Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

62. Mammon (Matthew 6:19-24; Luke 11:34-36; 12:33, 34)*

“Lay not up for yourselves treasure upon earth.” The Lord’s teaching on how to live the New Life was bound to be seriously incomplete if it laid down no principles about a right attitude to money, for in the minds of millions money is the great reality in life.

Pharisee righteousness had been shown to be bogus. So also Pharisee wealth - that which they chose to esteem as a God-given reward for their righteousness.

Jesus was too practical in outlook to deny money a place in the lives of his disciples, but the smaller the part it can be made to play the better. For the pursuit of riches is worse than the pursuit of pleasure. Appetite for the latter becomes sated, and in any case palls with advancing years. But not so the lure of wealth. For, no matter how much money a man accumulates, he always has some satanic reason for wanting more, if only as an insurance policy against the loss of what he has already accumulated.

Again, motive!

The corrective Jesus applies is in the two words: “for yourselves”. In this field, as in so many other aspects of human activity, all depends on a man’s motive. It is when the owner of wealth regards the money as his that it becomes “a root of all kinds of evil”. But what a need there is for a scrupulously honest attitude of mind in this. The heart of man is self-deceiving. How it can delude its owner into a state of “let’s pretend”! So easily a man may persuade himself that his money-making motives and intentions are right, when in fact they hide from himself his own true ambitions and aspirations. He is a rare individual indeed who can live the simple life whilst accumulating wealth to be turned to good account in the service of God.

“Moth and rust corrupt”

Desire for money and for yet more money is all too often an expression of fear. Men and women seek security in life, and money is their way to achieve it-so they think! But Jesus says differently, for “moth and rust corrupt”. This is strange language to apply to gold and silver, which all the world knows to be marvellously durable. Yet here is Christ saying that gold is flimsy as the garment on your back, and that your silver is unsightly and corroded as if it were old iron. Peter picked up this perspective from his Lord, caustically reminding that a Christian’s redemption is “not with corruptible things, as silver and gold.” Instead, still quoting Jesus, there is “an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (1 Pet. 1:18, 4).

James also: “Go to now, ye rich men ... Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you” (5:1-3). But here James seems deliberately to switch to another word for “rust” in order to link up with Ezekiel’s prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (24:6 AV: scum).

In modern terms (the Lord’s warning implies) not only will your elegant clothes and curtains and carpets get the moth in them, and your fine cars rust away, but also your stock-market investments are subject to slump, your real estate may be taken over by the government, your accumulation of valuables is an incitement to burglary. Wealth, your main security, is itself not secure. So says the wisdom of the Book of Proverbs. “Do not slave to get wealth; be a sensible man, and give up. Before you can look round, it will be gone; it will surely grow wings like an eagle, like a bird in the sky” (23:4, 5 NEB).
In another place there is the warning: “One in a hurry to grow rich will not go unpunished” (28:20 NEB), the point here being that when money-making is a man’s target his moral principles become elastic and he is tempted to adopt shady methods in order to achieve his aim the more efficiently.

Paul’s commentary

Paul’s exhortation to the wealthy reads like a running commentary on the precepts of his Lord, without actual quotation of the words: “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded (the normal reaction of the well-to-do being precisely this, that they think themselves in the “upper class” in more ways than one), nor have their hope set on the uncertainly of riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute (out of their material prosperity), willing to communicate (that is, to share fellowship); laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come (here is the true “security”), that they may lay hold on that which really is life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Here, there is the build up of the same kind of antithesis as was made by Jesus: “But lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven ... for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” It is an appeal to his disciples to see the worldly life and the life in Christ in their proper proportions. In the same way Paul, switching from literal riches to the figurative, proceeded to exhort Timothy to “guard the deposit” (6:20), as though he were a banker holding in trust valuable moneys on behalf of his clients, the ecclesia.

Rich and Poor alike

It is important to note that the Lord addressed his warning about the uncertain “security” of wealth to rich and poor alike. This is seen from the allusion to “treasure in heaven...where thieves do not dig through nor steal.” Palestine is a country of fine limestone where all save the poorest had solidly-built stone dwellings, whether big or small. But the verb “dig through” implies the poorest class of all, living in cottages of dried mud. Jesus was not taken in by appearances. He knew that, whether a man has five pounds in a Post Office savings account or whether he has a bulky portfolio of investments in government securities, he thinks more of his money than almost everything else. The exception to this rule is rare indeed.

