Ruth Gledhill reports an interesting paper by Andreas Whittam Smith, “former editor of the Independent and now in charge of the Church of England’s £5 billion assets in his role as First Church Estates Commissioner”. The paper was apparently background material for discussions at this church’s General Synod. But Ruth doesn’t give a link to it, just extensive quotations. In her title she summarises his message as
Britain heading for ‘doomsday’
The article helps to explain what is happening during the current world financial crisis. It makes sobering reading, although I suspect, or perhaps just hope, that its message is somewhat exaggerated for effect. But, although Whittam Smith did use the word “doomsday”, Ruth’s title makes it seems even more alarming: this is not really about the end of the world, just about
the dismantling of the ‘great edifice of credit’ built up over 20 years. ‘The recession will continue until this process is over,’ he says …
My main point here is not about Ruth’s post or Whittam Smith’s paper, but about the first comment on the post (at the bottom; see also my reply), in which Chris Gillibrand writes (quoted in part):
And giving account of stewardship in the Gospel According to Saint Luke Chapter 16…. and in the Hansard record of today’s Select Committee meeting. The Gospel commends making friends with Mammon (aka riches) lest we fail, sadly it does not tell us what to do if Mammon fails- except one should remember that Christ redeems (literally repurchases) our sins (or debts as modern versions of the Lord’s Prayer would have it, as well as the Vulgate).
This puzzled me. Had Chris actually read the verse he refers to, Luke 16:9? As I remembered it, it tells us precisely what to do when Mammon, worldly wealth, fails, or at least what we should have done first. Here is the verse in RSV:
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.
Most modern versions replace “mammon” with “wealth” or something similar, but the meaning is the same.
But I suppose that Chris was reading or remembering the verse in KJV, otherwise known as the Authorised Version:
And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.
Note “ye fail”, where RSV has “it fails”. Indeed nearly every modern English version I can find including at Bible Gateway, going as far back as the English Revised Version (1881) has “it fails” or something with the same meaning. Only NKJV has “you fail”, but with “it fails” as an alternative in a footnote. (The Message completely loses the message of this verse; I ignore the 19th century Young’s Literal Translation, and the “21st Century King James Version” which is simply a revision of KJV.) I note that Chris has also interpreted “friends of” as “friends with”, whereas RSV’s “friends … by means of” is probably more accurate.
There are good reasons why most modern translations have corrected KJV here. The rest of this paragraph is only for those interested in the technicalities: The reading “ye fail” (Greek ἐκλίπητε eklipēte) comes from the mediaeval Byzantine text of the New Testament, as published by Erasmus, and later by Stephanus as the “Textus Receptus”. KJV and NKJV are based on this text. But scholars now seem unanimous that this is not the original reading. According to Marshall (The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans 1978, on this verse) it is found only in “W 33 69 131 pm lat; TR” which means in one 5th century Greek MS and a few later ones, and in the Latin Vulgate also translated in the 5th century. The scholarly text based on the oldest surviving manuscripts, at least one of which (P75, extant in this verse) dates back to the 3rd century, has “it fails” (Greek ἐκλίπῃ eklipē).
In this verse, as properly read, Jesus made it very clear that “unrighteous mammon”, wordly wealth, will fail. Some people have apparently understood this as referring to when individuals die and cannot take their wealth with the (compare Luke 12:20 and 1 Timothy 6:7), and this is perhaps the source of the alternative reading which is, according to Marshall, “the euphemism, ‘when you die’”.
But Jesus’ meaning is surely broader than that. The New English Bible reads “when money is a thing of the past”, and in E.V. Rieu’s Penguin Classics translation “when it comes to an end” refers back to “this dishonest world”. In this parable, as in most of his others, surely Jesus is looking ahead to the end of the world as we know it, when he will come again to judge us all, not on the basis of our wealth. That “doomsday” has not yet come, but perhaps the current financial chaos is a sign that it is on its way. This is not a time for the complacency of 2 Peter 3:4.
So what are we to do? Mammon may be on the way out but it has not completely failed yet. We are still far better off than the people of Zimbabwe, whose savings are now worthless. So we should use whatever we may have left not in a desperate effort to rebuild our financial security, but in the way Jesus teaches, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon”. That is, we should invest in “treasure in the heavens” by using our wealth to do good, and trusting in God to give us the eternal reward of his kingdom (Luke 12:32-34). Only Jesus can save, but not in a bank!
Just a few verses after the one we have been discussing, in Luke 16:13 (RSV), Jesus issues an even stronger challenge:
No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
(It is sad that many modern versions, even an “essentially literal” one like ESV, lose the link between verses 9, 11 and 13 by using different renderings of the Greek word which RSV has consitently translated “mammon”.)
So, my readers, make your choice: are you serving Mammon, worldly wealth, or are you serving God?