Luke xvi. 1-8. And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.
This parable has always been considered a difficult one to understand. Fathers and Divines, in all ages, have tried to explain it in different ways; and have never, it seems to me, been satisfied with their own explanations. They have always felt it strange, that our Lord should seem to hold up, as an example to us, this steward who, having been found out in one villainy, escapes, (so it seems, from the common explanation) by committing a second. They have not been able to see either, how we are really to copy the steward. Our Lord says, that we are to copy him by making ourselves friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness: but how? By giving away a few alms, or a great many? Does any rational man seriously believe, that if his Mammon was unrighteous, that is, if his wealth were ill-gotten, he would save his soul, and be received into eternal life, for giving away part of it, or even the whole of it?
No doubt, there always have been men who will try. Men who, having cheated their neighbours all their lives, have tried to cheat the Devil at last, by some such plan as the unjust steward's, but that plan has never been looked on as either a very honourable or a very hopeful one. I think, that if I had been an usurer or a grinder of the poor all my life, I should not save my soul by founding almshouses with my money when I died, or even ten years before I died. It might be all that I was able to do: but would it justify me in the sight of God? That which saves a soul alive is repentance; and of repentance there are three parts, contrition, confession, and satisfaction--in plain English, making the wrong right, and giving each man back, as far as one can, what one has taken from him. To each man, I say; for I have no right to rob one man and then give to another. I ought to give back again to the man whom I have robbed. I have no right to cheat the rich for the sake of the poor; and after I have cheated the rich, I do not make satisfaction, either to god or man, by giving that money to the poor. Good old Zaccheus, the publican, knew better what true satisfaction was like. He had been gaining money not altogether in an unjust way, but in a way which did him no credit; he had been farming the taxes, and he was dissatisfied with his way of life. Therefore, Behold, Lord, he says, the half of my goods, of what I have a right to in the world's eyes--what is my own, and I could keep if I liked--I give to the poor. But if I have done wrong to any man, I restore to him fourfold. Then said the Lord, 'This day is salvation come to this man's house; forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham;' a just and faithful man, who knows what true repentance is.
But now, my friends, suppose that this was just what our Lord tells us to do in this parable. Suppose that this was just what the unjust steward did. I only say, suppose; for I know that more learned men than I explain the difficulty otherwise. Only I ask you to hear my explanation.
The steward is accused of wasting his lord's goods.
He will be put out of his stewardship.
He goes to his lord's debtors, and bids them write themselves down in debt to him at far less sums than they had thought that they owed.
Now, suppose that these debtors were the very men whom he had been cheating. Suppose that he had been overcharging these debtors; and now, in his need, had found out that honesty was the best policy, and charged them what they really owed him. They were, probably, tenants under his lord, paying their rents in kind, as was often the custom in the East. One rented an olive garden, and paid for it so many measures of oil; another rented corn-land, and paid so many measures of meal. Now suppose that the steward, as he easily might, had been setting these poor men's rents too high, and taking the surplus himself. That while he had been charging one tenant a hundred, he had been paying to his lord only fifty, and so forth.
What does he do, then, in his need? He does justice to his lord's debtors. He tells them what their debts really are. He sets their accounts right. Instead of charging the first man a hundred, he charges him fifty; instead of charging the second a hundred, he charges him eighty; and he does not, as far as we are told, conceal this conduct from his lord. He rights them as far as he can now. So he shews that he honestly repents. He has found out that honesty is the best policy; that the way to make true friends is to deal justly by them; and, if he cannot restore what he has taken from them already (for I suppose he had spent it), at least to confess his sin to them, and to set the matter right for the time to come.
This, I think, is what our Lord bids us do, if we have wronged any man, and fouled our hands with the unrighteous mammon, that is, with ill-gotten wealth. And I think so all the more from the verses which come after. For, when he has said, 'Make yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness,' he goes on in the very next verse to say, 'He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is much. If, therefore, ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?' Now, surely, this must have something to do with what goes before. And, if it has, what can it mean but this--that the way to make friends out of the mammon of unrighteousness, is to be faithful in it, just in it, honest in it?
But some one may say, If mammon be unrighteous, how can a man be righteous and upright in dealing with it? If money be a bad thing in itself, how can a man meddle with it with clean hands?
So some people will say, and so some will be glad to say. But why? Because they do not want to be righteous, upright, just, and honest in their money dealings; and, therefore, they are glad to make out that they could not be upright if they tried; because money being a bad thing altogether, a man must needs, if he has to do with money, do things which he knows are wrong. I say some people are glad to believe that. I do not mean any one in this congregation. God forbid! I mean in the world in general. We do see people, religious people too, do things about money which they know are mean, covetous, cruel, and then excuse themselves by saying,--'Well, of course I would not do so to my own brother; but, in the way of business, one can't help doing these things.' Now, I do not quite believe them. I have seldom seen the man who cheated his neighbour, who would not cheat his own brother if he had a chance: but so they say. And, if they be religious people, they will quote Scripture, and say,--Ah! it is the fault of the unrighteous mammon; and, in dealing with the unrighteous mammon, we cannot help these little failings, and so forth: till they seem to have two quite different rules of right and wrong; one for the saving of their own souls, which they keep to when they are hearing sermons, and reading good books; and the other for money, which they keep to when they have to pay their debts or transact business.
