Observation: Serving God and Mammon

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I just got good news: The Faith-Based Marketing Summit is back. It will be held April 10-11 in Richardson, Texas, conveniently located within easy driving range of both the Ornette Coleman Birthplace in Fort Worth and the George W. Bush Ranch outside Crawford.

“This is a can’t-miss opportunity for anyone looking to target faith-based consumers,” advises event spokesperson Beth Cathey. Also at the Summit, attendees will experience the revelation of this year’s Faith & Family Innovative Marketer Award winner, who will reap a cruise to the Bahamas and, therefore, an opportunity to visit the Anna Nicole Smith Final Resting Place.
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Minutes before receiving the press release, I had been loading the dishwasher whilst musing on the subject of God and money. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” said Jesus during his Sermon on the Summit as reported in both Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13.

It struck me that this was an axiom most wise, and that Jesus could have taken it even further: People who most loudly insist that they’re serving God are always serving money and only money (even if some of them don’t know it). In the spheres of business, politics and religion, God is just another word for tribal self-interest.

Money was a special challenge for Jesus: He didn’t like it, but he knew his followers had to deal with it. When the Pharisees tried to trip him up by asking whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans, he asked to see a coin and wondered whose portrait was stamped on it. Caesar’s? All right, then, pay your taxes: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

The money question, though, is knotty like the cat o’ nine, and in Luke’s Mammon passage, Jesus wasn’t as slick. (The Nazarene’s ambiguity raises a good argument for the occasional accuracy of New Testament reportage. One way scholars evaluate the authenticity of the words the evangelists put in Jesus’ mouth is the Weirdness Standard: If a saying was contradictory or hard to understand, scriptural editors would’ve wanted to omit it. So where an odd quotation remains, it’s more likely to be genuine; the tradition was too entrenched to permit sweeping it under the altar.)

The problem is that, on the surface, Jesus seems to condone dubious marketing practices. In the Parable of the Dishonest Steward (only in Luke 16: 1-8), a steward squanders his master’s possessions and gets fired for it. Not delighted with his future employment options as ditchdigger or beggar, the steward hatches a scheme: While closing out his books, he’ll call in his master’s creditors and cut them substantial discounts on their debts, thereby increasing job prospects.

What follows is amazing, not to say ridiculous. In the most adroit translation I’ve seen, that of the New Jerusalem Bible, Jesus says: “The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. For the children of the world are more astute in dealing with their own kind than are the children of light. And so I tell you this: Use money, tainted as it is, to win you friends, and thus make sure that when it fails you, they will welcome you into eternal dwellings.”

So the master praised the steward -- rather than, say, ripping out his guts and staking him to an anthill. Commentators take pains to suggest that the steward wasn’t diminishing the amounts owed, just redrawing the IOUs minus the usurious commissions he normally charged. That’s astute, all right, but not exactly the kind of behavior you’d expect to be recommended by Jesus, who’s quoted a few lines later as saying you can’t serve both God and money (the Aramaic “mammon” incongruously used amid the gospel’s Greek), and two chapters later as advising, “Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor” (Luke 18:22).

Well, it’s a puzzle. But it’s the kind of puzzle that encourages innovation -- the coinage, for instance, of an oxymoron such as “Faith-Based Marketing Summit.” And maybe “holy war.”