Whom do You Serve
Whom Do You Serve?
April 2, 2006
Matthew 6:19-21, 24
Focus: Mammon seeks to control our lives, but with God’s strength we can oppose this false god.
Introduction: Even Disciples Need to Think about Money
A missionary traveling in Africa said, “While traveling in Ghana, I learned that in the dominant language of Ghana the only way to ask the question, “What is your religion?” is to ask, “Whom do you serve?” “ I like that! It does answer the question doesn’t it? Regardless of denominational loyalties and official creeds, your true god is the one you serve.
Whom do you serve? That’s the question Jesus puts before us in three of the four gospels. He wants us to understand that we must make a choice. We can serve God, or we can serve money. We cannot serve both.
If you have your Bible with you, please turn to Matthew chapter 6 and follow along as I read verse 24: "No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” Luke 16:13 says the same thing. Money, now more than ever, is a problem. We live in a materialistic society where many people serve money. They spend their lives collecting and storing it. Their desire for money far outweighs their desire to serve God.
Jesus doesn’t tell us it’s unwise to serve both. He doesn’t tell us it’s difficult to serve both. He doesn’t tell us it’s spiritually immature to try to serve both. He tells us it’s impossible to serve both. He tells us we must make a choice. He knew that whatever you store up, you will spend much of your time and energy thinking about: where your treasure is, there your heart is.
I would guess that if I put it to a vote this morning—all those in favor of serving God raise your hands, and all those in favor of serving Mammon raise your hands—God would win a decisive victory here. I think it would probably be unanimous because, after all, we’re sitting in a sanctuary devoted to the worship of God, not the worship of money.
But before we get too comfortable thinking we’ve already settled this issue in our lives, we would do well to remember that these words of Jesus were addressed to disciples, to those who had already decided to follow Jesus and trust his God. Jesus thought that it’s precisely people like us who need reminding of this choice between God and money. And if we need reminding of this choice, it’s because we constantly underestimate the power of money. Jesus did not.
Paul told Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 to: : “Tell those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which will soon be gone. But their trust should be in the living God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and should give generously to those in need, always being ready to share with others whatever God has given them. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may take hold of real life. “ Prior to this passage, in the tenth verse, Paul uttered the now well-known adage, “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil….” In 1 Timothy 3:3 Paul makes the love of money a disqualifier for leadership in the church.
I. Mammon Is a Personal Force
It’s very interesting that Jesus gave money a Semitic name: Mammon. This was not a part of the culture. We find no parallels in the historical texts of money being called Mammon. The word “Mammon” is used only four times in Scripture. All by Jesus. All in a derogatory sense. The Pharisees understood though. Unrighteous mammon was a Pharisaical term for wealth acquired legally, but tainted in the sight of God. Jesus, however, used the term to refer to all material resources not used to the glory of God. Mammon, uniquely used by Jesus alone in Scripture, is Aramaic for “that in which one trusts”, hence “money”. Jesus saw things in a unique way. Jesus did something completely unique because he saw things in a unique way. Jesus saw things with the eyes of God. Jesus saw things the rest of the world chooses not to see.
Jesus understood that money is not simply an object. Money is a personal force. In the Old Testament, Solomon recognized the pervasive force of money. Look with me now at Ecclesiastes 5:10: “Those who love money will never have enough. How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness!” By naming money Mammon, he personalized money. He understood that money is a living power, a driving power.
By stating it in just this way, by putting Mammon in a position to oppose God almost on equal terms, Jesus was indicating clearly that he understood money to be a spiritual entity. He left no doubt that money could threaten our relationship with God. In this sense, we would have to say that money is demonic. Money seeks an autonomy from God. It seeks to control. It insinuates itself into the center of our lives and tries to organize our lives according to its will rather than God’s will. Jesus recognized this power.
If you think this spiritualizing of money overstates the case (“After all, isn’t money just an object?”), then consider how we treat money. Next time you’re at a party and the conversation begins to lag a little bit, just say, “Let’s all share how much money we made last year.”
You’d never be invited back to that house again. That would be considered the greatest kind of social mistake you could make. Most people in our society would far rather tell you about the details of their sex lives than to let you read the register of their check books. That’s a very personal issue, isn’t it? It’s a very private matter; money is almost sacred with us.
