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De-throning Mammon

Money in the Kingdom of God

Jonathan Cornford

Finding Life in Jesus’ Hard Teachings on Money (Part 4)

  

In the last three articles in this series, I have been attempting to build a picture of the power of Jesus’ attack on money. At the heart of this attack is Jesus’ startling identification of money as Mammon, an idolatrous spiritual force that is in opposition to God and his work in the world: ‘You cannot serve both God and Mammon’. Throughout the New Testament there are consistent warnings against the accumulation of wealth, most vocally from Jesus, but also from Paul, James and John of Patmos, not to mention similar themes in the Old Testament prophets. For biblical writers, the allure of money brings both the likely implication in economic injustice as well as spiritual peril. Money has the triple effect of encouraging the illusion of our independence from God, empowering us to gratify the desires of our less-healthy selves (what Paul would call ‘the desires of the flesh’) and encouraging our natural proclivity to seek our own interests over and against the interests of others.

In short, we need to be saved from the power of money. That is, for the sake of the health of our relationships and our souls, we each need to be individually liberated from the spiritual bondage that money can bring; but also, the world needs to be saved from the destructive forces that greed unleashes. Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of climate change - an issue of planetary peril that is being driven by our insatiable hunger for more. However, we can trace the same destructive tendencies of money in a million different directions.

If these are the stakes, is it any wonder that Jesus’ language is so forceful and so uncompromising? ‘Woe to you who are rich’. ‘How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God’. ‘You cannot serve both God and Mammon’. ‘None of you can become my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.’ There is no doubt these are hard teachings - very hard teachings - but might they just also be teachings that lead us toward abundant life?

In two consecutive chapters of Luke, 18 and 19, we are given two stories about two rich men who seek out Jesus, with two quite different outcomes. One is clear about what he wants - ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ (18:18) - and is given an equally clear answer: ‘There is one thing lacking. Sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me’(18:22). He went away sorrowing, prompting Jesus’ pained observation about camels and needles. The other is wary of Jesus, but then surprised by his graciousness; his unprompted response comes flowing out: ‘Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything I will pay back four times as much’, leading Jesus to joyfully declare, ‘Today salvation has come to this house!’(19:9)

Yes, these are both stories about ethics and justice: in both cases there are questions about the means by which these two men became wealthy and the role they each played in perpetuating an oppressive social structure. But they are equally stories about salvation; they are about the narrow way that leads to life. In both cases, the gospel writers make it clear that Jesus is concerned for each of the rich men as an individual person. The more we can move past the suspicion that Jesus is demanding a heroically ethical standard of us, and the more we can see that he has our liberation in centre view, the better equipped we will be to approach Jesus’ hard teachings on money.

'There is one thing lacking ...'. Jesus and the rich young ruler, Luke 18:22

The message of Jesus must always be understood as fundamentally a message of salvation. Our problem is that we have made the idea of salvation too small and too remote – pie in the sky when you die. When the Bible talks about salvation, it is always talking about a movement from death to life that must begin in the here and now and it is always addressing our actual experience of entrapment by forces which squeeze life and goodness out of the world. The concept of salvation applies to immediate individual circumstances, to whole people-groups suffering from oppression, to the interior state of our souls and to the health of the whole ecological order. (For a longer discussion of ‘the economy of salvation’, see Manna Matters, Nov 2010). In the case of money, we are in trouble at every one of these levels.

So what do we do about it? I want to put forward the crazy idea that inherent in Jesus’ teachings are a basic set of practices that work to defuse the power of Mammon and that these practices are, as in Moses’ summing up of the Torah, ‘not too hard for you, nor too far away. […] No, the word is very near to you.’ (Deut 30:11-14) Once we dig into what Jesus taught on money, we find a series of basic, consistent principles that each of us can begin to apply in some way or another.

There are three essential dimensions to the New Testament’s teaching on money: renunciation, generosity and gratitude.


1. Renunciation: The liberation of saying no

Consider the following two statements:

  1. money is a spiritual power that can have an enormous hold over us, whether through desire (the things money can get for us) or fear (what might happen to us without it);
  2. we cannot live without money; we are surrounded by it and it passes through our hands every day.

