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 (St. Matthew 6:24).
On this Sunday morning, we again find ourselves in the midst of the hard and liberating teachings Jesus Christ announced from a mountain to a scared and astonished people. Even today, when these words are declared from the three step mountain of our chancel, they never fail to cast a searching light onto the hearts of men—a light to which we are either drawn or repulsed depending on who our Master truly is. And, that is today’s gravely important question, “Who is our master?” Here, the Messiah is not presenting us with a theory of human nature like Sigmund Freud, Malcolm Gladwell or Dr. Phil; no, the Son of God is in a different category from these fallible men. He is the author of humanity’s first innocence who witnessed our fall from grace and has come to liberate us from the chains with which our fallen world binds us. So, when He tells us that “No man can serve two masters…Ye cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus is acting in His role as the great prophet and emancipator by revealing to us an indisputable fact about ourselves: there is no way to compartmentalize a man’s heart and soul, and when one pretends he can, he is simply acting out one of the lies which help him better serve his true, dark master: mammon.
So, “What is mammon?” Modern Bible translations use a variety of words to try and grasp its meaning—examples include: money or possessions or earthly goods—and those are all fine translations of the Aramaic word transliterated in the Greek text and in our King James Version, but the Aramaic word was carried over in the older translations precisely because it was the proper name of the Syrian god of riches and money. The word “mammon” was a way for the people of God to personify the evil desire to live and die for our possessions. Again and again, Jesus shatters our preconceived notions by revealing to us that wealth itself is an affliction which must be overcome by the special work of God. As He says later in chapter 19, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. When his disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (St. Matthew 19:24-26). And later, St. Paul gives us an example of what that special work of God would look like, what it looks like when the Holy Spirit is working in a wealthy person for the salvation of his soul, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). How very different is this Biblical attitude toward wealth than what we encounter in our surrounding culture?
What we find as we examine the lovingly honest words of our Creator is that the drive for success and fulfillment and possessions leads people away from God just as surely as an addiction to drugs or pornography or any of the other idols we find more or less culturally repugnant. Unfortunately, in many Christian circles, people really do think it’s not only just fine, but in fact noble and impressive, to ignore God as long as we are pursuing our dreams of success and wealth and comfort, but Jesus today targets this idol and compares our worship of possessions—even necessities like food and clothes—with the worship of a Syrian demon god. We cannot only sort of worship a Syrian demon god and also worship the true God; we will always show what god we truly worship through how we prioritize and spend our time and treasure. We will show in our anxiety and worry about tomorrow that we have put our trust in mammon rather than the promises of the Living God.
The common push-backs against our Lord’s words usually come from two directions. The first, “Well, it sounds like Jesus wants me to become a monk, which I’m not going to do, so I will ignore this part of His sermon.” No, Jesus does not want everyone to join a monastery, but he does want us to be more like a monk than a prostitute. Each and every one of us is called to be in the world, but not of it, as our Lord states, “[My people] are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (St. John 17:16). St. Peter calls us to be a kingdom of priests, and St. Paul commands us to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God so that every activity we do is focused on the kingdom of God and His righteousness. We work and love and live and die for God because He has given us life in the new earth to come, and that eternal, future glory must always be before our eyes as we run this short race. The purpose of every single thing we do is either to serve God or mammon because there is no two-tiered holiness structure to Christianity. Our Lord’s words today do not allow us to imagine that some in this room are called to be super Christians and some are called to be just pretty good Christians; no, we are all called to be saints because there is only one holiness track, one narrow way, and that other wide path always leads back to the slave quarters of the dying, temporary things of this world: a run-down shack of lies built by the Evil One and maintained by our pain and futility. There is no amount of money or possessions that will ever cure our anxiety and worry for tomorrow; no accomplishment which will free us of our slavery to our need for more. Truly, have any of us ever gotten a raise or been promoted at work and said to ourselves, “Well I guess I don’t have to worry anymore?” No, this peace we all seek can only be a supernatural gift, and it can only come when we fully put our trust and faith in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The second complaint goes like this: “I have earned everything I have through hard work, I define myself by that hard work against the lazy good for nothings who surround me, so I will ignore this part of Christ’s sermon.” Do we imagine that Jesus doesn’t understand hard work? His father was a tradesmen;
Jesus Himself was a carpenter for decades before He started preaching on this mountain. God the Son, by whom the entire world was created, intimately understands what hard work is about because He lived the human experience from the ground level. So, it is not that Jesus doesn’t understand hard work; no, it is that we don’t understand our position within time and the universe. You and I are currently living on a providentially placed planet which is hurtling through space at 67,000 mph as it spins around an enormous burning star; we were providentially made alive in the wombs of our mothers, protected while we were more vulnerable than a chicken’s egg; we live, every day, breathing God’s air, eating God’s food, walking on the feet and legs God has given us. We could say that all that we have is ours because we are smart or clever or hard working, but we would be telling ourselves a ridiculous fantasy story while God’s amazing natural creation swirls all around us. The idea that people are not on their knees thanking God every day for all that they have is nothing less than a pulsating symbol of our self-delusion.
This reality is the saddest at secular funerals, and far too many Christian ones, where someone gets up and says, “And then Bob sold more bonds than anyone had every sold in the second quarter,” or “Then Fr. McDaniel raised $10,000.00 that year,” or all of the banal nonsense we try to add up to prove someone was a good person when all that matters is the answer to two questions, “Was Christ His Lord” and “Did he seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness?” The answer to these questions is everything, but they are rarely mentioned at funerals because so many people have put mammon first in their lives, and so all there is to talk about is there many offerings to it.
But Jesus, because He loves us, won’t let us live in that lie. Today He compares us to a flower or a blade of grass, and from God’s perspective this is exactly how impressive our work is in comparison to His. As we read in Isaiah 40, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). It is comforting to remember that when Jesus—the Word of God made flesh, who will stand forever—looks out onto the creation, when He looks out at the flowers and the grass, He sees beauty, and He loves that beauty. And more amazingly, He includes us in that beauty. He includes us in the beauty and blessedness we have received as a gift from our Creator. But, ultimately, despite our real God given beauty, our inflated ideas of our own importance and accomplishments are merely a coping mechanism for the anxiety and worry Jesus tells us to banish today, and when that pride metastasizes in our souls, we begin to forget that we are fragile creatures and not the Creator. To live in the reality of our true station, we must free ourselves for hard, honest work without the fear and gloom and anxiety that possesses people and weakens them for the tasks Christ has set before us. Once we fully recognize and daily remember that we are the creatures and God is the Creator we don’t have to worry about saving the earth or finding ultimate fulfillment in our temporary occupations; no, we can recognize that all our earthly endeavors gain their value when we offer up our work to the God who created this world, saved this world, and will one day resurrect this world. We will be free from anxiety and fear when we remember that our moment in the Sun is truly as brief as the blooming wildflower on the side of the road, but we can strive to showcase the beauty God has put inside of us; we can show that beauty to the world, and remind all men that their Creator loves the beauty, truth, and goodness which will soon bloom everywhere and forever. That future is ours; how then could we ever worry?