We might define the sacred as that which has the mysterious power to elicit our loyalty, to confer worth to us personally, and to organize our lives around itself. Does money do this? Just consider how much of your life is spent, in one way or another, in relationship to money: thinking about money, working to accumulate money, worrying about money. How much “head space” are you giving money? Right now, at tax time, I really notice the power of money: What are people thinking about? RRSPs – protecting my money – avoiding tax – having more money to spend, etc. What does the Bible say we should be thinking about? Turn with me to Philippians 4:8 ….. we are to “Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Has money ever been described in these terms: true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, worthy of praise? No! Money has had a lot of nicknames over the years: bread, cash, cabbage, dough, greenbacks, legal tender, moolah, shekels, wampum, and the one I like the most filthy lucre. Not very flattering, are they? Jesus called “mammon” a powerful lure away from Father God: a force to be recognized and reckoned with! We plan our lives around money. We’re fretful because of money. We fight with our spouses over money. More than a few people here would have to confess that one of their favorite preoccupations in all of life is spending money or plotting how they will spend their money. When Marcy and I used to buy lottery tickets, we would spend hours entertaining ourselves discussing how we would spend our windfall. Don’t tell me that money isn’t one of the holy things in our lives. There is sacredness and spirituality to money. We hate to admit it has power over us, but it does. Agree? Are you starting to understand how money rules and corrupts? Well, let me continue to reveal mammon’s power.
II. Mammon Is an Evil Force
Mammon is an evil, false god, but a god nonetheless with a terribly destructive power. In what way is Mammon destructive? First it deceives. The first characteristic of the demonic is always deception. Satan is called the “Father of Lies” remember. Money promises something it can’t deliver. It assures us that it will make us happy. But while money has the power to make a promise, it does not have the power to provide happiness. Monet does not buy happiness. In the Old Testament, Solomon recognized this. Look at Ecclesiastes 5:10 with me. Keep your finger on that page and we’ll come back to it in a minute.
We’ve seen this in our lives. I mean, how often have you thought, “If only I had just ten thousand dollars more a year, everything would be great”? I want to confess to you I’ve thought that most of the years of my life. If only I had a little bit more; if we had just a bigger house now that the kids are getting older; if we had a nicer car; if only I could get a little better wardrobe, things would be so much better.
The power money has over people is astounding. Several years ago Jean-Paul Getty, the world’s wealthiest man, who by then had accumulated a fortune of four billion dollars, was asked by a reporter if that was enough. He answered, “No”. When asked how much more would be enough he answered, “One more billion.” That is the deceitfulness of money.
I came across an interesting statistic not long ago. The percentage of Canadians who earn less than $15,000 a year who believe they have achieved the Canadian dream is 5 percent. Now, that’s understandable. Fifteen thousand dollars a year is not really much. So, it’s understandable to me that only 5 percent of those people would think they’ve achieved the Canadian dream.
What’s interesting is that of Canadians who make over $50,000 a year, the percentage of those who believe they’ve achieved the Canadian dream is 6 percent. Now, isn’t that interesting? Thirty-five thousand dollars a year difference, and only one percentage point difference in happiness. Now open to Ecclesiastes chapter 5 and we’ll look a verses 10 and 11: “Those who love money will never have enough. How absurd to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what is the advantage of wealth—except perhaps to watch it run through your fingers! “We know in our own lives that depression follows purchases. I don’t mean the depression right after you buy it when you think you’re going to get in trouble when you get home. I’m talking about the depression that comes when you understand it wasn’t worth it. One wash of that new garment and it becomes used goods. One nick in that new piece of furniture and it’s lost its allure. The thrill of the purchase is short-livedThat thing still didn’t bring the happiness you were looking for. So what happens? We have to escape that unpleasantness by buying something else.
We find ourselves on this treadmill. We’re like alcoholics thinking one more drink will solve our problem. I think we need to be candid. For most of us, the greatest addiction is money. In addition to its deceitfulness, money ensnares us. Money holds us. It ensnares us in a movement toward death. It can entrap us. Jesus said, in Matthew 19:23 -24 that it is very hard for a rich man to enter heaven. It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle – the eye of the needle being the low door beside the gate of a city in Bible times. If a camel was loaded, he would be trapped in this low passage. He would have to be unloaded to procee. We too need to be unloaded to proceed. If you think I’m being overly dramatic, just remember that Jesus sets Mammon in opposition to God. God is the source of life. And if you’re in opposition to the source of life, where are you? You are with the forces of death. God is the author of all life. If Mammon opposes God, Mammon lives out of the power of death. Mammon leads us into a movement toward death. This is why the Bible speaks so much about money and possessions.
I don’t see how any preacher who wants to be faithful to the Scriptures can avoid the subject. I understand those preachers who do want to avoid the subject. Last week I heard of one who had to preach his annual stewardship sermon. He preached for ten minutes and then told the people that was all he wanted to do. He didn’t want to preach on this subject anyway. So, since they had extra time he’d do something else. I wonder what that was!