Clearly, this places us in a tricky position. Moreover, as I mentioned in the first article in this series (May 2015), Mammon is a belief system that has its own theology and laws which are instilled in us every day: time is money; money is security; money is essential to happiness; money must ‘work for us’; money is the most valuable thing we have to give. The whole point about idolatry is that you don’t have to like an idol to still believe that it would be prudent for you to make the sacrifices it demands.

Jesus’ concern is to break this illusion and help us come to a deep understanding of the truth that there is no security except in God and that the most important and valuable things in life cannot be bought and sold. And so he says things like, ‘Sell your possessions and give alms’ (Lk 12:33); ‘Do not store up for yourselves wealth here on earth’ (Matt 6:19); and ‘None of you can become my disciple unless you give up all your possessions.’(Lk 14:33)

Again and again, Jesus is effectively calling his followers to say ‘no’ to Mammon because that is the only way to break its power. And because we are beings made up of body and soul, spirit and matter, our saying ‘no’ to Mammon needs to be both spiritual and actual. That means giving it up. The aphorism so often spouted by Protestants, ‘It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, as long as you don’t treasure that wealth’, is complete bunkum. Likewise, the very selective reading of 1 Timothy 6:10, ‘It is the love of money, and not money as such, that leads us astray’, amounts to a denial of the plain meaning of the passage (6:3-19) which is a clear warning against wealth.

Jesus repeatedly asks his followers to actively and materially say ‘no’ to the destructive force of Mammon in the world and to show up the lies of Mammon by breaking its laws. This was the example of Jesus himself, whom Paul emphasises ‘became poor’, and the community of his disciples who ‘gave up everything’ to follow him. They were an assembly of the poor who broke the laws of Mammon at every turn, and, in doing so, turned the world upside down.

At this point, some readers will be getting distinctly nervous. Am I seriously suggesting that you have to give away all your money to follow Jesus? The answer is no. It will come as some relief to readers to know that the church, even from the earliest days, has never taught a literal observance of Jesus’ teachings on money - although, I hasten to add, there have been saints through the ages who have taken them literally. But not taking these teachings literally does not mean that we do not need to take them very seriously. We are already pretty good at this with other parts of the gospel - when Jesus says, ‘If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off’, we understand immediately that he does not actually want us to cut our hands off, but to take sin very seriously. Why have we found this movement so difficult with his teachings on money?

All of us - and those of us in the wealthy West more than any others - need concrete practices of saying ‘no’ to Mammon to break its power. And, of course, the easiest way to do this is to give it away. When we simply give away money that we could have rightfully kept for ourselves, we commit a heresy against the laws of Mammon; we act according to another law and another Lord and, in doing so, we de-throne Mammon, turning money back into a mere means of exchange.

This does not mean that we need to give away all our money, but we do need disciplines of giving that take us out of our comfort zones. I have written about this at length elsewhere (see ‘Living with an open hand’, Manna Matters, August 2011), but, generally speaking, a healthy mix of giving should include a measure of structured giving (tithing) which is built into our household budgets as well as acts of spontaneous generosity (almsgiving) that are unplanned and uncalculated.

Another important way of renouncing Mammon is to choose not to earn it in the first place. This has been a key component in Kim's and my decision years ago to only work part-time and to be satisfied with lower wages if we thought we were doing the job we ought to be (see ‘Less is more’, Manna Matters, April 2013). Other examples would be passing up a promotion to stay working in a position where you feel you can do the most good; or if you are in business or self-employed, charging lower rates than the market for the goods or services you provide; or accepting a lower dividend of profits in order to employ more people. The point is, besides foregoing an opportunity to make more money as a healthy act in itself, there are thousands of scenarios in life where we can achieve substantive good in the world if we can only resist the allure of money.

The practices of responsible consumption (see Manna Matters, August 2013) are also a form of renunciation. Choosing to pay a higher price for the sake of more just and ecologically sound practices, when we could easily pay less, clearly contravenes the laws of Mammon; just ask all those economists who have decried the fair trade movement because of its flouting of the laws of the market.

It is worth ending this section with a final observation about renunciation (saying ‘no’). Our culture has generally got the wrong end of the stick about this aspect of religious faith and it is widely looked upon with disdain. Movies such as Babette’s Feast and Chocolat - both of which I enjoyed - have been less than helpful in this regard. They both painted a very grim picture of dour religious asceticism – one that has some basis in history, but is typically overplayed - which is set free by the discovery of the sensual pleasures of food. If these movies had played to audiences caught up in a life-denying spiritualised and pharisaical asceticism, they might have struck the right note; however, the actual audience – us – was a culture that is hopelessly mired in addictive self-gratification of almost every kind. If ever there were a people who needed to rediscover the meaning of renunciation, it is us.

