We cannot serve God and “Wealth”
It is a common complaint that people just “cannot find the time” to do the things with God that they want to do. Many people want to know the Bible better, or have more time to serve God’s people, and just never seem to have the time to do it. Sometimes that turns out to be our own fault. Jesus taught that no one can serve two masters.
Matthew 6:24 (KJV)
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.
This verse has three difficult phrases, and to properly understand the verse we must understand its vocabulary and customs. Jesus told us plainly what would happen if a person tried to serve two masters. One was that the person would love one master, and thus serve that one well, and “hate” the other, and thus not serve that one as well. It helps us to make sense of the verse when we realize that in the Eastern mindset and vocabulary, “hate” does not always mean “hate” as we generally use it today, in the sense of extreme hostility or intense dislike. Especially when used in contrast to “love” in the biblical culture (both Hebrew and Greco-Roman), the word “hate” often means “love less.”
A good example of “hate” meaning “love less” is when God said about Jacob and Esau, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:13). First of all, in Malachi 1:2 and 3, which is where Romans 9:13 is quoted from, God is not speaking of the actual people, “Jacob” and “Esau.” He is speaking of the countries of Israel and Edom, which were founded by Jacob and Esau. God did not “hate” Edom, but He showed less grace and special love to the country of Edom than He did to Israel. Using “hate” as “love less,” Jesus was speaking in real and practical terms when he said that if a person tried to serve two masters he would love one more than the other. Each of us only has so much time and energy, and it is nearly impossible to equally divide them between two masters that are making demands on us.
The second difficult phrase in the verse, in the typical Eastern fashion of teaching, is an amplification and clarification of the first phrase. Jesus made sure we understood what he meant by saying that a person trying to serve two masters would “hold to the one, and despise the other.” As in the first phrase about love and hate, we must understand the biblical vocabulary to understand this phrase. The first phrase, translated “hold to” in the KJV, is cleared up for us in most modern versions, which read, “be devoted to” (HCSB, ESV, NET, NIV). However, the use of “despise” in both the KJV and many modern versions is less clear and needs to be properly understood.
It is surprising that even the modern versions usually continue to use the word “despise,” even though it gives most readers the wrong impression. The Greek word translated “despise” is kataphroneō (Strong’s #2706 καταφρονέω), and it has a range of meaning that encompasses looking down on someone or something with contempt or aversion; considering something not important and thus disregarding it; and not caring about, or ignoring, someone or something. In defense of the modern version’s use of “despise,” it is true that one of the primary meanings of the English word “despise” is to look down on with contempt or to regard as worthless (this is even the first definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). However, the much more well-known use of “despise” is one of its other definitions: an intense dislike and even loathing.
As students of the Bible, we should be aware that Jesus was not saying a person would be devoted to one master while intensely disliking or loathing the other master. Why would anyone have to hate or despise someone just because he loved or was devoted to someone else? That does not make sense. Jesus was making the simple statement that if a person had two masters, he would often be devoted to one and end up ignoring the other. We all know what it is like to get so busy with certain things that we end up ignoring other things, even if the things we end up ignoring are important or things we enjoy doing.
There are other uses of the Greek word kataphroneō that are translated “despise” in many versions, which can give us the wrong impression of what the verse is saying. One is when Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Let no one despise you for your youth…” (1 Tim. 4:12, ESV). No one would hate someone who was young. The better way to understand the verse is just like Matthew 6:24 about the two masters; Paul told Timothy not to let anyone ignore him just because he was young. Similarly, in many versions Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus endured being crucified, “despising the shame (ESV).” It was indeed a shameful thing to be crucified, but Jesus did not “hate” it, he ignored it. In doing that he set a wonderful example for us to follow. Many times we will find that if we are to be true followers of Jesus, we will have to ignore the shame and mistreatment we endure.
