Make Friends with Unrighteous Mammon: Luther’s Explanation
Make Friends with Unrighteous Mammon: Resolved
Luther’s Sermon of August 17, 1522
Luke 16: 1-13
This version comes from copies of notes taken from Luther’s sermon that made it to publication. Thus it is rather repetitive and unpolished. Luther, disturbed because of it, published his own version later.
Sermon on the Next Sunday after the Ascension of Mary
This is a veritable priest and monk’s Gospel that will make them some money, if we don’t guard against it. Now, before we get into it, we have to learn some language usage, especially concerning the word “mammon.” The Jews used this word in the Hebrew language and we have to learn how they used it, just like the word “Alleluia.” Amen. Kyrie eleison. So “mammon” is a Hebrew word that means “riches” or “wealth” and not simply “wealth,” but left-over wealth, that is, one of an overflowing measure. What is called “mammon” can be understood as two things. Knowing it before our Lord God and according to the truth, then many of you would have mammon. If we want to measure it before the world and people, however, then you would be few, because our masters have taught us that everyone should look to his or her place and what they need for it and measure their goods accordingly. If someone is a man and has a wife and child, then he has to have proportionally more, because where there are many, there has to be much. And when you measure it all that way, then no one has anything left over, but everyone would rather still have more. Even one who has two thousand gulden, says, “I have to have them for my household so that I can support myself, my wife and my child.”
And so, one is not held responsible for helping, even in the most desperate need, and this Gospel was thereby completely annulled, so that no one needed be helpful to another. In the meanwhile they built churches and even there they did not attend the greatest need until the vaults cracked and the church stood there roofless. They gave here simply beyond measure and smeared their gold on the walls.
Now “mammon” means that some one has left over provisions, with which one should help the other, and not spoil him or herself. [In the latter case,] the Lord calls it “unrighteous mammon.” One should then call the goods that one has left over, the mammon of iniquity (mammon iniquitatis), because after all, the unrighteous are using it daily, even if they say, “Goods bring courage.” The Heathen also called it a “provocation to evil” (irritamentum malorum). Likewise, St. Paul says, “Greed is the root out of which all evil grows,” for example, take war and bloodshed. That is why here it is also called “unrighteous mammon,” as it has such an evil use and is such a great cause of evil among people. Now [wealth] is also God’s creation, like wine and corn, and God’s creation is good; so why is it here called evil? This is the reason: because it provokes much evil, just like St. Paul says to the Ephesians, “Make the most of the time, for the days are evil” (5:16). Not that the days in and of themselves are evil, but that much evil takes place in them. Likewise, they are called “days of wrath and lamentation,” even though a day is good. But because wrath and lamentation go on in them, so days have to let themselves take that name. In the same way, the Gospel calls mammon that is used in evil ways, “unrighteous mammon.” That is, wealth and riches that one has left-over, and with which one does not help the neighbor, one possesses unjustly and it is stolen in the eyes of God; because before God one has the responsibility to give, to lend, and let take. Therefore the wealthiest big shots are the greatest thieves, according to the common saying, because they have the most left over and they give the least.
Now that that has been said about the usage of the [Hebrew] language, let us return to the Gospel. We can take the parable at face value; we do not have to look for subtleties as St. Jerome did, because it is not necessary to search for such sharp distinctions. One can stay with the milk [rather than going for the meat and potatoes]. The parable stands for itself: the householder, the steward, the manager has cost his Lord his possessions and has been found wanting in management and has been found deceptive and false, because it has never been right, for one who has earlier betrayed his Lord, to then negotiate deceptively with his goods, so that he has provisions for his future life. So we can leave it there, because the Lord also draws that conclusion. [Although] the action of this rascal is smart; it is not praised as if it were good. On the contrary, [the text] criticizes him that he had earlier [wasted and] destroyed the Lord’s goods and afterwards had deceptively dealt with them. What the Lord praises is [not] that he did not forget himself; he praises only his shrewdness, as when one sees a whore, who attracts the whole world to herself; then I could say, “That is a smart whore; she knows her art.” And we should also be like the manager, who is so shrewd in his action, in our winning eternal life. So [to help] you understand this, take the verse from St. Paul in Romans: “Adam is an early figure of Christ” (5:11). How can the Apostle compare Adam with Christ, when [Adam] made us inherit sin and death, while Christ makes us heirs of righteousness and life? He compares the Lord with Adam [from the viewpoint of] source and family, not of fruit and work. For Adam is a source and head of all sinners, as Christ is the source and head of all saints; for from Adam we did not inherit more than sin and condemnation and eternal curses; from Christ, however, [we inherit] righteousness and salvation. Now you cannot confuse the two, because sin is punishable; righteousness in praiseworthy. But he compares them in their source: just like how sin and death broke and entered all people through Adam, so through Christ came the in-breaking of righteousness and life. In the same way here, he compares the roguery to the righteous; that the one is smart with doing wrong and mischief; and in the same way, we should be smart in dealing uprightly with justice (mit recht im frümkait). The parable needs to be understood in that way. So he says, “The children of darkness are more shrewd than the children of light” and that the children of the light should learn shrewdness from the children of the darkness. The same way that they are shrewd in what they do, so the children of the light should be shrewd in what they do.