Let us get this straight. The way of the gospel is the way of renunciation:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. (Mk 8:34-35)

Whether it be money, community, forgiveness, prayer, fasting or service, we are in every dimension of Jesus’ teaching being led out of the abyss of ‘self’ and into the communion of love that is the only viable habitat for life. The teaching on money is just one subset of this great movement.

Finally, let’s not confuse renouncing Mammon with denying the goodness of material things. In fact, it is via the path of renunciation that we are liberated to discover the true goodness of the material world that God has created, but more on that later.


2. Generosity – the movement toward the other

So far, I have been discussing giving as a means of renunciation; however, it should also be clear that Jesus doesn’t just call us to practices of giving as a negative act against Mammon; he is also calling us to respond powerfully and materially to the need we see in the world.

Jesus seems to advocate reckless generosity: ‘Give to everyone who begs from you’ (Matt 5:42). Once again, it seems impossible to take such a teaching literally. With the profusion of charities these days (some of them questionable) employing aggressive and intrusive marketing strategies to corner their slice of the charity pie, we clearly need some means of filtering and deciding who we give to.

Similarly, the issue of direct begging on the streets is one that contains a knot of ethical, moral and spiritual conundrums for which it is impossible to come up with some sort of rule that adequately covers all cases. There are times when it is good to say ‘yes’ and times when it is right to say ‘no’, but unfortunately most times it is completely unclear. What does seem clear is that Jesus never wants us to be unaffected by such situations. He is calling us out of ourselves and into the pain of the world and the character of that movement is overwhelmingly one of grace and generosity.

If I am honest, I must admit that I find this extremely difficult. I am much more comfortable with a practice of giving, even if it is difficult, that clearly delimits my moral obligations. I usually don’t feel at all generous to those asking me for money. But I cannot get around the fact - and I have tried - that the generosity that Jesus is calling us to is open-ended. This means that generosity is something that I need to cultivate, spiritually and practically, and there will never be a point when I can say to myself, ‘Now I am generous enough’.  


3. Gratitude – the economics of content

As well as beginning to look for ways to say ‘no’ to Mammon and ‘yes’ to others, another key dimension of financial practice implicit in Jesus’ teaching is the cultivation of gratitude. It is hard to point to a single text that makes this point because the whole New Testament is so awash with thanksgiving that we often fail to notice its presence. It is like a vivid background that sets off a foreground scene – you don’t notice its effect until it is taken away.

Almost every time we see Jesus breaking bread in the gospels, he is giving thanks. The letters of Paul are full not only with his own thanksgiving, but also continual exhortations to be thankful, and very often he has people’s material circumstances in mind. In Philippians he says something rather like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’ (Phil 4:6) We should take Paul very seriously when he writes to the Colossians, ‘Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving’ (Col 4:2). For Paul, prayer and thanksgiving are essential to staying alert to what is truly happening in life; it is essential to seeing clearly. We cannot hope to have a healthy relationship to material things if we are not properly, even reverentially, thankful for the goodness of the earth’s bounty and that part of the earth’s gifts that we call ‘ours’.

Gratitude ignores the voices and comparisons about what we could have, or should have, and instead pays close and mindful attention to what we do have and to the essential goodness of material creation: ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving’ (1 Tim 4:4). Gratitude recognises that every thing that money procures for us comes to us from the earth, perhaps even at the cost of the life of another living creature, and comes through the labour of another person. That is, these things come to us at a cost which is more than just the monetary price. That is why so much of the economic instruction of the Torah is about observing limits to our consumption, in one way or another. (See ‘So Shall We Reap’, Manna Matters, August 2015 for a discussion on observing limits.)