Mammon—the “god of Possessions”
The third difficult phrase we need to understand Matthew 6:24 is the concluding sentence. Jesus powerfully concluded the point he was making by saying, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” “Mammon” is an Aramaic term for wealth, property, or anything of value. “Wealth” is a better translation than “money.” There are Greek words that specifically mean “money,” and that would have appeared in the verse if Jesus had meant only “money.” In contrast, “Mammon” refers to total “wealth,” including money, property, and possessions, any or all of which some people serve instead of God.
It should catch our attention that the text does not say “wealth,” but rather retains the Aramaic term that is transliterated in the KJV as “Mammon.” The Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible has the right idea when it translates “Mammon” with a capital “M.” Jesus was speaking of “Mammon” as if it were a god. It was much easier to personify “Wealth” in the Greco-Roman world than it is today because the Greeks and Romans often personified concepts as gods and goddesses. For example, Abundantia was the divine personification of abundance and prosperity, Aequitas (Equity) was the divine personification of fairness, Bonus Eventus was the divine personification of “Good Outcome,” and Mors was the personification of death (the Greek personification of death was Thanatos). Thus, to a person living at the time of Christ, it was clear that Jesus was making a kind of play on words, and saying in a very graphic and clever way, “You cannot serve God and the ‘god of Possessions’” (wealth, things, stuff). We decide, by what we think about and where we spend our time, energy, and resourses, who we follow in life: the Lord, or our “god of Stuff.”
Jesus’ teaching about serving God or “Stuff” is a lesson that people in affluent countries like the United States need to pay attention to. Too often we let the “stuff” in our lives get in the way of our dedication to God. One verse in the Bible that has good information about the “stuff” in our lives is in Colossians.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
When this verse is translated into English, it is unclear if the word “idolatry” refers to the whole list, or just the last item, “greed.” Thankfully however, the Greek text is clearer, and from it we can see that the word “idolatry” refers only to the last thing on the list, “greed.”
Before we begin to discuss greed and idolatry, we should discuss whether or not “greed” is the proper translation. Many versions have “covetousness” (ESV, KJV, RSV, YLT), while many others have “greed” (HCSB, NASB, NET, NIV). In translating the Bible, our intent must be to try to duplicate the meaning of the original language (in this case, Greek), into the receptor language (in this case, English). While that sounds easy, it is actually often exceedingly difficult. This is due to many factors, one being that most Greek words (indeed, most words in every language) do not have a singular meaning, but rather a range of meanings, which is referred to as the “semantic range” of the word. This means that the task of the translator becomes one of finding which English word has a semantic range that most closely matches the semantic range of the Greek word, and that often becomes a judgment call rather than a clear choice.
Another problem in translating is that English words have different meanings in different regions of the country, or to different age groups, or to people of different levels of education. When we examined “despise” in Matthew 6:24 at the start of this article, we saw that someone who was very educated in the English language would know a primary meaning of “despise” meant what the Greek word meant; to look down upon, or regard as worthless. Most people, however, do not use “despise” that way. It is incumbent upon the translator to decide who his target audience is and translate to that audience, while letting another version of the Bible reach another audience.
In this case, the Greek word that is translated “greed” or “covetousness” is pleonexia (Strong’s #4124 πλεονεξία), and it refers to a person desiring to have more than he needs, or more than his share. The English word “greed” is a selfish and excessive desire to have more than one needs. The English word “covetousness” has two primary definitions. The first is simply to have a strong desire for something, apart from any reference to need, or to the abundance one already has, as in “I greatly covet winning the blue ribbon.” This definition of covet can be good or evil, depending on the context in which it is used. The second definition of covet is always evil and refers to wanting something that belongs to someone else, as in, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exod. 20:17). Having studied both “greed” and “covetousness,” we can see that the English word “greed” is a much better match to pleonexia than “covetousness.”
Now we know the Word of God teaches that greed is idolatry. The reason for that is simple: in selfishly taking and/or acquiring more than we need, we are elevating ourselves in an unhealthy way. Greed makes us the center of our attention: we spend our money, time, and energy on ourselves, when the Word of God says to seek God and His kingdom first (Matt. 6:33). There are different reasons for greed, but one of them is certainly not trusting God to take care of us in life. Furthermore, a hurtful aspect of greed is that the greedy person is not sensitive to the needs of those who are less fortunate, and who could use what he is needlessly accumulating.