Now there are truly three big questions that our adversaries spring up against us and the Gospel, namely: “Make friends with unrighteous mammon, so they take you into eternal shelters.” There they argue that we have to work first in order to become upright, because here it says, “Make friends with mammon” and that, of course, is work. At the same time, God is here praising works and not only praising them, but also rewarding them, because here it is all about work and reward and nothing is said about believing, [about faith]. Thirdly, as if it wanted to establish the comfort and help of the saints, as it says “Make friends, etc. so that they receive you in the eternal shelters.” In this way the Gospel stands opposing us completely, because it says, “Make yourself friends,” which is as much as saying, “Do good works so that they take you into the eternal homes.” That seems to say, “Earn it beforehand, so that they take you into the eternal homes.” These three parts have driven the pope and priests [to the point where] his indulgence can be called the Mammon of iniquity.
We have to answer when they attack us in this way. So above all things, notice without doubt that faith and love are right, as we always learned, that inwardly we become upright through faith and outwardly we prove it through works. Now, I have often said that the Scriptures speak of people in a twofold way. One way is from an internal perspective. The other way is external, because the Scriptures have to speak by making distinctions. For example, the way I speak of my foot, I cannot, of course, speak about my nose. Therefore the Scriptures speak to us of the spirit and how it must stand before God through faith. There God lets the Word go forth, the Word that we hold onto, and according to it God lets his spirit follow. So the tree has to be good beforehand, as you now heard. No one can become upright unless one already has grace in his or her heart. If I am to make a friend of mammon, then I have to be upright beforehand, and then both [perspectives] are held together.
No evil tree can bear good fruit and again, no good tree can bear evil fruit. Now judge for yourself. Should I do good and give away mammon, [my riches] as gifts, then I have to already be upright in my heart beforehand, because God looks at the heart, and judges the work according to it. I only say that so that you do not let works tear into your heart, because the heart has to be upright beforehand through faith, so that [good works] flow out of it. Otherwise you will not do anybody any good and you will also give it when it is not in your heart. Thus reason concludes that I have to be upright beforehand, before I do good works. It does not build itself in from the outside.
One cannot start building [a house] with the roof, but you start with the floor. Thus faith must already be there. After that, [the Scriptures] speak of us according to our outward persons, as in our flesh and blood, we live our lives among people. Now, whether or not I am upright, you do not know, nor do I know. There I have to make my faith certain for myself and [for other] people and I have to do good [things] for my neighbors, so that my faith gives proof of itself. Therefore outward works are only signs of internal faith. The works do not make me upright, but they are a sign that I am upright and witness that it is a right faith.
This is the way you also have to understand the Scripture, “Give mammon, [give away riches,] so that you make friends,” that is, “Do good, so that your faith becomes certain. So be sure to notice what pertains to the spirit and what pertains to the fruit of the spirit. So here St. Luke has given a description of the fruit of the spirit: “Give to the poor and make yourself friends;” as if he were to say, “I do not now speak of faith, but how you give evidence for your faith:” [and that is,] by being giving and wherever you can give, you give from the heart: then you will be sure that you have faith.
So once [the Scripture] speaks of fruit and another time it speaks of faith. Likewise, in another place, it also speaks of fruits: “I was hungry and did not give” (Esurivi et non dedistis)(Mat 25:42). That is, you have not believed and I will prove it to you by your own works. The Scriptures speak in places partly about outward behavior and partly about the internal [side]. Now would you take what is said about the external, take it into the heart and mingle it with things there? Then you don’t take it right; so you have to keep it differentiated. The verse, “I was hungry, etc.,” however, is directed toward external behavior and means the following: “You did not lead an external kind of life that gave evidence for your faith, and I will take poor people as witnesses of it.
Therefore faith alone has to be present first, which makes us upright, and that is the tree. Afterward come the works that provide the evidence for our faith, and those are the fruit, which is now one of the works.