Now, my dear friends, be not deceived: God is not mocked. God tempts no man. Man tempts himself by his own lusts and passions. God does not tempt us when he gives us money, puts us in the way of earning money, or spending money. Money is not bad in itself; wealth is not bad in itself. If mammon be unrighteous, we make money into mammon, when we make an idol of it, and worship it more than God's law of right and justice. We make it unrighteous, by being unrighteous, and unjust ourselves.
Money is good; for money stands for capital; for money's worth; for houses, land, food, clothes, all that man can make; and they stand for labour, employment, wages; and they stand for human beings, for the bodily life of man. Without wealth, where should we be now? If God had not given to man the power of producing wealth, where should we be now? Not here. Four-fifths of us would not have been alive at all. Instead of eight hundred people in this parish, all more or less well off, there would be, perhaps, one hundred--perhaps far less, living miserably on game and roots. Instead of thirty millions of civilized people in Great Britain, there would be perhaps some two or three millions of savages. Money, I say, stands for the lives of human beings. Therefore money is good; an ordinance and a gift of God; as it is written, 'It is God that giveth the power to get wealth.' But, like every other good gift of God, we may use it as a blessing; or we may misuse it, and make it a snare and a curse to our own souls. If we let into our hearts selfishness and falsehood; if we lose faith in God, and fancy that God's laws are not well-made enough to prosper us, but that we must break them if we want to prosper; then we turn God's good gift into an idol and a snare; into the unrighteous Mammon.
It is not the quantity of money we have to deal with which is the snare, it is our own lusts and covetousness which are the snares. It is just as easy to sell our souls for five pounds as for five thousand. It is just as easy to be mean and tricky about paying little debts of a shilling or two, as it is about whole estates. I do not see that rich people are at all more unjust about money than poor ones; and if any say: Yes, but the poor are tempted more than the rich; I answer, then look at those who are neither poor nor rich; who have enough to live on decently, and are not tempted as the poor are, to steal, or tempted as the rich are, to luxury and extravagance. Are they more honest than either rich or poor? Not a whit. All depends on the man's heart. If his heart be selfish and mean, he will be dishonest as a poor man, as a middle-class man, as a great lord. If his heart be faithful and true, he will be honest, whether he lives in a cottage or in a palace. Any man can do justly, and love mercy, if his heart be right with God. I have seen day-labourers who had a hard struggle to live at all, keep out of debt, and out of shame, and live in a noble poverty, rich in the sight of God, because their hearts were rich in goodness. I have seen tradesmen and farmers, among all the temptations of business, keep their honour as bright as any gentleman's--brighter than too many gentlemen's, because they had learnt to fear God and work righteousness. I have seen great merchants and manufacturers, because that they were their brothers' keepers, spread not only employment, but comfort, education, and religion, among the hundreds of workmen whom God had put into their charge. I have seen great landowners live truly royal lives, doing with all their might the good which their hand found to do; and, after the likeness of their heavenly Father, causing their sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and their rain to fall on the just and on the unjust. Yes; in every station of life, thy dealings will be right with men, if thy heart be right with God.
Yes. Let us bear in mind this--that whatever we cannot be, we can at least be honest men. Let us go to our graves, if possible, with the feeling that there is not a man on earth, a penny the worse for us. And if we have ever fouled our hands with the unrighteous Mammon, let us cleanse them by the only possible plan, by making restitution to those whom we have wronged; and so make friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness, who shall forgive us, and receive us as friends in heaven, instead of making enemies, and going out of the world with the fearful thought, that we shall meet at God's judgment-seat people whom we have made miserable, who will rise up to accuse us, and demand payment of us when it is too late for ever.
Let us bear in mind, even though we cannot copy, the dying words of Muhammed the Arab, who, when he found his end draw near, went forth into the market-place, and asked before all the people, 'Was there any man whom he had wronged? If so, his own back should bear the stripes. Was there any man to whom he owed money? and he should be paid.' 'Yes,' cried some one, 'those coins which you borrowed from me on such a day.' 'Pay him,' said Muhammed: 'better to be shamed now on earth, than shamed in the day of judgment.' He was a heathen. And shall we Christians be worse than he? Then let us pray for the Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of truth, which will make us faithful and true; so that no man may be the worse for us in this life; no man may have to say of us, when he hears that we lie dying, 'He wronged me, he cheated me, he lied to me; God forgive him:' but that our friends, as they carry us to the grave, may feel that they have lost one whom they could respect and trust; and say, as the earth rattles in upon the coffin lid, 'There lies an honest man.'