Gratititude is the essential precondition for that other foundational biblical attitude to material goods: contentment. In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. At the centre of this prayer is a disarmingly simple request about economics: ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ (Matt 6:11). I have written about this before at greater length (see Manna Matters, November 2013), but essentially this is a way of praying that orients us to an economy of ‘enough’. The instruction on prayer is then followed by a teaching on a positive attitude to fasting (and note, the assumption is ‘when you fast’, not ‘if you fast (6:16-18)); the teaching on treasure (‘Do not store up treasure for yourselves’) which we have already discussed (6:19-21); a teaching on taking responsibility for how desire is shaped within us (‘The eye is the lamp of the body’, 6:22-23); the teaching on Mammon (6:24); and finally, the extended teaching on ‘Do not worry about tomorrow’ (6:24-34). Taken all together, we can see that an extended sequence of the Sermon on the Mount is given over to teachings that all point, in one way or another, to the importance of being content with what we have.

This theme is taken up strongly by Paul in that often-misrepresented passage of 1 Timothy 6:

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Tim 6:6-9)

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul takes this idea even further:

For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:11-13)

Here Paul is expressing a liberation to enjoy good things when they come to him. Having renounced the pursuit of material things, he is able to appreciate their full goodness when they come his way.

This is not some deep spiritual mystery; it is something we all know at some level. My kids love lollies, but Kim and I don’t often let them eat them. By today’s libertarian standards, we must seem almost authoritarian, although we are really only following the parenting norm of about thirty years ago (when we were kids). I have seen kids guzzle a whole bag of lollies and hardly pay attention to what they are eating; however, my girls get genuine pleasure out of eating one or two lollies. By learning to be content without lollies in their life, they can experience in lollies a goodness that is otherwise hard to detect in our culture’s abuse of them. Economists know this as the law of diminishing returns: the more you have of something, the less enjoyment it brings you.

One of the truly great tragedies of the glutted affluence of modern consumerism is that we get so little enjoyment out of the earth’s good resources that come through our houses on the way to landfill. We have turned luxuries into necessities and made that which is wondrous, commonplace. As Wendell Berry and others have pointed out, our problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough. We don’t actually recognise and give thanks for the true goodness of the material things that surround us and so are trapped on a treadmill of fleeting consumption and disposal. As a culture, we have gained the whole world, but lost our soul.

Right at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus pointed us to this paradox: it is the meek - those who claim nothing for themselves - who inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). Only those who don’t feel the need to claim the earth’s good things for themselves can see how truly good they are. The economy of God begins with thankfulness.

So far I have been describing an attitude of gratitude and contentment but not really a practice. The key practices of these attitudes are not rocket science:

  1. Limiting and curtailing consumption across the board. For most of us, this means attempting to reverse the process by which luxuries are normalised. This is incredibly difficult, like swimming upstream, and can really only be done one thing at a time.
  2. Becoming conscious and then proactive about how desire is being shaped within us. This means taking arms against the sea of advertising and image production that surrounds and choosing to limit our exposure to such manipulation.
  3. Becoming conscious that we all measure ourselves by comparison to others. The key question is, who are we comparing ourselves to? Forget the Joneses; as Paul says, they are ‘trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction’. If you have spent time in a developing country, then you have there a much healthier frame of reference by which to evaluate your material standard of living. If not, a good rule of thumb is to use your grandparents at your age as your frame of reference. If they are still alive, quiz them about their standard of living. Cultivate these alternate frames of reference.

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I began this series by asking a seemingly simple question: what is money? It turns out that answering that question – even in secular terms – is not at all straightforward. Nevertheless, for all its complications, money is merely a tool created by humans and it is a wonderfully useful tool. It is perhaps one of our most amazing inventions. However, such is the nature of fallen humanity and our disordered desire that we have transformed money into something much more - an idol of immense spiritual power and destructive force in the world. As with all idolatry, we have become enslaved by the work of our own hands.

Understanding that this is our condition is essential to understanding the intent of Jesus’ teachings on money. What I have been attempting to convey through this discussion is the movement from bondage to liberation; from the abyss of self into the communion of love; from death to life. There is no doubt that these teachings are hard, but I hope that as we understand his intent more clearly - the method to his madness - that they will begin to seem less hard. Moreover, I have tried to stress that just because we do not, and most of us cannot, take his teachings literally, does not mean that we should not take them very seriously. In the seemingly simple practices of renunciation, generosity and gratitude, we find a deep and multi-dimensional response to the problem of money, one that exorcises it of the spirit of Mammon and allows us to reconsider anew, and from an entirely different standpoint, the uses of money within the kingdom of God. Indeed, this whole series on money can be understood as just one case study, one outworking, of Jesus’ foundational proclamation, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand’.

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