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. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you, be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor yet for your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than the food, and the body than the clothing?
Behold the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you of much more value then they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to the measure of his life? And why are ye anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and to-morrow is thrown into the fire, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore be not anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? For after all these things the Gentiles seek; and your heavenly Father knows that you need of all these things. But seek first His kingdom, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
“No one can serve two masters”, says Jesus. Sounds fair enough, doesn’t it? While I don’t suppose any of us have been slaves with masters, as such, it certainly makes sense to say that, while it might be technically possible to have two masters it would be practically impossible to serve both. Sound right?
I always remember Kierkegaard’s sermon on this passage. He says we keep mis-hearing Jesus, thinking that He says that we shouldn’t serve two masters, and not that we can’t.
We take this as an exhortation, that we should stop serving multiple masters and just focus on the one master (ie. God), but Jesus doesn’t say that we shouldn’t serve two masters. He says that we can’t – that it’s not possible. We might think that it’s possible but it’s not possible. We might want to serve two masters and we might try to serve both masters, but it doesn’t work!
That’s a bit simplistic of Jesus, isn’t it? After all, isn’t it the very essence of modern life that we have multiple responsibilities and competing commitments, and isn’t it the mark of mature adulthood that we manage to balance those numerous responsibilities and maintain our multiple commitments to the various persons to whom we are responsible? And surely there’s nothing wrong with the concept of serving more than one master? Surely it can be like loving multiple children or, more relevant still perhaps, like working more than one job – not easy, but not impossible either?
Jesus says it’s not possible. It’s not that it’s not desirable, and it might seem possible from a distance, and we might fool ourselves into thinking that it is possible, but the reality is otherwise. We can’t serve two masters. We can’t!
It’s not like loving two children or working two jobs. It’s more like trying to be a devoted fan of two football teams that are in competition with each other. It just doesn’t work. You end up either on one side or the other – ‘hating one and loving the other, or holding to one and despising the other’. You can’t love both God and mammon (though of course, if you don’t know what ‘mammon’ is, you might think you can get away with it).
How should we best translate ‘mammon’? It’s not a word we normally use nowadays, is it? ‘Money’ perhaps? That’s how some modern day versions of the Bible translate the word. ‘Worldly wealth’ perhaps? I’m tempted to translate it as ‘common sense’ – that you can’t serve both God and your ‘common sense’, for the illustrations Jesus gives that follow about birds and lilies absolutely defy our common sense!
‘Consider the birds of the air’, Jesus says. ‘They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet they seem to be doing alright!’ They don’t have savings, bank accounts, houses or any sort of worldly security, but they don’t have mortgages or bills to pay either. They seem to be doing just fine! And ‘consider the lilies! They never worry about clothes, but they look great!’
This is the sort of talk you might expect from an idealistic teenager, isn’t it – “I’m going to leave this rat-race and commune with the wild animals of the forest – live like a bird, clothe myself like lily!’ – and we mature adult types say, “yeah, good on you son”, because, while living like the birds sounds great, common sense tells you that it’s not going to work for the long term!
Mind you, if you’re looking for common-sense guidance, I don’t really think the Bible is the place to go. I’d sooner recommend a particular classic of Western literature that I find myself regularly consulting when I need common-sense advice, and it’s Dr Harold Shryock’s, “On Becoming a Man”.
Subtitled, “A book for teen-age boys”, you can tell from the pictures on the cover that the book was published around the time that “Leave it to Beaver” came out on the TV (1951 in fact), but even so, the advice Dr Shryock gives is timeless, and let me read to you some of his advice regarding mammon. I’m reading from chapter 17 – a chapter entitled, “Handling Money”.
“I believe that this book is the place to discuss the principles underlying the handling of money and the planning of finances. I am sure that if you, as a teenager, can gain an understanding of these principles, your future will be much happier. Also while you are still in your teens you will have the satisfaction that comes from controlling your own affairs successfully.
You are now in a transition period. If you are still living at home, your logding and food are doubtless being provided by your parents without cost to you. If you are away from home, attending boarding school, maybe your parents are still taking the responsibility for most of your expenses. But even though you are still largely dependent upon your parents for support, you need to learn how to handle money. You are at the threshold of your adult life, and you need to develop skill in planning the use of money and arriving at a favourable balance between income and expenditure.
You should be preparing now for the time when you will be entirely on your own resources. You must not expect a miracle to happen by which you will suddenly become able to act wisely in money matters. Now is the time for you to learn to take care of money, even in small amounts. The fact that it is your parents’ money that you are using does not make a dollar less valuable than if you had earned if yourself.” (pp. 142-143).
