The Worship of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon, Evelyn de Morgan 1909, De Morgan Centre, London, UK.

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Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.”       Luke 16:13.

When I was on Wall Street, I felt empty. I tried to fill that hole inside me with money and power and prestige. But that hole doesn’t get filled by money — it gets filled by connection and empathy and love (Sam Polk: Why I walked away from Wall Street—and millions of dollars). Last Sunday I talked of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge and their relentless pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything and everyone else. Marley realized his mistake in doing this on his deathbed; Scrooge relived his whole life (and its ending) with the help of his three spirits and came to the same conclusion, and knew what had to be done to make amends. Today’s readings carry the same message; in the gospel’s own words, You cannot serve both God and mammon. That word mammon comes to us directly from the Bible, and derives ultimately from the ancient Aramaic term for money or wealth. As a teacher of many years, I know that many young people are really focused on making as much money as possible, today even more so. The thinking is to make enough so that they will not retire into poverty and squalor, convinced that America’s social security funding will evaporate and knowing that many companies do not have pension schemes for their employees. So today’s perception of wealth seems to flying the face of Jesus’ words stating wealth contradicts God. So perhaps the whole question rests on Jesus’ use of the verb serve. Does one serve wealth or God? Is our priority here to make money exclusively or to be true to the gospel? 

In the same 1951 Christmas Carol movie I drew upon last week, Scrooge’s first two efforts to atone when he woke up on that Christmas Morning (following his nightmarish adventure) were to send a huge turkey as a gift, anonymously, to his clerk Bob Cratchit; the other, on the same day, was to give his housekeeper Mrs. Dilber a present into her hand of a gold sovereign (a valuable gold coin in circulation at that time) and a raise in wages.

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A Christmas Carol, Renown Pictures Corporation 1951,  Alastair Sim & Kathleen Harrison.

Her incredulity at the change in Scrooge’s temperament and attitude can be seen clearly: is this the same man who has treated me so poorly for years? Scrooge himself cannot believe the change within himself; he even says he doesn’t deserve to feel so happy as he plans his new life! What he does, of course, is immediately to help those around him whom he has abused for so long. At long last he has recognized and accepted their dignity and given them the respect that every person deserves, including even his own family. So the question is, is that incompatible with making money, with making a living? Clearly not. It is legitimate and necessary to earn enough to keep body and soul together so long as we never forget those around us who are not so fortunate. Christians have an obligation to assist others who are in need, even if it does hurt somewhat to give of one’s own wealth. Remember the story about the widow’s mite and Jesus’ teaching that we should give of our substance, not just “contribute” where we would not really miss the amount. In other words, we have to intend to be and actually be generous, and hence be pleasing in God’s eyes, especially if no-one knows about it except God…  So this means that wealth – mammon – is not the beast in charge of our lives, but rather our servant, slave even, actually helping us to become true Christians, loving God and neighbor and also ourselves in appropriate and unselfish ways. And so it, mammon, wealth, serves us rather than the other way round. As a consequence, we should be able to achieve the peace that the second reading today talks about, when St Paul says, “It is my wish, then, that in every place we should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

The Widow’s Mite, Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo c.500, Ravenna, Italy.


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