Greed is a heart issue
God says greed is idolatry, which alerts us to another important aspect of greed: it is a heart issue, not a “things” issue. Having great wealth is not necessarily “greed,” and there are certainly wonderful people in the Bible who were wealthy, including Abraham and David. True greed is an issue of the heart that is evidenced in the flesh, so we cannot just look at how much a person owns and decide the person is greedy. Idolatry is always an issue of the heart, and sometimes the idol is clearly manifested in the senses world for all to see, and sometimes it is not.
One thing about greed is undeniable: people who accumulate more and more stuff have to spend more and more of their time and energy managing it, and when they do, the words of Jesus, that no person can serve two masters, are proven true. Most people who have accumulated large amounts of stuff end up fulfilling the words of Jesus even though they may not intend to: they end up showing more love to their wealth than they do to God, and they spend their time with their stuff, “being devoted to” it and ignoring God.
Greedy people who end up with lots of material goods can seem to have confidence or peace from a fleshly perspective, but from God’s perspective, they are really hurting themselves.
I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
It is specifically because earthly wealth promises things like power and safety, but in the end does not deliver those things, that the Bible twice mentions “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Matt. 13:22; Mark 4:19). Wealth is deceitful because it promises much but delivers little. The only true safety in life, and the only true fulfillment for the heart, comes from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Each of us only has one life in which to serve God, and serving God is not supposed to be an option. As His created beings, it is our duty to serve Him. The closing verses of Ecclesiastes make that clear.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 and 14
(13) Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
(14) For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
How can we tell if greed has crept into our hearts and is diluting our devotion to God? One way is to get honest about how attached to our material possessions we really are. If it came down to it, could we let go of them in service to the Lord? Many early Christians lost everything in times of persecution.
Hebrews 10:32 and 34
(32) Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
(34) You…joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
If, like the early Christians, we can “joyfully accept” losing our property for the sake of the Lord, we know we do not have greed as an idol in our heart.
Another way we can see if we might be dealing with the idol of greed is to pay attention to how much time we spend doing the Lord’s work and how much joy we get from following the Lord, versus how much time we spend managing things that we really do not need. Does all our time seem to be soaked up by our stuff, leaving us no time to pray, read the Bible, share our faith, or fellowship with other Christians? If so, we could have a greed problem.
Tearing down the greed idol
If we search our hearts (and our bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, closets, attics, garages and storage buildings), and find we have a problem with greed, what do we do? One thing we must do is realize that no idol, not greed or any other idol can be easily removed from our heart. Pulling down an idol is never a matter of just “Oh, I can do that.” Healing heart issues requires immense effort and diligence, and is a team project. The team is “me” and God and Jesus, and almost always some fellow members of the Body of Christ. Fellow Christians who have our best interests at heart can almost always see things we ourselves might be blind to and help us deal with the problem. Enlist the help of God and Jesus by much prayer, along with study and meditation on, (thinking over and over about), the Word. Then, get the help of your trusted Christian friends.
As to the effort we must exert to root an idol out of our hearts, we can follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul, who wrote about the dedication we must have to get rid of idols and truly follow the Lord.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
(24) Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
(25) Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
(26) Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air.
(27) No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
Paul said that if we want to follow Jesus, many times it will take dedication just like the dedication of a professional athlete. While it can be difficult to obey God and follow the Lord, it is always worth it in the end. In reference to God’s clear but challenging commands such as “Love your enemies (Matt. 5:44),” Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” We can understand the clear teaching that no one can serve two masters. We can understand that we cannot have the idol of greed without it meaning that we will end up ignoring the Lord Jesus Christ. If we want to follow the Lord Jesus Christ more than anything else in the whole world, we will do the hard work of getting any obstacle out of our lives that hinders us from that goal.