I’m going to skip to the end of the chapter, bypassing Dr Shryock’s exciting discussion of the joys of budgeting, to get to his final topic: savings (p.150)
“Of course there are circumstances under which a teen-age youth may be justified in spending what he makes as fast as it is earned. These situations are exceptional, however. When a teen-ager forms a habit of spending money simply because he has it, this habit will probably follow him through life, with the result that he will never build up a reserve of funds.
It is a great source of satisfaction to be able to say, “I have a little money in the bank.” Too often a teenager allows himself to find his satisfactions in the gadgets and things he has purchased. But by a little self-discipline he can learn to find just as great satisfaction, if not greater, from the awareness that I am worth $75 or $150, or whatever the amount may be. It is also reassuring to be able to say, “I could purchase that new suit if I chose, for I have enough money in the bank to pay the price, but I believe will get along with the old suit a little longer.” To be able to buy something “if I wanted to,” is far pleasanter than having to admit, “I would like to have a new jacket, but I have already spent the money I earned last payday, and I have nothing saved.”
Now I could continue with this process of edification, as there are indeed plenty more gems to mine from, “On Becoming a Man”. Indeed, if only I, as a younger man, had read some of the good doctor’s chapter on “Secrets about girls”, I might have saved myself a lot of heartache and perhaps have less children (though far less joy in my life – not something I’m ready to sacrifice).
At any rate, I will leave “On Becoming a Man”, but I can’t do so without making the somewhat startling observation that Dr Shryock – the author of the book – does actually consider himself a Christian! Indeed, two chapter after his chapter on ‘Handling Money’, is the chapter, ‘What about Religion?’, where Shryock extols the value maintaining a personal faith.
And contrary to what we might have anticipated after the previous chapter, it’s not a pagan faith that he extols, nor a Buddhist, nor a Jewish nor even an Islamic faith, but a Christian faith – a faith in Jesus – the very man who said, “Don’t worry about money. Let the day’s worry be sufficient unto itself!”
Now it’s not my place to judge Dr Shryock and more than it’s my place to judge anybody else here, but I think we do need to be perfectly honest about this: The Lord Jesus did not recommend prudent budgeting. He did not recommend savings or security or anything of the sort, and the Lord Jesus would have found no satisfaction at all in being able to say, “I am worth $75” or even “$150”! Such things meant nothing to Him and they’re not supposed to mean anything to us either! It doesn’t matter if you’re worth $75 or 75 cents, “For is not the life more than the food, and the body than the clothing?”
We need to be clear about this: a persons life does not consist in the abundance of his or her possessions, despite all the propaganda that would suggest otherwise! And let’s be clear about this too: that this is not because food and drink and clothing are necessarily bad things in themselves.
It’s not that we purge the body in order to purify the soul. Jesus’ teaching here has nothing to do with the spiritual value of an ascetic lifestyle. There’s nothing wrong with eating and drinking, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing clothes. Indeed, most of us probably feel a good deal more comfortable in clothes. It’s a matter of priorities.
“Do not be anxious, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, How shall we be clothed? For after all these things the Gentiles seek; and your heavenly Father knows that you have need them. But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
That’s the issue. It’s not that eating and drinking and clothing yourself are bad things to do. It’s just that who has time to worry about them when you’re focused on building God’s Kingdom and pursuing His ‘righteousness’ or His ‘justice’ (depending on how you translate that term).
Get preoccupied with God’s Kingdom and His justice – spend yourselves for the poor, open your home to the homeless, give without expecting anything in return and love until you bleed, and God will take care of the rest. That’s the promise.
It’s not that food and drink and clothing or even money are bad things in themselves. It’s just that you can’t serve two masters.
You might think you can. You might want to give it a go – serving mammon during the week perhaps and God on the weekends. And you might want to fool yourself by saying that you ‘gave at the office’ and telling yourself that you are still committed to serving the poor and the needy while you’re busy storing up for yourself the very assets that the poor and needy need in order to survive, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll know that you actually need to make a choice.
You can’t do both. You can’t serve both masters. You can’t build God’s Kingdom if you’re busy building your own empire. You can’t pour yourself out for God and for those in need if you’re busy pouring yourself into building up your own assets. And so Jesus warns us that likewise we won’t find a Heavenly security for ourselves if we’re too busy securing a place for ourselves on earth. It just doesn’t work like that!
It’s all a bit crazy – the alternative Jesus offers: abandoning the sensible life of middle-class respectability for a life modelled upon birds and plants, and yet the miracle is that it works. As all of us who have abandoned our earthly securities in order to pour ourselves into works of love and justice know, God does provide. We do find that we have food and drink and clothing a plenty, even if we have no earthly guarantee that it’s going to last.
But that’s the joy of it – the joy of faith. That’s what it means to serve the right master. And that, Jesus says, that is ‘life in abundance’.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill.