Escaping Mammon's golden claws

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

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 Judson W. Van DeVenter's song, "I surrender all." She thought she meant the words of that classic gospel song: "All to Him I freely give . . . worldly pleasures all forsaken." Now, over breakfast, I wondered 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 the Lord of her life, but it did not seem like He was. Not totally.

She isn't alone. Many 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 Wesley 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. Many Christians bewail our society's irresistible materialism. Yet they find it nearly impossible to live simply and give generously.

Is there a way to disentangle ourselves? What does it mean to 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 a Nazarene Leadership Conference, Timothy Smith pointed to "the unconsecrated enjoyment of wealth and social eminence" as a principal corrosive element 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 Christians are poor because they have a spiritual deficiency. These believers starved to death 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, we need to ask forgiveness for 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 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 person own?' Christ asks: 'How does he or she use it?' The world thinks about money-getting; Christ thinks about money-giving. The world looks at the money and its amount; Christ looks at people and their motives."

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.

As we make decisions on money matters, we might choose the adjective wartime rather than simple to describe our lifestyle. That would signify that we are consciously lowering our level of affluence to be able to give more as Christ-followers.

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 should encourage all believers to consider themselves part of a worldwide team. As such, all would choose to live at the same economic level as 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 Christ died to free us 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, living on less than we are earning will not be easy. 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 is a Syrian word for money or riches; hence materialism and wealth (Luke 16:9, 11). In Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts Mammon as a spirit that looks forever downward at Heaven's golden pavement rather than upward at God.

Discussion questions

  1. How can an attachment to wealth and the pursuit of security hinder one's devotion to God?
  2. In what ways can Christians disentangle themselves from the grip of Mammon and embrace biblical stewardship?
  3. What are some prevailing materialistic attitudes in society and within Christian communities that need to be challenged?
  4. What does it mean to live simply and joyfully, and how can abundant resources be used to address poverty and hunger in an affluent society?
  5. How should being part of a worldwide denomination influence believers' economic choices and lifestyles, particularly in supporting global missionary outreach?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

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


Unpacking the word "mammon" as it is used in the New Testament:

Overall, the term "mammon" in the New Testament serves as a cautionary reminder about the potential pitfalls of wealth and the importance of prioritizing spiritual values over material possessions. It prompts believers to examine their attitudes towards money and to ensure that their pursuit of wealth does not overshadow their devotion to God.

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