The positive counsel: “Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven”, can only mean, in this context: “Let your use of money be directed by the highest, and not mere mundane, considerations.” There are, of course, in the lives of all, the normal day-to-day expenditures which are an integral part of one’s routine. Jesus spoke of one’s attitude to the overplus which the ordinary worldling would regard as “treasure” to be laid up either against the proverbial rainy day or with a view to a self-indulgent spending spree later on.

And the spirit of the Lord’s teaching carries also the unspoken precept: And let your personal self-discipline see to it that that overplus is as large as possible. His word to the rich young ruler was: “Sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me” (Mt. 19:21). And after much hesitation and sorrow he did just that (see Study 148). By contrast with him the portrait of the Rich Fool in the parable (Lk. 12:16) was painted from the real-life experience of thousands.

In Luke the context of these words is somewhat different but the lesson is the same: “Sell that ye have and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens J that faileth not ... For where your treasure isl there will your heart be also” (12:33, 34). Thus Jesus teaches one of the secrets of learning how to love other people: Practice generosity towards them; the effect will be greater on you than on them.

This counsel is all of it palpably good and right, and yet human nature will not have it. It goes too much against the grain. Jesus foresaw this also. He therefore proceeded immediately to a serious warning against dishonest thinking. There is a big temptation, when faced with the exacting idealism of Jesus, to react with: “Well, of course, the Lord does not really mean this” -and then to go on to interpret or “bend” his teaching so as to bring it down to a lower, more matter-of-fact, and therefore more palatable, level. “Take thy bill and write fifty.”


So Jesus bade his disciples look well to their motives: “The lamp 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. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness.”

There is no man without a power of self-awareness, which enables him, with greater or less efficiency, to scrutinize his own mental processes, prejudices, and emotions. This is what is meant by the remarkable proverb: “The spirit (mind) of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the inward parts of the belly” (Pr. 20:27) - and here “belly” is a metonymy for a man’s natural appetites. In some this remarkable faculty can be so acutely developed as to come near to making life miserable. In others it may be so smothered and stultified over the years through dishonest thinking as almost to atrophy altogether- and then “how great is that darkness”!

The Lord’s warning against self-deception regarding the right use of money needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Incessantly a man should be scrutinizing his own motives and intentions with as scrupulous honesty as he can muster. Without this inner light flooding every corner of his soul, he will almost certainly continue, or end up, attempting that which Jesus declared impossible.

Attempting the impossible

“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” There is no adequate ground for believing that there was a Syrian god called Mammon. The word was commonly used in a bad sense to describe riches. It is probably derived from a Hebrew or Aramaic root which means “causing to trust” -an apt summary of the confidence people repose in their wealth.

Jesus was quite unequivocal. The service of God is incompatible with the service of mammon. The two cannot be successfully undertaken together. It is to be noted, also, that Jesus did not envisage the possibility of mammon being a slave to its owner. Only the reverse relationship is possible, that is, unless God is the master. Yet in every generation there are plenty of those bearing the name of Christ who think they know better than their Lord. They can serve both God and mammon. At least they are not prepared to admit defeat until they have spent long dedicated years in the attempt.

It is possible to sort out with precision the application of this vivid vigorous picture of a slave frantic and disorganized in his attempts to carry out simultaneously the instructions of two radically different masters. Since no man would go so far as to hate God, it must be the other way round-either he will hate mammon, and love God; or else he will hold on to mammon, and despise God.

In experience this is how it works out. The disciple of Christ who really loves the service of God comes to positively hate mammon for the large part which, willy-nilly, it insists on playing in his life. On the other hand when a man holds on to mammon, it is because (as the Greek text implies) this is where his real confidence and dependence is. Thus he despises God, as one unable to provide the help and support which he thinks he can count on from his money.

As a community how do we stand when assessed on the basis of the rigorous principles enunciated here? What manner of persons are we, and what manner ought we to be? Is there much difference?

Notes: Mt. 5:19-24

Literally: stop treasuring up treasure.
An almost childish repetition of v. 19 - because although the lesson is very simple, men are very slow to learn?
Single means (a) generous; 2 Cor. 8:2; 9:11; Rom. 12:8; Pr. 11:25.

(b) without an ulterior motive; Eph. 6:5.

1 Chr. 29:17 LXX has the same word.
Evil. In some places, as here, it means ‘niggardly’; Dt. 15:9; Pr. 23:6; 22:9; 28:22. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth to the Lord” (Pr. 19:17) - and God is in debt to no man.
Serve...mammon. A startling expression! People always think of money as a servant, not a master.


Sell... and give. The antidote to v.29 and its worry about material things.

Wax not old. In a wilderness journey of faith nothing wears out; Dt. 29:5.

Treasure in heaven. But you have to have faith that you really have that unseen treasure.

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