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Unmasking Mammon

What is money?

Jonathan Cornford

Finding Life in Jesus’ Hard Teachings on Money (Part 1)

When it is a question of money, everybody is of the same religion ~Voltaire


We all need money. It is impossible for us to live without it. But have you ever paid attention to Jesus’ teachings on money? Have you ever noticed how hard, unreasonable and unrealistic they seem? And have you ever noticed how little these teachings are dealt with in churches? Yet Jesus talks about money and possessions more than any other subject, so however we interpret his teachings, we simply cannot say that they are not important. What are we to make of it all?

In this article, I propose to begin the task of trying to unravel the New Testament’s extensive teaching on money, attempting to pay attention to its spiritual depth, its hard-headed realism, its nuance and complexity, and asking how such teachings can possibly translate into a 21st century consumer society. I say I will begin this task here because it is going to require an ongoing series of articles over multiple editions of Manna Matters. My main thesis throughout will be that although these teachings seem hard and confronting, their ultimate concern is not to make following Jesus a test of sacrificial living, but is rather to lead us into fullness of life. But before we can explore that territory, we need to address the seemingly modest question, ‘What is money?’

What is money?

During the Great Depression, Archbishop William Temple spoke out strongly against the financial system that had brought such suffering to the poor. The financiers of the City of London were outraged and sent a delegation to try to convince him that he couldn’t possibly understand things like economics, and he should just stick to religion. But in the midst of the discussion, one financier let slip that he had spent his whole life working with money and yet he still didn’t know what it was.

We all know that money is simply a medium of exchange. I do work for someone who pays me in money, then I can take that money to the grocer to exchange it for food. Our trust in this system is so complete that almost our entire lives are lubricated by, and dependent upon, exchanges of money. How remarkable that so few of us understand what it actually is, or how it works.

At its most basic level, money is a system of trust, or a series of promises. I accept money from my employer, rather than bread and meat, because I trust implicitly that the grocer will accept that same money in exchange for food. He in turn trusts implicitly that he can then just as effectively use that money to buy the things he needs. As long as everyone agrees about the value of money, the system works wonderfully.

For a very long time, this system tended to be based on precious metals (gold and silver coins) because everyone agreed they were valuable. But because coins are so heavy and bulky, banks in the Middle Ages adopted an idea learnt from the Chinese and started issuing paper notes, saying they would promise to pay whoever held one of these notes the marked amount of coinage. The currency of the UK, the pound sterling, was originally a note that promised the bearer a pound of sterling silver coins should they choose to cash it. After a while, nobody bothered about the coins any more and people just starting trading the notes with one another. This meant that banks could simply start creating money, irrespective of whether they had the gold or silver coins in their vaults or not, as long everybody didn’t suddenly turn up demanding the coins that their notes promised. That is, the paper notes worked fine, as long as everyone felt confident about the bank issuing them. By the 1970s, any final links between paper money and precious metals (known as the gold standard) had completely disappeared.

Today, very little of the money in the world has any solid basis in reality. Less than 3% of the global money supply exists in the form of notes and coins created by governments – what most of us think to be money. That vast majority of money in the world today is literally created by banks and only exists as electronic records of promises. These electronic fictions can be traded as money for as long as anyone values them as such. It is the ultimate refinement of the Emperor’s New Clothes. An entire global economy of something like US$75 trillion is propped up by money that only exists as long as everyone agrees it exists … until some pesky little kid suddenly calls out: ‘Hey, these collateralised debt obligations aren’t worth crap!’ Then you get the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the Eurozone Debt Crisis, ‘budget black holes’ in our own country (see 'Manna Gum's back-of-the-enveolope Budget Papers'), and whatever the next instalment will be …

Observing this fantastical world of smoke and mirrors, Philip Goodchild, a philosopher of religion, has quite rightly pointed out that money is, in fact, a belief system. Indeed, it is a massive collective belief system, and the belief in the value of money has its own kind of theology. Although money is the ultimate (human) power in the world today, as a thing it has no use, no value and no power at all, except that power which we all, by consensus, give it. And that is the perfect definition of an idol. When you start to think about money like this, it is hard not to be struck by the fact that the currency which undergirds the global financial system, the US dollar, is emblazoned with the confession, ‘In God We Trust’.


Jesus v. Mammon

Halfway through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus drops a bombshell: ‘You cannot serve both God and money’ (Matt 6:24). The language is uncompromising. He doesn’t say that it is hard to do, or unwise to attempt; it simply cannot be done. At this point, we really should be sitting up and taking notice. What does he mean?

The Sermon on the Mount is perhaps as programmatic a statement of Jesus’ faith as we can find anywhere in the gospels; it is hard to overstate its importance. It is no small thing, then, that a significant portion of the Sermon on the Mount is devoted to money (all in chapter 6). The progression goes like this:

vv.19-23: ‘Do not store up treasure on earth … where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’; healthy eyes fill you with light, unhealthy eyes fill you with darkness

v.24: ‘No one can serve two masters … You cannot serve both God and money’

vv.25-34: ‘Do not worry about what you will eat and drink and wear … strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness’

The first set of teachings (vv.19-23) concern the things we own (our treasure) and the things we desire (direct our ‘eyes’ to), observing simply and directly that the things we own and the things we desire can lead us to profoundly misdirect our lives. The third set of teachings (vv.25-34) expounds a ‘right ordering’ of our material lives, recognising that we have real material needs, but situating those within the bigger idea of ‘the kingdom of God and his righteousness (or justice)’. There is much to be unpacked in both these teachings and this shall be taken up in later articles, but for now let it suffice to note that it is the teaching on money that is the hinge between the two.

