What message is there for us in Jesus' words in Matthew 6:24?

Escaping mammon's golden claws

Commentary on Matthew 6:24

"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." -- Matthew 6:24, RSV

"I'm glad God called you to the mission field and not me," the young pastor's wife told me.

She was not talking about spiders and snakes. Nor about learning new languages or eating squid. Nor about separation from family and friends. She was talking about money and how the support level I was on was much lower than the one she and her husband enjoyed..

In a service in their church the evening before we had sung, "I surrender all." She thought she meant those words. Now, over breakfast, I was wondering if she really had been serious about singing those words.

It looked to me like mammon1 (money, riches, wealth, possessions) had reached out its golden claws and grabbed her. She thought Jesus was Lord of her life, but He wasn't. Not totally.

She isn't alone. Lots of other Christians -- even Nazarene ones -- have been trapped by the illusion of security that money brings. John Wesley once said,"Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can." Sadly, too many of those who claim him as their spiritual ancestor have reworded that to say,"Earn all you can . . . and then spend all of it."

Lamenting all of this is easy. Lots of Christians bewail the irresistible materialism of our society. Yet they find it nearly impossible to live simply and give generously.

Is there a way to disentangle ourselves? Is it possible to really be Christlike in an affluent society?

The first step toward disentanglement is admitting how much we have sold out to mammon.

In an address to one of the Nazarene Leadership Conferences, Timothy L. Smith identified"the unconsecrated enjoyment of wealth and social eminence" as one of the principal elements of corrosion that destroyed the spiritual life of the Methodist church. Today, a diabolical siren song seduces Christians with the words,"God wants you rich!"

While on home assignment from the mission field, I listened to a California man spouting the "God wants you rich" philosophy. I brought up the seventeen Nazarenes who had died in a famine in Haiti not long before that. His response? Haitian believers are poor because they are spiritually deficient. These fellow believers died because they lacked the faith to claim God's promise of riches.

I was stunned. I couldn't compose any rational response. I had to walk away from him.

So, after admitting we have sometimes or even often, sold out to mammon, then we need to ask forgiveness for sometimes forgetting that we are stewards, not lords. "We are not owners of the capital in our hands, but only managing it for the owner, our Lord." said Phineas F. Bresee.

A third step is to then ask ourselves: How does God intend for the resources I control to be used? How much should I keep for my personal use and enjoyment? How much should I be using to lift the burdens of hunger, illness, and dependency that lie so heavily on fellow believers?

It is easy for us to get concerned over outward manifestations of worldliness. We have, however, sometimes allowed a worldly attitude toward money and possessions to sneak in the back door. Andrew Murray once wrote:"The world asks: 'What does a man own?' Christ asks: 'How does he use it?' The world thinks about money-getting; Christ, about money-giving. The world looks at the money and its amount; Christ at the man and his motive."

Once we have recaptured the spirit of biblical stewardship, we need to choose an economic level of life for our family. Reading about hunger and poverty can make us feel guilty about what we have. Our feeling guilty isn't what God wants. He wants us to live simply and joyfully, using our abundant resources to correct sin's ravages.

Often, Satan has deceived us into thinking that we are just barely getting by economically. Actually, any family living on an American missionary salary is automatically in the top 10 percent of the world's wealthy families. Remember what Jesus said about the difficulty of rich people getting to heaven?

As we make decisions on money matters, we might choose the term wartime rather than simple to describe our life-style. That would signify that we are consciously lowering our level of affluence to be able to give more as soldiers of the Cross.

Some time ago, news media in the USA carried the story of a Baptist family who sold their sprawling home and moved into an inexpensive mobile home. News commentators were intrigued by this Christian family who chose to lower their standard of living in a significant way in order to be able to give more to their denomination's world hunger fund.

I have long resisted the idea of calling all Christians "missionaries." Maybe I've been wrong. Maybe we ought to encourage all believers to think of themselves as part of a worldwide team. As such, all would choose to live at the same economic level of the missionaries they support. Any income earned by a family over that basic support level would be given to specific missionary projects.

In his booklet Nazarenes and the Wesleyan Message, Timothy L. Smith argued that "nothing less than the mighty experience of sanctifying love" can keep us from succumbing to the lure of spending every dime after our tithe on ourselves.

Galatians 1:4 says that Christ died to wrench us free from this evil world. Well, actually, the NIV says "rescue." But Italian and French Bibles use stronger wording such as "rip out" or "wrench free," phrases which may be closer to Paul's original meaning.

In affluent societies, it will not be easy to live on less than we are earning. But it can be done if we allow the Holy Spirit to rip us free from mammon's golden claws. We must not carelessly call Jesus "Lord" while remaining captive to a worldly view of money and its use.

Christ can free us from mammon. We must, in joyful submission, allow Him to do that. Only as true stewards, not lords, can we become all that Christ meant for us to be.

   1Mammon: a Syrian term for money or riches; hence materialism and wealth (Luke 16:9, 11). In Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Mammon as a spirit who looks forever downward at Heaven's golden pavement, rather than upward at God.

This article originally appeared in the publication now called Holiness Today.

    -- Howard Culbertson


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