You Cannot Serve God and Mammon

Mammon is properly not “served” but “used.” It is a thing. It serves a purpose: acquiring goods that better human life. If we “use” mammon for that purpose, it’s good; if we “serve” mammon, we make a tool which should be our servant our master.

The Sunday Gospels for the past two weeks in the Ordinary Form have been about wealth and money: the Rich Man who ignores needy Lazarus, and the dishonest steward. The Gospel for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time concluded with the Lord’s injunction: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13b). Between those two Sundays’ Gospels, one might imagine Jesus is almost socialist. 

One would imagine wrong.

Both Sundays deal with responsible stewardship of wealth. Last Sunday’s Gospel in the Ordinary Form—about the different eternal fates of the Rich—demands responsible use of money, but it is not an anti-capitalism diatribe. The bottom line of the Gospel the week before that—a bottom line often repeated, including in my own essay on the text—is that people should be as single-minded in pursuit of their spiritual welfare as some folks are about their temporal welfare.  

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People remember the warning, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Perhaps they focus on the word “mammon.” One can understand why. It’s infrequently used: When did you actually hear the word outside of the Bible? In that sense, the term is exotic.

Let me suggest that the word deserving focus in Jesus’ warning is not “mammon” but “serve.” One can “serve” a person. Indeed, the classical teaching of the Baltimore Catechism is that we exist “to know, love, and serve God in this life….”  

Mammon is properly not “served” but “used.” It is a thing. It serves a purpose: acquiring goods that better human life. If we “use” mammon for that purpose, it’s good; if we “serve” mammon, we make a tool which should be our servant our master. That’s bad enough. It’s even worse when the tool so masters us that it turns other people—like Lazarus—into tools or, worse, makes them disappear from our radar.  

We must be careful about the conclusions on economic issues we draw from these texts. However, because there is a certain “quasi-socialist” mentality in some quarters of today’s Church, it is worth making clear what the Gospels do and do not say.

Take “You cannot serve God and mammon.” In its basic meaning, that injunction essentially repeats the First Commandment: “I AM the Lord, Your God. You will have no strange gods before me.”  

Whether or not he recognizes it, man is inherently a monotheistic being. There is one ultimate principle he will serve. He will have a god. The question is whether that god will be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or some other deity. As regards the latter, his choices have ranged from tangible golden calves to abstract wealth (including its tangible expressions in currency, financial instruments, precious metals, etc.).  

Money, sex, and power have historically been particularly powerful attractions in the life of man, which is why the Church has matched them with the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  

When people put money before God and His moral law, when the acquisition and preservation of wealth trumps God and His moral law, man has made mammon into his god…and it is precisely against this that Jesus warns. Money to be used becomes a god to be worshipped—and that is precisely what Jesus excoriates when, during the temptations in the desert, Jesus drives off Satan with the command, “You shall worship the Lord your God alone, and Him alone shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10).

But Jesus is not saying that wealth or its acquisition in and of itself are immoral. Wealth, sex, and power exist. They are good, but they can be abused. But, as the old maxim reminds us, abusus non tollit usum: the fact that something can be abused or misused does not therefore render its use wrong.  

The wicked steward defrauded his employer before as well as after being pink-slipped. His “squandering,” his abuse of fiduciary responsibility, triggers notice that he “can no longer be my steward.” To build a self-protection network, the steward then further defrauds his boss by adulterating his contracts.  

The Gospel notes that the employer “commended the dishonest steward” for his enterprise: by hook or crook, he protected himself, even at the employer’s expense. We have all been impressed by the audacity some people use to get themselves out of trouble: the definition of chutzpah has been said to be “killing one’s parents and then pleading in court for mercy because one is an orphan.”  

The Gospel does not say that (a) the employer gave the steward his job back; (b) disregarded his earlier profligacy; or (c) agreed to his newly adulterated promissory notes. Furthermore, the Gospel does not portray the steward’s affluent boss as bad.

It’s very clear that, despite the back-handed recognition of the steward’s brazenness, he is morally faulted for theft and dereliction of duty. He is blameworthy for disposing of what is not his in an irresponsible and dishonest manner. In other words, along with the First Commandment, the Seventh enters the Gospel: “Thou shalt not steal.” And if one can steal, it means that another owns something to which he has lawful title, (i.e., ownership of valuables is a right).  

Jesus says as much in the summary of the Gospel: a man dishonest in little things will be dishonest in large ones, a man conscientious about honesty in small matters will be reliable in big ones.  

The Gospel about Dives and Lazarus presents similar challenges. If the steward’s rich employer is not necessarily held up in a negative light, the rich man is. He is criticized for dining sumptuously and dressing well and living comfortably while ignoring a sick, poor beggar on his very doorstep. That ignorance has eternal consequences: Lazarus ends up in “the bosom of Abraham” while the Rich Man is in the fires of Hell.

The rich man’s sin is not his wealth but his irresponsibility: he does not see Lazarus on his doorstep. The same Church that teaches man has a right to ownership and private property has always also taught that man’s ownership of the goods of this world is not absolute. While the ownership of goods in the world as we know it facilitates human freedom, all goods ultimately belong to God, their Creator, who gave them for the good of all.  

The Rich Man’s fault is not, therefore, that he is rich but that he does not understand the purpose and use of those riches. He has made them his god by allowing them to blind him to other realities, including their responsible (and irresponsible) use.

Identifying these threads in the Gospels requires attention, whereas sloganeering about “mammon” and “riches” do not. But sloganeering is neither evangelizing nor Catholic social teaching. People have a right to the Gospel, which illumines how they should be leading their lives, especially in the comparative affluence that living in the United States brings most people. 

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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