifice on the cross. Eating bread and drinking wine, we feed upon the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? The bread and the wine are but means for us to be joined into and to enjoy the love of God. The key is knowing what are the means and what is the end we seek. God alone will finally satisfy and we must stop nowhere else. God alone is the ruler and governor. Only by fixing our heart and mind, our soul and strength, altogether upon him, only by loving him above all and letting him as our end govern all that is between, shall we finally arrive at our true enjoyment and perfect bliss. He must govern us all the way in great things as well as in things small, and so we pray:
Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do such things as be rightful; that we, who cannot do anything that is good without thee, may be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne