God and mammon

— Jon Tyson on Unsplash

What does Jesus mean when he says, “You cannot serve both God and mammon”?

There are two passages in the New Testament that use the word mamōnas. In Matthew 6:24, during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asserts, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (KJV). A similar, longer passage is found in Luke 16:9-13.

In both Gospels, the term “mammon” is associated with unrighteousness and represents something that is at odds with serving God. Given that both passages speak of mammon in its relationship to one’s treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), the word is usually understood as using material wealth in such a way that it becomes an idol.

In Rumors of Another World, author Philip Yancey says that mammon takes on an almost godlike power. It is a force that can take control of us if left unchecked.

Jacques Ellul, in his book Money and Power, speaks to this subject, as well. He suggests that Jesus was clear that mammon is a spiritual power, and if we aren’t attentive to its power, we will begin to attribute sacred characteristics to money.

So powerful is the allure of money for some people that they can actually come under an uncontrollable spell. Gamblers Anonymous is a growing organization that has formed to help people who can no longer help themselves. It’s self-defined as a “fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from a gambling problem.”

Money disorders, be it gambling, hoarding or uncontrolled spending, are real. They are often self-destructive at their core and manifest themselves as anxiety, which compromises a person’s ability to stay focused at work and give themselves fully to family members.

In spite of this common and growing allure toward money, many of us have grown up in homes and churches in which discussing money was a taboo subject. Orthodox Jews, to this day, will not say the name of YHWH, because it is too sacred. Even writing God’s name is forbidden. What do we communicate by our silence around the subject of money? The fact that mammon is a forbidden topic to discuss, shows a godlike reverence that has developed around it. Is this the message the church and her leaders want to model and communicate?

Money, for many people, is the pathway toward meaning and purpose. Or as Ellul states, “There is the widespread conviction that if the money question is solved, all problems of the working class and of humankind in general will thereby be solved as well.” Money, as an ultimate goal for many people, makes itself into a form of religion, and building one’s wealth is a way of keeping score and validating one’s own worth. No wonder Jesus said we can’t serve God and mammon.

So how do we keep the god-like power of money from becoming an idol or defining our self-worth? How do we keep it from compromising our integrity and primary allegiance for Jesus and the kingdom of God?

Reading a bit further in Jesus’ sermon may give us the answer, or at least point us in the right direction.

“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”  (Matthew 6:33, NRSV).

Does money have a god-like power and influence over us? Are we reluctant, or even scared, to talk about it? Maybe these are questions we need to ask not only of ourselves but of those we are joined with in our faith communities.

As congregations, are we willing to have conversations about the challenges our culture and members of our churches face with money? Whether we have too little or more than what we need, mammon can be the driving force that governs our waking and sleepless nights.

Shouldn’t we engage in this conversation with our sisters and brothers with whom we share deeply on many other matters?

Jesus named the issue in simple terms. We cannot serve both God and mammon! Mammon is a primary competitor to full allegiance to God’s kingdom and righteousness. Isn’t it time to talk more about it?

Used with permission of the author and Mennonite Church USA. This article originally appeared here.

Beryl Jantzi

Beryl Jantzi is a former pastor and now serves as the Everence director of stewardship education.

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