I can understand that. I understand the research that indicates if you want a large, growing, popular church, don’t talk about money. I’m not blind to the kind of world in which we live, and I understand the sort of resistance that often comes when a pastor starts speaking about money. I understand all of that. But I also know most of you and I think I know what you really want. I believe that you have installed me in this position, as pastor of this church, not to be popular and to say what you want to hear, but on all accounts to speak the truth and to tell you what the Book says. What the Book says is a lot about money.
It’s been calculated that the Bible contains about five hundred verses on prayer, about five hundred verses related directly to faith, and about two thousand verses related to money and possessions. The Bible takes this subject seriously. Why? Jesus makes it clear in this text. Mammon is a power that can disrupt and destroy our relationship with God. This power is deceitful and a snare. We like to think that we have money, but more often than not, money has us. We like to think that we use money, but more often than not, money uses us. I hope this message captures your attention and gets you thinking because it’s an important subject and one of the major issues believers face today. It’s such an important issue that this won’t be my only message on the subject.
In Canadian households with income under $10,000 a year, the average giving to charitable causes is 2.8 percent. You would think that if the income went up, the percentage of giving to charitable causes would also go up. It doesn’t work that way because money ensnares us. In households with income between $50,000 and $75,000 a year the average giving is 1.5 percent.
Money gets hold of us. And when it gets hold of us, what happens? It leads towards death. By death I mean spiritual death - emptiness. If you serve Mammon, in the end you will have to face the fact that you have spent your life on nothing. You have spent your life on that which cannot satisfy.
In Victor Hugo’s novel, The Toilers of the Sea, is an evil character named Claubert. Claubert wishes to rob the whole shipload of people, so he steers the ship onto a sandbar and gets every one into life boats. He points to a nearby island and tells them to take the boat there. He says, “There a ship will rescue you.” Wanting to appear the hero, he stays back with the ship. What he really wants to do is go through all the state rooms and the safes onboard ship; he does just that.
When the people get out of sight, he goes through all of their rooms and takes all of their money, puts it on his person, and goes to the other side of the ship. His plan is to leap off the side of the ship, swim a short distance to another island where he knows the ships will pass by. The other people will be lost. He will be saved, and he will have all of their money.
Loaded with cash, he leaps over the side of the ship, touches bottom, and pushes off to go up to the surface. Just as he pushes off something grabs him. It’s a giant octopus. He feels its icy tentacles wrap around him, and he tries to throw them off, but as he throws off one tentacle, another one grabs him until they hold him around his neck and his waist and his legs; they pull him down to death.
Something like that happens when we try to hold onto money. Something bigger than the object itself takes hold of us. It will not let go. I must be blunt here. This octopus holds us so tightly there is no possibility for escape. That’s the sad truth of it. Mammon has enormous power. The power of this idol - this god is so great that we cannot save ourselves from its embrace.
What is impossible for us, though, is possible for God. That’s the Good News.
III. God Defeats Mammon
The power of God is greater than the power of Mammon. The good news is that all principalities and powers of this world, all demonic forces, all false gods, including the god Mammon, have been decisively condemned and defeated through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s the good news for the morning.
How has God defeated Mammon? How has God condemned and judged this false god? The world of Mammon is the world of buying and selling. Money’s power rests on the law of acquisition. Money has authority only where there is the desire to accumulate. Isn’t that true? Money has power because of the desire to get more things, to accumulate.
So, how does God defeat this world of Mammon? God defeats the world of Mammon by the opposite law, the law of giving. Mammon’s law is getting. God’s law is giving. God judges and condemns Mammon through the law of giving.
Where there is giving, money’s grip is impotent. Money is useless where there is giving. God gives his Son Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, God enters into the world – the world of buying and bartering and selfish acquisition. Jesus enters into this world to take this self-centeredness upon himself so that we might be set free from it. Grace is God’s great answer to the world of Mammon.
God gives as free gifts the most important things in life: forgiveness, communion with him, eternal life. You can’t buy these things, and it means that all power has been stripped away from Mammon’s hands by God’s giving. In this act of giving, God opens for us the world of grace, God’s world, in which we can live as children of God.
If we want to live in this world, if we want to be God’s people, then clearly, the way Jesus puts it, we have to decide. Are we going to be a part of God’s world or not? If we are, then we must turn our backs on the world of Mammon. We must turn our backs in opposition to this false god. We must stop worshipping at the idol of commerce.
