19 Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! 24 No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon.
Matthew 6:19-24 (WEB)
Many times “Mammon” is translated simply as money in verse 24. While the idea of serving “money” can help us get the gist of what Jesus was saying here, we can gain a better understanding by looking carefully at the meaning of “Mammon” and its context in these verses.
The word “Mammon” originally came from the ancient Chaldeans. It has its roots in the word “confidence” but it also signifies wealth. The way Jesus used it here seems to mean the personification of wealth, as if it were a person, thing, or god that can be served. We can gain even more understanding from the fact that it is rooted in the same word for confidence. If we think of it as confidence in wealth, it flows very well to the next passage where Jesus tells us not to worry about food or clothing because God will provide. Our confidence should be in God and our priority should be to serve Him and Him alone.
The idea of “Mammon” representing wealth also makes sense in the context of the preceding verses. Jesus tells us not to lay up treasures on earth but instead to lay up treasures in Heaven. We’re not to focus our lives on amassing treasure, or wealth, for our own use while we’re here on earth. Making that a priority in our lives is the same as serving wealth. It means that we make becoming rich more important than becoming like Christ – so that we are not serving God.
This should be an area of extreme concern for all Christians because of the statement Jesus makes here. He says we cannot serve both God and Mammon. We must make a choice. And we must live out that choice. There is no middle ground. We cannot choose to amass wealth and claim to be following Christ at the same time.
It’s clear why Jesus makes this statement. Mammon’s goals are directly opposed to God’s.
- God says, “Give me your heart.” Mammon says, “No, give it to me.”
- God says, “Learn to be content.” Mammon says, “Get as much as you can – anything you want.”
- God says, “Never lie or rip others off. Be honest and fair in everything you do.” Mammon says, “Cheat anyone you can if you’ll gain something from it.”
- God says, “Be generous and give to the needy.” Mammon says, “Keep everything for yourself. You deserve it, and you worked for it.”
In every way the commands of Mammon are inconsistent with the commands of God – to the point where you cannot serve both at the same time. You must choose one or the other.
What Is Wealth?
Some people have taken these teachings of Jesus to mean that we should not save any money at all for the future. The claim is that saving money, even for needs (not wants, or unnecessary things), demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s provision.
But what, exactly, is Jesus attacking here? Is he telling us that prudent saving and wise management of our affairs is against God’s will? If so, how does that idea support the numerous Proverbs that encourage saving, wisdom, and preparing for danger and the future? Or how would Paul’s command that Christians should provide for the needs of their own family be following Christ’s instructions?
The way Jesus describes serving Mammon does not preclude Christians from saving for their needs or the needs of their families. Jesus preached against unbridled greed and materialism. He taught us that if we value being rich and having things more than serving God then we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let’s look specifically at the idea of treasures, riches, and wealth. These words have never meant “any amount of money or possessions”. Who are the rich and the wealthy? Are they the people who have just enough to meet their needs, or are they the people who have far more money than they could ever possibly need to survive?
Being wealthy or rich signifies that you have an abundance that goes far beyond what is sufficient for your needs. Having enough money saved to cover small emergencies or saving money for a time when you can no longer work does not necessarily make you rich or wealthy. You only come to the point of wealth or storing up treasures when you have more money than necessary to meet your needs.
What exactly is Jesus condemning here? Clearly, He condemns putting money before God – service to money before service to God. The whole idea is that if you let money rule your decisions and how you live life, then you cannot let God rule your decisions and how you live life. When you make money your idol, your god, you are violating God’s command to never have any other god before Him and to never worship anything other than Him.
For Jesus to say that it is wrong for His followers to save money, prepare for the future, and properly care for their families would require that He go against the Word God had already spoken. But Jesus isn’t saying those things in this passage – or even in the passage that follows concerning worry.
What Jesus said is that those who follow Him must never put pursuing money above pursuing God. Indeed, if we make pursuing and serving God our top priority, we will not even become consumed with getting rich or having more money than we need (to cover our necessities). How can I say that? Because Jesus Himself said you cannot serve both God and Mammon (the greedy pursuit of wealth). So if you choose to serve God, His love will cause you to reject greed, materialism, and amassing wealth beyond your needs.
How Then Should We Live?
Even though this teaching does not prohibit Christians from saving for the future, it should still convict us when it comes to materialism. When we choose to spend our money on things we don’t need we are deciding that our wants are more important than our poor brother’s needs. That is why John says:
16 By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him? 18 My little children, let’s not love in word only, neither with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. 19 And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, 20 because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. 21 Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; 22 and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. 23 This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. 24 He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.
1 John 3:16-24 (WEB)
When we selfishly use the abundance God has blessed us with and close our hearts against the needs of the poor, we do not have God’s love in us. God’s love teaches us to lay down our lives for the needs of others. If we have some extra that we don’t really need and we see a brother in need, God’s love compels us to give generously to that brother – despite any claim or right we have to spend that money on our own wants. By choosing to follow Christ, we are saying we will lay down our rights just as He did so that others might be helped. If we do not follow God’s leading in that situation, then God’s love does not dwell within us. We must not only say we love our neighbors – we must prove it in our actions.
Brothers and sisters, if you’re reading this right now and your heart is condemning you because you have chosen to place your wants above the needs of the poor, know this: God is bigger than the feeling of condemnation you have right now. He knows all things, and He knows that you want to do the things that please Him. His love can persuade your heart and give you compassion, so that you can testify to His power and love by laying down your life (setting aside your wants) for your brothers. Repent and pray to God for a change in your heart, that you might start serving Him and stop serving Mammon.
Choose this day whom you will serve – God or Mammon. You must choose!