“No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
As Jesus preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom to His disciples and listening Jews, He shows them that a man cannot have more than one master. He cannot please two masters with different goals at once! While the principle may hold true in many circumstances, Jesus has one strong concern in context: service to “mammon.”
“Mammon” is the Aramaic word for “riches.” Some speculate that the pagans served an idol they called Mammon, but there is no substantive evidence for this. If Mammon is not one of the gods of the pagans, about what does Jesus speak?
Paul helps us to understand in Ephesians 5:5 (also Colossians 3:5):
For this ye know of a surety, that no fornicator, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Paul considers the covetous man to be an “idolater.” In so doing, Paul is not attempting to say that people who are covetous actually bow down before the object of their desire. Instead, Paul is saying that the man who is covetous is, in effect, committing the same sin as idolatry!
Idolatry is a sin because it represents the exaltation of some aspect of creation into an object of devotion. In the end, it does not matter if one is exalting or “deifying” an actual object like the sun, moon, or some statue, or some desire or idea, like money, sex, or philosophy. If it is something that gets in the way of serving God, it is an idol, and must be removed!
This is what Jesus means when He says that man cannot serve both God and mammon: not that mammon is an idol before which you physically prostrate yourself, but it does represent the powerful force of money.
Even though America does not have an official religion, one could easily say that the unofficial religion of America is the worship of the “Almighty Dollar.” Many people are in constant pursuit of it. Lives are entirely consumed with the attempt to obtain more and more money. As recent conditions have proven, people are willing to take all kinds of risks and cross all kinds of moral and/or ethical boundaries if they can make money by doing so. Oftentimes other forms of cost are not considered: as long as the practice or service makes money, that is all that is important.
Sadly, many reap what they have sown. They may make a lot of money, but it does not make them happy. Their pursuit may cost them their family, their friends, their identity, and their relationship with God. Other lives may be damaged because of the pursuit of money.
Therefore, Jesus and Paul are quite right to condemn covetousness as idolatry, as a god of this world that ultimately cannot satisfy.
It is not as if money is inherently sinful; one can be materially wealthy and yet not enslaved to it. In order to do so, one cannot trust in the uncertainty of riches, but instead use that material wealth for God’s purposes in order to obtain spiritual wealth (1 Timothy 6:17-19). But it is the love of money that leads to all kinds of pain and difficulty (1 Timothy 6:10). Few are the rich in this world who enter into God’s Kingdom; it is too easy for them to trust in that idol rather than the true God (Luke 18:23-27)!
Idolatry takes place when we take something that God has created as good and turn it into the ultimate purpose in life, and so it is with money. Money represents the ability to purchase items for use. We must use money for godly purposes, and not allow ourselves to become servants of our money. We must respect the strong temptation that exists toward covetousness and avoid it strongly. We must learn to be content with the blessings with which God has already blessed us (Ephesians 5:4, 1 Timothy 6:6-8). When we do make money, we must use it to first provide for our own, and then have some left over to give to those in need (1 Timothy 5:8, Ephesians 4:28). Let us use money to serve our Master, and not make money our master!