We need money to live, of course. I’m not so idealistic as to think that we, like St. Francis of Assisi, should sell everything we have and wander the earth in poverty. We live in a material, broken world. Mammon still has considerable influence. We need money; we have bills to pay; we have children to educate. We must live in homes. We Albertans must drive cars. But we must not serve Mammon. That’s the point. Jesus made this point in His parable to the rich young man in Matthew chapter 19. He asked him to sell all his possessions because Jesus knew his heart. He knew that rich young man was in bondage to his money. Should we sell everything to follow Jesus. Not necessarily! Perhaps some of us should, but most of us have a responsibility to care for our own needs and the needs of our families and not be a burden on others. We are also responsible to care for others that God wants us to share with.
We are not to use our God-given wealth selfishly. Beware if you are relieved that Christ is not telling you to sell all your possessions, for then you may just be too attached to what you have. We are to be willing to give up anything that God asks us to give up. Including money!
IV. How We Can Defeat Mammon
We must not worship Mammon. We must not allow our lives to be organized around money. I believe that if we’re serious about being God’s people, we will do everything we can to dethrone Mammon. We will do everything we can to profane this false god.
There is a good kind of profanity. We are called to profane all of the false gods. Mammon wants to be a god. Mammon wants to insinuate itself into our lives as one of the holy things in life. But as God’s people we are called to profane this thing, to make it common, to say no to this spiritual usurper.
How do we profane Mammon? We say no the way God said no to Mammon: by giving. Every time we give, we rob Mammon of its pretensions to power. We say, “No, you have no authority over me. I freely give.” At that moment Mammon is rendered weak, impotent.
Do you understand what a revolutionary thing takes place when we give our offerings on Sunday morning? We’re not just doing this so that the ministers can get paid, the lights can be turned on, and we can send a little bit of money to missions. That’s not the first reason why we give. We also give as an act of worship to the one true God. And when we do that, not only do we exalt God, but in a concrete way we say no to Mammon. When we put our money in the offering plate, we are saying yes to God and to hell with Mammon. We profane that false god. We make it common, and we say, “It has no power over us. We’ll show you why. We’re giving.” Malachi 3:8-10 says: "Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! "But you ask, `What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?' "You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do," says the LORD Almighty, "I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won't have enough room to take it in! Try it! Let me prove it to you! “
It becomes, as Jacques Ellul puts it, “a sacrament of grace,” a physical witness to the reality of God’s grace in giving and to the work of grace in our hearts as we give. Because it is an act of grace, it must always be done with freedom and joy. Wherever there is grace, there is freedom and joy. If in your giving you feel no freedom, no joy, don’t give. You’re giving for the wrong reasons. Let’s look at 2 Corinthians 9:7: “You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give. Don't give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives cheerfully.” But when you give in the power of grace, you will experience freedom, joy.
The Presbyterian missionary that was visiting in Ghana told an interesting thing about the Presbyterian Church in Ghana. The Presbyterians are the largest Christian group in that country. The church was established over a hundred years ago by Scottish Presbyterians, and their worship service is very much like a Scottish Presbyterian service. Recently they have allowed the African traditional experience into the worship service at the offering.
At the offering, they let the people dance. That’s a part of African culture in religious, spiritual worship. They let the people dance as they bring their offerings forward. They really get down. The music is going, and they individually turn it into a production as they bring that offering to the offering plate. They take their time, too. The offering could go on for a long time because they are dancing all the way down the aisle. It’s the only time in the service when they smile. I thought, How interesting. The only time in the service when they smile is when they’re giving their money. Yes, God loves a cheerful giver!
In Matthew Chapter 6, verses 19 through 21, Jesus puts it all in perspective by revealing to us the attitude we should have. Please turn there with me and follow along as I read: “Don't store up treasures here on earth, where they can be eaten by moths and get rusty, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where they will never become moth-eaten or rusty and where they will be safe from thieves. Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be”.
How much clearer could He be; our treasure is not to be stored up in houses, cars, RRSPs or other worldly possessions, where it can get lost or stolen; where it needs maintenance and replacement. No, it is to be stored up in heaven where it needs no care, no maintenance, and where it is taken care of as it awaits our arrival. Not only is our treasure safe in heaven, the return on our investment is far better too! So be heavenly minded (as far as your money is concerned) so it can do some earthly good.
I hope we smile all through our worship services, but I certainly hope we all smile when we put money in that offering plate. I hope we smile knowing that we are praising God for this is an act of worship. I hope we smile because we know we are saying no to Mammon. May it be so for each one of us.