Now the otheris much more difficult: “Make yourself friends of mammon, so they take you into eternal life.” You say that you should not do good works to attain eternal life; and look, there it is written otherwise! Now what will we ever do? There are verses that go this way and that. “Insofar as we have earned it;” with that they want to overthrow [our reliance] on the mercy and compassion of God and that will lead to doing good works that are sufficient [to attain] God’s righteousness. Guard against that with your life! But just stay and leave pure grace and mercy alone and say, “I am a poor sinner; O God, forgive me my sin; I would be glad not to speak about what I earn. Only do not to speak about your judgment.” As David says, “Do not enter into judgment with your servant” (Psalm 143:2). That is why Christ was given to us as a mediator. If we now wish enter God’s court of judgment with our good works, then we bump Christ out of the middle, and then we cannot stand. So let him be your mediator and hold you under his wings. “Under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4). So say, “O God, with my works I do not wish to earn anything before you, but I direct them alone to serve my neighbor and rely completely on your mercy.”
Therefore take notice that eternal life consists two kinds of things, faith and following: when you go and believe and you do good to your neighbor, there eternal life must follow, even if you never think about it again. It is just like when you have a good drink; the taste has to follow as soon as you drink it, even if you do not look for it. And it is just the same with hell, one does not look for it, but it follows unlooked for and unwanted, and one must enter, whether one wants to or not. The Apostle says the same thing: “They have been filling up the measure of their sins. [Sins] alone follow us, until our sin is completed” (1 Thess 2:16) and they press on always more and more with sins, until their hearts have become completely hardened. Thus here the Scriptures also say, we want to do good so that we are saved; but that is not to say, that we are to earn it beforehand with good works, but believe, so it will follow of itself. So notice this well, so you do not take what follows [the result] for what is sought [the effect] and guard yourself from works.
Do you think God will give us heaven for a work? No, no. God has already given it to us for nothing, out of mercy and compassion. Therefore, because it follows, give. So notice that the verses have to be understood twice. Once, that one look for it with works: that is false. Second, for what follows and that is right. So you should not look [for heaven] with any or even one work, but do your works directed freely and then it will follow that eternal life will come of itself without your looking. Then if I should see the heavens standing open and I could earn it by lifting a straw, I still would not do it, so that I could not say, “See, I have earned it.” No, no, not with my deserving. For God has the honor, (who has given to me his Son), and [who] let my sin and hell be eradicated.
Thirdly, “that they take us into the eternal tabernacles”: Look, there it is written that they lead us into heaven. So how can you say that we should not make the saints our mediators before God, because they could not help us in heaven? So let it be understood that we have but one mediator before God and that is Christ. For as St. Paul also says, “There is one God and there is also one mediator between God and humankind, and that is Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2: 5). Likewise, “I am the way” (John 14: 6). “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That is why we should not place our faith in any saint, but alone in Christ, through whose merit alone we and all the saints are saved. Therefore I would not give a cent for the merit of Saint Peter and that he should help me; he cannot help himself. For what he has, he has from God through faith in Christ. Now if he cannot help himself, what can he do for me? Therefore I have to have [only] one and that is Christ.
Now why does it say here, “Make yourself friends that they take you into the eternal tabernacles?” Now when Christ [one day] will say, “I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, etc.” (Mat 25:35f.) they will, “When did we see you?” Then he will say, “Truly, truly, what you have done for the least of these who belong to me, you have done unto me.” With that Christ shows you who the friends are: they are the poor. As if he were to say, “If you made them your friends then you made me your friend, because these are my members.” Now how will they take us into the eternal tabernacles as our text says? Will they take us by the hand and lead us? No, but when we come and stand before God’s court of judgment, then a poor person, for whom I had done some good, will be standing there in heaven and say, “He washed my feet, etc.” and he will be the friend; he will be a witness to my faith. Therefore a beggar will be more useful to me than St. Peter, who will do nothing. But when a beggar comes and says, “O God, he did that for me as your member.” That will help me. For God will say, “What you did for him, you did for me.” So they will not be helpers, but witnesses, so that God will take us in, those who help witness faith.
With that I do not want to knock your honoring St. Peter, because he is a member of God. But one does more when one gives one’s neighbor a penny than when one builds St. Peter a golden church. Because the one is commanded; the other for St. Peter is not commanded. So now go and run to the Compostelle of St. James and look for the saints, and let the poor people, who are the really holy ones, sit here and lie in the alleys. End.
Translated on the 21st of September, 2010 (from the Weimar Edition of Luther’s Works, vol. 10.3: 273-282), by peterkrey