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    God or Mammon

    You cannot serve two masters.

    By Eberhard Arnold, Jacques Ellul, and David Bentley Hart

    October 7, 2021

    This article is an excerpt from Following the Call: Living the Sermon on the Mount Together.

    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. (Matthew 6:24)

    Eberhard Arnold

    Nobody can serve two masters. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus defined with utmost sharpness the nature of this mammon spirit. He unmasked the piety of the wealthy classes, exposing their worship of the spirit of death. This mammon spirit leads to war. It causes impurity to become business. Murder and lying become part of daily life because of this urge to possess.

    Jesus called Satan the murderer from the beginning, the leader of unclean spirits. Murder is the nature of mammon. Wars are not the only sign of the mammon spirit. We have become used to countless people being crushed to death because of our affluence, as if they were vermin to be squashed.

    Even the blind can see that the development of the mammon spirit means the incessant murder of hundreds and thousands of people. Mammon and big business rule through the power of the lying spirit. It is impossible to wage war without a basic inner deception. In the same way, only by lying and by duping the public can a capitalistic society be maintained.

    This lie cannot be described, nor can we discuss it in detail here. It is up to each individual to examine the economic problems and to inquire into the murderous effects of the rule of mammon. If we were really concerned with the problem, if we saw how much injustice prevails without the world’s conscience being aroused to action, we would realize the true situation very quickly. If people recognized that capitalism involves injustice, it would mean total revolt against the greatest deception in the history of mankind.

    But we are a long way from revolting. Most pious circles and even working-class people think, “Rich and poor have to be. When a rich person can give work and livelihood to others, we have to be glad that such a one exists.” This ignores the fact that it is impossible to amass this kind of fortune without cheating, without depriving and hurting others and destroying their lives. People fail to realize that big business, concentrated in a few hands, can push hundreds of thousands into certain ruin through unemployment. This is happening today.

    Why do these facts remain hidden from us? How is it possible to be cheated of justice and be blind to it? It is because we ourselves are also under the rule of this god, mammon.

    Mammon is the rule of money over people. Because we ourselves are dominated by the money spirit, we lack the strength to rebel. Dependence on material affluence and financial security – that is mammon. We recognize that money is the real enemy of God, but even so we are not in a position to apply the lever that lifts the slave rule of mammon off its hinges, because we are dependent on our income and our personal lives are broken by our own mammonism.

    Spirit or money. God or mammon. Spirit is the deepest relationship, the innermost fellowship of everything that is alive. … God gives us the richest relationships of love between people, from spirit to spirit, heart to heart, that lead to a growing, organic, constructive fellowship. But there is a devilish means that seeks to rob all relationships of heart and spirit, of God. This means is money. Money reduces human relationships to a materialistic association, until the only value left is money itself. Satan uses property and money to destroy the highest goals. Eventually money becomes a commodity in itself instead of a means of barter, and this results in money as power. Many relationships are founded solely on finances, and people give up heart-to-heart relationships and let money transactions take their place. In the end, money destroys all true fellowship.

    Money and love are mutually exclusive. Money is the opposite of love, just as sexual defilement of bodies is the opposite of love and respect; just as the killing in war is the radical opposite of life and of love that helps others; just as lying is the opposite of love and truth.

    It would be impossible for capitalism to have such power to enslave and murder if the mammon spirit did not dominate. Where mammon rules, the possessive will is stronger than the will to community; the struggle to survive by mutual killing is stronger than the urge to love, stronger than the spirit of mutual help; destructive powers are stronger than constructive powers, matter is stronger than spirit, things and circumstances are stronger than God, self-assertion stronger than the spirit of love and solidarity that brings fellowship. The spirit of mammon has never motivated people to work in a creative way for the life of fellowship. Instead it has engendered an enslavement of the soul and a scorn of it that has made us more subject to circumstances than religious people are to God. In truth, this spirit of mammon – the spirit of lying, impurity, and murder – is the spirit of weakness and death.

    black and white photo of a person measuring wood

    Photograph by Ono Kosuki

    Jacques Ellul

    The problem of the ownership of money is not at the heart of the question. Jesus raises the question in its fullness when he calls money mammon, an Aramaic word that usually means “money” and also can mean “wealth.” Here Jesus personifies money and considers it a sort of god. …

    What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power. This term should be understood not in its vague meaning, “force,” but in the specific sense in which it is used in the New Testament. Power is something that acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous (or claims to be), is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent. This is its first characteristic. Its second is that power has a spiritual value. It is not only of the material world, although this is where it acts. It has spiritual meaning and direction. Power is never neutral. It is oriented; it also orients people. Finally, power is more or less personal. And just as death often appears in the Bible as a personal force, so here with money. Money is not a power because humans use it, because it is the means of wealth or because accumulating money makes things possible. It is a power before all that, and those exterior signs are only the manifestations of this power which has, or claims to have, a reality of its own.

