The society that Jesus knew was very different from ours. Only the powerful Jerusalem families and the big land-owners of Tiberias would have been able to accumulate gold and silver coins. Farm-workers could hardly come across the occasional bronze or copper coin, of little value. Many lived without money, exchanging products in a regimen of pure subsistence.
In this society, Jesus surprisingly speaks frequently of money. With no land or fixed work, his life as an itinerate prophet dedicated to God’s cause allows him to speak with complete freedom. On the other hand, his love for the poor and his passion for God’s justice urge him to always defend the most excluded.
He speaks of money in very personal terms. He spontaneously calls it «tainted money» or «tainted riches». Seemingly he doesn’t know any «clean money». The wealth of those powerful people is unjust because it has been amassed unjustly and because they enjoy it without sharing it with the poor and the hungry.
What can they do – those who possess these unjust riches? Luke has preserved from Jesus’ mouth some curious words. Though the phrase can result somewhat obscure because of its conciseness, its content mustn’t fall into oblivion. «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».
Jesus comes to tell this to the rich: «Use your unjust wealth to help the poor; gain their friendship for yourself by sharing your goods with them. They will be your friends and, when in the hour of money’s demise, it no longer serves you at all, they will welcome your into the Father’s house». Saying this in another way: the best way to «wash» unjust money before God is to share it with God’s poorest children.
His words were not well received. Luke tells us that «the Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and jeered at him». They don’t understand Jesus’ message. They aren’t interested in hearing him speak about money. They’re only concerned about knowing and faithfully fulfilling the law. They consider wealth as a sign that God blesses their lives.
Although this vision of wealth as a sign of blessing is backed up by a long Biblical tradition, it is not Gospel. This needs to be shouted from the rooftops, because there are rich people who almost spontaneously think that their economic success and their prosperity are the best signs that God approves of their lives.
A follower of Jesus can’t do whatever she wants with money: there’s a way to make money, spend it and enjoy it that is unjust, since it forgets those who are the poorest.
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf