Serving God or Mammon 

 

Materialism: Epitome Of The Flesh

The very structure of the Hebrew language suggests that we ought not to focus upon things as merely things- material-ism in the literal sense. Rather the world of [perceived] things in which we live should be interpreted by us as a world of persons, of ideas beyond the material things. "There is no equivalent for the word "thing" in Biblical Hebrew. The word davar , which in later Hebrew came to denote thing, means in Biblical Hebrew: speech, word, message, report... promise, story, utterance, acts, manner, reason, cause... but never "thing". [This is] an indication of an unwarped view of the world, of not equating reality (derived from the Latin word res, thing) with thinghood" (1). It has been pointed out that only one of the ten commandments is repeated twice: "You shall not covet". In the days before underlining or italic print, emphasis was achieved by repeating a word twice- e.g. "Justice, justice" (Dt. 16:20); "Comfort, comfort" (Is. 40:1). This sober emphasis upon not coveting was surely a reflection of how God perceived the huge danger of His people seeking to 'possess' things as theirs.

There is fair evidence that in God's eyes, our attitude to materialism is the epitome of our spirituality. The Lord places before us only two possible roads: the service of God, or that of mammon (Aramaic for riches / wealth, Mt. 6:24). We would rather expect Him to have said: service of God or the flesh. Indeed, this is the choice that is elsewhere placed before us in the NT. However, the Lord evidently saw " mammon" as the epitome of all the flesh stands for. It is probably the view of many of us that while we have many areas of spiritual weakness, materialism is not one of them. But according to the Lord, if we are reading Him rightly, our attitude to the flesh generally is reflected in our attitude to wealth. This is why the Bible does have a lot to say about the sacrifice of 'our' material possessions; not because God needs them in themselves, but because our resignation of them to His service is an epitome of our whole spirituality. So great is the Lord's emphasis about this, that He suggests in the parable of the crafty steward that if we use our worldly things prudently, when we spiritually fail, the fact we have used them wisely will bring us into the Kingdom (Lk. 16:9). This implication that we can almost buy our way into the Kingdom is hyperbole. This is a device the Lord commonly used in His parables: an exaggerated statement to make a point. When He spoke of the good shepherd leaving the 99 good sheep to go chase the foolish one, this doesn't really mean that He does in fact leave us. He will never leave us. But so great is His love of the lost that it's as if He leaves us for the sake of finding them. Or the command to gouge out our eye if it offends us. This is a gross exaggeration; but our self-deprival of those things which lead us into sin requires the same self-will and self-mastery. So in Lk. 16:9, the Lord is saying that the use of our material possessions is so important that it's almost as if (in the hyperbole) we can buy our way into the Kingdom. He made the point in so many words in Lk. 11:41: " Give alms of such things as ye have (i.e. regardless of how small); and, behold, all things are clean unto you" . Paul seems to have these words in mind when says that to the pure, all things are pure (Tit. 1:15)- as if he saw the epitome of purity as being in giving what we have. “The ransom of a man’s life are his riches” (Prov. 13:8) likewise suggests that our attitude to riches is one of the things that decides our eternal destiny. David likewise perceived the vital importance of truly giving, not just on a surface level: " Thou shalt grant it me for the full price, that the plague may be stayed" (1 Chron. 21:22). He saw that God's response to his request would only be if he gave fully to the Lord, rather than using another man's generosity with which to approach God. The crucial choice is serving God or mammon.

Speaking in the context of serving either God or mammon, the Lord uttered some difficult words: " Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth...the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness...how great is that darkness!" (Mt. 6:19-22). All this is in the context of not being materialistic. The Lord is drawing on the OT usage of " an evil eye" - and consistently, this idiom means someone who is selfishly materialistic (Prov. 22:9; 23:7; 28:22; Dt. 15:9). The NIV renders some of these idioms as " stingy" or " mean" . A single eye refers to a generous spirit (1 Chron. 29:17 LXX), and a related Greek word occurs in 2 Cor. 8:2; 9:11,13 with the sense of " generous" . So surely the Lord is saying that our attitude to wealth controls our whole spirituality. Whether we have a mean or generous spirit will affect our whole life- an evil [stingy] eye means our whole body is full of darkness. Just let this sink in. If we are materialistic, our whole life will be filled with darkness, whatever our external pretensions may be, and there is a definite link to be made here with the " darkness" of rejection. The riches of Jericho are described with a Hebrew word which means both a curse, and something devoted (to God; Josh. 6:18). This teaches a powerful lesson: such riches of this world as come into our possession will curse us, unless they are devoted to the Father. Mammon is an “abomination” (Lk. 16:13,15)- a word associated in the Old Testament with idol worship. We are to not only be free of such idolatry, but despise materialism.

In line with the above evidence, there are not a few Bible passages which confirm this view of materialism, as the besetting temptation of every human soul, and which confirm that therefore our attitude to materialism,  serving God or mammon, is the litmus test of our spirituality. The parable of the sower teaches that for those who begin well in the Truth, who don't fall away immediately or get discouraged by persecution, " the deceitfulness of riches...the cares and pleasures of this life" will be their temptation. I would have expected the Lord to either speak in more general terms about the flesh, or to reel off a list of common vices. But instead He focuses on the desire for wealth as the real problem.  The love of wealth is the root of all evil behaviour (1 Tim. 6:10). And I would go further, and suggest that so many of the excuses we hear which relate to " I haven't got time" (for reading, preaching, meeting, writing...) are related to this desire for material improvement. The desire for advancement takes an iron grip on a man's soul. As we move through life, our thinking is concerned with prices, with possibilities, with schemings... what ought to be the surpassingly dominating aspect of our life, the Son of God and His Truth, takes a poor second place. Eph. 5:3-5 has some surprises for the attentive reader; the black words on white paper have an uncanny power: " This ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ" . These are the sort of words we whisk past, in the relieved confidence that they don't apply to us. But covetousness is there listed as a carnal sin, along with sexual perversions. That's how bad it is. No one who is covetous will be in the Kingdom. And therefore it's hard for a rich man to be in the Kingdom. In fact, the Lord says, it's humanly impossible for a rich man to get there; it's only through God's gracious working to make it possible that it can happen, that a rich man will scrape into the Kingdom (Mt. 19:23-26). Every one of us has the elements of covetousness very close to the surface. Materialism is perhaps the direct equivalent of idol worship under the old covenant. They were to not even desire “the silver and gold that is on them…for it is an abomination to the Lord thy God…thou shalt utterly detest it; and thou [like God] shalt utterly abhor it” (Dt. 7:25,26). God despises idolatry; and we also must go a step beyond merely avoiding materialism; we must despise it.

So serious is the tendency to material acquisition that the Lord uses a telling hyperbole in Lk. 16 (in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus): He implies that the rich man was condemned just for being rich. This is hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. And the point was, that being rich is very likely to lead you to condemnation. The rust of riches is likened to the fire of condemnation and rejection (James 5:3); as gold is rusted, so the rejected at the day of judgment will be burnt. It's as if they then will be treated like the wealth with which they identified in this brief life. The possession of those rusting riches means that our judgment is going on now- " your riches are corrupted" (James 5:2). Likewise the fire of our unwise words in this life is to be seen as the fire of our future condemnation (James 3:5,6). Serving God or mammon is a choice that has eternal consequences.

It's therefore hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. Mk. 10:24 speaks of the man who trusts in riches; the parallel Lk. 18:24 speaks of him who has riches. To have riches is, almost axiomatically, to trust in them. This is the nature of wealth 'possession'. For the man who has / trusts in riches, he must bow down like the camel wriggling through the small gate on its knees, having shed all its mountain of goods. This parable was given in the context of the Lord's straight statement: " He that humbleth himself shall be exalted" (Lk. 18:14 cp. 25). As the camel rose up from its knees the other side of the gate, so within the Kingdom's gates, those who have shed their trust in possessions will likewise be exalted.

(1) Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) p. 7.