    We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and mammon. He is not using a rhetorical figure but pointing out a reality. God as a person and mammon as a person find themselves in conflict. Jesus describes the relation between us and one or the other the same way: it is the relationship between servant and master. Mammon can be a master the same way God is; that is, mammon can be a personal master.

    Jesus is not describing the particular situation of the miser, whose master is money because his soul is perverted. Jesus is not describing a relationship between us and an object, but between us and an active agent. He is not suggesting that we use money wisely or earn it honestly. He is speaking of a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.

    Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims. We are not talking only about our inner life; we are observing our total situation. We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power. …

    Love, in the Bible, … comes from the entire person; it involves the whole person and binds the whole person without distinction. Love reaches down into the roots of human beings and does not leave them intact. It leads to identification and assimilation between the lover and the beloved. Jesus Christ teaches us in great detail that our love binds us to the spiritual future of our beloved. This is how we must understand the connection between Christians and Christ, which is a love relationship. Love led Christ to follow us in our entire condition, but inversely, today it joins us to Christ in everything – his life, his death, his resurrection, and his glory. Where Christ is, there also is the one who loves Christ. Such is the force, the vigor, of this bond.

    Love for money is not a lesser relationship. By this love, we join ourselves to money’s fate. “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:21). Ultimately, we follow what we have loved most intensely either into eternity or into death. To love money is to be condemned to follow it in its destruction, its disappearance, its annihilation, and its death. …

    Because love makes us follow the beloved and nothing else, we cannot love two things at the same time. Jesus firmly points out the necessity of choosing. “He will hate the one, and love the other.” To love one is not simply to be unacquainted with or indifferent to the other; it is to hate the other. Do we really believe that if money were only an object with no spiritual significance Jesus would have gone that far?

    David Bentley Hart

    It is undeniably true that there are texts that condemn an idolatrous obsession with wealth, and that might be taken as saying nothing more than that. At least, 1 Timothy 6:17-19 is often cited as an example of this – though it probably should not be. Perhaps, to avoid trying to serve both God and mammon, one need only have the right attitude toward riches. But if this were all the New Testament had to say on the matter, then one would expect those texts to be balanced out by others affirming the essential benignity of riches honestly procured and well-used. Yet this is precisely what we do not find. Instead, they are balanced out by still more uncompromising comminations of wealth in and of itself.

    Certainly Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved? To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared.

    But one can look everywhere in the Gospels for confirmation of the message. Christ clearly means what he says when quoting the prophet: he has been anointed by God’s Spirit to preach good tidings to the poor (Luke 4:18). To the prosperous, the tidings he bears are decidedly grim. “Woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full; woe to you who are full fed, for you shall hunger; woe to you who are now laughing, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:24–25). Again, perhaps many of the practices Christ condemns in the rulers of his time are merely misuses of power and property; but that does not begin to exhaust the rhetorical force of his teachings as a whole. He not only demands that we give freely to all who ask from us (Matt. 5:42), and to do so with such prodigality that one hand is ignorant of the other’s largesse (Matt. 6:3); he explicitly forbids storing up earthly wealth – not merely storing it up too obsessively – and allows instead only the hoarding of the treasures of heaven (Matt. 6:19–20). It is truly amazing how rarely Christians seem to notice that these counsels are stated, quite decidedly, as commands. After all, as Mary says, part of the saving promise of the gospel is that the Lord “has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away starving” (Luke 1:53).

    Eberhard Arnold, Salt and Light (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 2002), 61–67. Jacques Ellul, Money and Power (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 75–76, 83–84. David Bentley Hart, “Christ’s Rabble,” Commonweal, October 7, 2016.

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