What is particularly striking about Jesus’ teaching on money in verse 24 (‘wealth’ in some translations) is not just that it is unequivocal, but that he chooses a very particular way of naming it: Mammon. Jesus’ use of this term is striking because although it was not unknown, it was not a term that had, excuse the pun, wide currency. Mammon was an Aramaic word for referring to money or riches which held strongly negative connotations – it is thought to derive from the Aramaic term (mumu) which means ‘that in which one trusts’. But Jesus’ use of the term goes beyond normal usage – in this teaching, mammon is personified, given the full force of idolatry and put in direct opposition to God: ‘You cannot serve both God and Mammon’.

Why is Jesus so forceful and unreasonable? Doesn’t he realise that we need money to live? Is this just the unrealistic idealism of a rustic Galilean peasant?

Actually, in Jesus’ day it was already true that, for very many people in the Roman Empire, money was a practical necessity for daily life, and he was well aware of this fact. Although we never see Jesus with any money in the gospels – when being tested by the Pharisees about paying tax to Caesar he has to ask them, ‘Show me the coin used for the tax’ (Matt 22:19) – we know that Jesus’ disciples used to keep a common purse (John tells us that it was Judas who managed it!) to pay for things and to distribute to the poor (Jn 13:29) and that they were all at times supported by some wealthy women (Lk 8:2-3). So Jesus is well acquainted with the uses of money.

When Jesus identifies money with Mammon, he is powerfully drawing our attention to a fact that we should all be able to realise simply by looking at the world or paying attention to our own lives – money has become much more than just a means of exchange. It has become a spiritual force. That is, Jesus is locating money in the same category of things discussed by the Apostle Paul when he states: ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph 6:12).

In recognising that money is a spiritual force, we are acknowledging not only that money is a crude form of power that humans can wield to gain ‘possession’ over things, even over other humans, but that it is also a form of power that is liable to possess the possessor and none of us is immune to its reach. Such is the power of money that even the poor can be utterly possessed by the enticement of what it promises.

It is not an overstatement to say that money is now the ultimate form of power among humans today. Even the world’s greatest superpower must bend its knee before the dictates of money. Why have wealthy countries so dramatically failed to take the action on climate change that is needed? Why does the G20 baulk at taxation reforms that could rein in vast and accelerating global inequality (see 'Where do you rank?: Perceptions of wealth in Australia')? Why does our own government so savagely cut services and benefits to the poor while leaving in place the much more expensive and economically damaging largesse to high income earners (see 'Manna Gum's back-of-the-envelope Budget Papers')? Why have churches been so appallingly slow and miserly in their responses to survivors of child sexual abuse? All have the same answer: the power of money.

We have all come to believe in a very deep way in the power of money to solve things. Although we talk of faith in God, and we have hopes in the support of family and friends, our actions tend to belie the fact that the one thing we really trust to help us or secure our future is money.

Likewise, when we turn to the big issues of justice and poverty in the world, our first instinct is to think that the main problem is lack of money. As I have previously written (Manna Matters, Nov. 2011), one of the shortcomings of the Make Poverty History campaign was that it tended to give the impression that more foreign aid could solve world poverty, without confronting the fact that a very large part of the world’s ‘aid’ programs (including Australian Government aid) support global economic structures that are causing and deepening poverty and inequality around the world.

Over my years of monitoring foreign aid in Laos and Cambodia, I saw again and again how even well-conceived aid projects could be ruined by too much money. Similarly, Tim Trudgen, in his series of Manna Matters articles on remote Aboriginal communities (from May 2012 to Nov 2013), has shown how the spending of large amounts of money has frequently served to deepen the disempowerment and dispossession of indigenous communities, while comparatively miniscule amounts can be put to enormous benefit by community members when accompanied by real empowerment.

Indeed, the history of aid and welfare demonstrates that it is actually very difficult to ensure that the spending of large amounts of money does not have unintended negative outcomes. Again and again, where money has been most constructively employed, it has been in smaller amounts in the hands of humble, committed, sensitive and wise people. That is, where money has been put to good use, it is the human difference that really counts.

And it is for this reason that Jesus speaks so forcefully about money. Our trust in money must ultimately fail us and our belief in its power is misconceived. It cannot bring us the life that is our salvation and it cannot accomplish justice or healing in the world. Not only that, following the dictates of money leads us imperceptibly, bit by bit, to be people who end up reproducing damage in the world, rather than people who are bringing healing and reconciliation.

That is why Jesus unmasks money as Mammon – a false god that promises life and leads us to death. Money has its own logic and its own commandments and we simply cannot serve that logic and serve God at the same time. The two are irreconcilable.

I believe it is this starting point of recognition that lies at the heart of understanding all of Jesus’ hard teachings on money. Whether it is his teachings on giving, renunciation, the use of money in community, poverty or hospitality, all are part of his program of de-throning Mammon and turning it back into mere money. We all need money. It is impossible for us to live without it. But if we are not to be led astray, and even more so if we are to put it to some good uses in the world, then we must first learn to see it aright. After that, we need a set of practices that will help break its spiritual power, and it is to these that we shall eventually turn in the following articles. But before we can do that, we still need to clear away some abiding misconceptions about money in the gospels ...

[Next edition: Re-examining the Parable of the Talents]

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