Sermon on the Mount: Mammon
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt. 6:24)
I like Dave Ramsey’s program. I also get that the title “Financial Peace” is a lot catchier than “Financial Responsibility”—which is what the program is really about. Financial responsibility is fine (1 Thess. 4:11-12).
But finances will never bring you peace.
That’s not their job. That’s not what they were designed to do. But if you’ve given up on the Kingdom, if you don’t want Jesus’ program for rolling back the curse, what other options do you have? You’ll just have to try and buy your way out of the brokenness of this world.
Based on most of our political discourse, that is exactly what we’re trying to do. Amazingly, in our ultra-polarized political atmosphere, we all seem to agree on this basic assumption: Money is our hope for wiping away the Old Age and ushering in the New. The only question left is who would do better managing the money. In this, our true national religion, should we have a hierarchical priesthood dispensing out the green paper sacrament, or should we have a priesthood of all citizens? How can Mammon best be served?
In Matthew 6:24, the term “Mammon” plays off of the Hebrew word for that which is trustworthy, stable, and reliable. Luke makes it clear that Jesus is talking about money (16:1-13). Jesus personifies money as a rival deity to God. It’s something else that we can turn to. Something different that we hope will deliver the paradise we want.
“Jesus personifies money as a rival deity to God.”
But the New Testament repeatedly warns that Money (in Greek, it’s usually “riches” or the word for “silver”) is a terrible master. For instance, money constantly shows up motivating very unsavory behavior: religious leaders letting the temple turn into a marketplace (Mt. 21:12-13); Ananias and Sapphira lying about their donation (Acts 5:1-10); Greeks opposing the gospel because it hurts their bottom line (Acts 16:16-21; 19:23-29). Not to mention Judas. As much as we could speculate all day about why he betrayed Jesus, let’s not forget—Judas didn’t volunteer his services. Judas got paid (Matt. 26:14-16).
Money does things to people. It can foster arrogance (1 Tim. 6:17). Jesus warns that it can choke the word out entirely so it can’t bear any fruit (Matt. 13:22). True, the Old Testament puts a lot of stress on God wanting to bless his people in tangible ways. But in the next breath, it pivots and says, “But then you’ll get comfortable. And then you’ll forget” (Deut. 8:11-20). There are different ways to interpret Paul in 1 Timothy 6:10, but the basic point is clear. Money is the root. Evil is the fruit. You may say, “But that’s just the love of money!” Jesus responds, “Good luck threading that needle” (cf. Matt. 19:23-24).
“Money is the root. Evil is the fruit.”
The New Testament also talks about the “deceitfulness of riches” (Mark 4:19). Money doesn’t deliver on its promises. The Greek word for “greed” is literally “have-more-ness” (cf. Luke 12:15). Greed is the feeling that your happiness depends on having more in general. Coveting is the feeling that your happiness depends on having something specific. You have the thing in your sights, and your inner voice says, “I would be happy if only I had that.”
But you wouldn’t.
Nowadays, the “hedonic treadmill” is a staple in happiness studies. When it comes to material possessions, first you want something. Getting it can be kind of a thrill, but that doesn’t last long at all. As for having it? You adapt to that. In other words, you get used to it and you get bored with it. So you go looking for the next one. Treadmill.
Lastly, there’s the obvious fact that money doesn’t last. Either it goes, or we go, and money is powerless to stop that. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:20). James is even less subtle:
“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.” (James 5:1-3)
“There’s the obvious fact that money doesn’t last. Either it goes, or we go, and money is powerless to stop that.”
Money has its limits. So Jesus works hard to shake us free from that particular idol. After Jesus fed the five thousand, they tracked him down on the far side of the lake because he gave them bread (hardly a luxury item!). But he tells them, “You don’t understand. I’m the bread. Forget that bread. It doesn’t give you life. I do” (John 6:26-35). Jesus puts riches in their place, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26).
Once you re-orient your perspective, money just isn’t that big of a deal. For instance: should the sons of the Kingdom have to pay taxes? No. But who cares? Just pay it (Matt. 17:24-27; 22:15-21). If you serve the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps. 50:10), stuff just isn’t a problem (Matt. 14:15-21; 15:32-38; Luke 5:1-11). Don’t worry about it. That’s what the rest of Matthew 6 is all about.
So the heroes in the New Testament are people who either have nothing (like John the Baptist [Mt. 3:4] or Jesus himself [Matt. 8:20]) or who give up what they have to follow Jesus (like Peter and Andrew [Matt. 4:19-20] or Matthew [Matt. 9:9; cf. Matt. 13:44-46]). As Jesus tells the rich young ruler, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Just to make it clear—this wasn’t just a personal issue for this particular guy. Jesus says the same thing in an open comment to anyone who wants to follow him: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail” (Luke 12:33).
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail.”
So, as a Christ-follower, what’s the right posture to take toward money? Basically, be deeply suspicious of it. View money (and possessions in general) like it’s radioactive. If you handle it VERY carefully, you might be able to do some good with it. But if you let your guard down and get sloppy, it will kill you.
Maybe a good practice would be to try to make do with less. According to John the Baptist, if you have two shirts, then you have one you can give away (Luke 3:11). As the author of Hebrews says, be content (13:5). In concrete terms, work at living below your means.
I stumbled into this out of necessity, but I found it to be a fantastic discipline for developing the right attitude towards money. Instead of asking, “How much can I spend?” you get into the habit of asking, “How much can I not spend?” You realize how little you actually need. (Spoiler: It’s less than you think.) This is the opposite of the “hedonic treadmill.” And as you start to appreciate all the things that money can’t buy, a lot of the things it can buy start to seem kind of pointless. Then, if you get a windfall or your savings really accumulate, the money isn’t already spent in your head. Instead, you can ask God, “Whoa. Wait. What am I supposed to do with all this?” Odds are, he has a few ideas.
“As you start to appreciate all the things that money can’t buy, a lot of the things it can buy start to seem kind of pointless.”
Because money, at the end of the day, is just a tool, a “little thing” (Luke 16:10). Nothing more. It is something we can use wisely or foolishly (Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-9). And if money is radioactive, then the only way to detoxify it is to give it away (cf. Eph. 4:28). Thus, every single time a rich person is mentioned positively in the New Testament, they are giving (cf. Matt. 27:57; Luke 7:5; 19:1-10; Acts 10:2; 16:14-15; 1 Tim. 6:17-19; Heb. 7:1-2)
Mammon is meant to be a servant, not a master. Giving is how you “hate the one and love the other.” It is how you put God on the throne and send Mammon packing. If you don’t hold on to him, then he can’t hold on to you. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Giving isn’t losing; it’s being set free.