Here is a comment that jesusandthebible made on my article, “Is Wealth a Blessing or a Curse?”
So you can love God and mammon, as long as your heart and character are right? But if your heart loves mammon–as well as God–Jesus says that heart actually hates God (Mt. 6:24). Jesus commands his disciples not to lay up treasures on earth (Mt. 6:19). Instead, sell treasured possessions, give to the poor, and have treasure in heaven; for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also (Mt. 6:20-21; Lk. 12:33-34). The only rich follower who did that in the Gospels was Zacchaeus, who gave half of his goods to the poor and repaid four times as much as what he had gotten from fraud (Lk. 19:1-8).
Thanks for bringing up these passages! There’s more here than can be answered in a brief comment, so I’m taking it up in its own article.
When reading the Bible, it’s important to:
- Pay attention to the exact words, not passing over or adding anything to the text.
- Put particular verses and statements in the context of the story in which they are embedded, and of related statements elsewhere in the Bible.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at these passages.
The first three passages, from Matthew, are all part of the same section from Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount” that covers Matthew chapters 5–7. Here is the full sequence of these passages (leaving out a brief interlude on the theme that “the eye is the lamp of the body”), in a fairly literal translation of the original Greek:
Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust cause them to vanish, and where thieves dig through and steal. But treasure up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust make them vanish, and where thieves do not dig through and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. . . . No one is able to serve two lords; for either he will hate the one and he will love the other, or he will hold to the one and he will despise the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:19–21, 24)
“Mammon” comes from a word that occurs in various ancient languages, meaning wealth or greed, often personified as a false deity. In simple everyday terms, that final statement of Jesus means, “You cannot serve both God and money.”
In good Biblical fashion, let’s take this last statement first.
Notice that it does not say, “You cannot love both God and money.” It says, “You cannot serve both God and money.” Yes, they’re related, but they are not the same!
For the love of money, or for the love of God?
We humans love all sorts of things. Some of them are great and wonderful, like God, goodness, and love. Others are small and relatively unimportant, such as ice cream, roller-skating, and high-heeled shoes. We are perfectly capable of loving both God and ice cream. And the Bible has no problem with that, as long as we keep them in the right order.
What we can’t do is serve both God and ice cream.
Okay, okay . . . . My apologies to those of you who work in ice cream parlors. That was a bad example! 😉
So . . . umm . . . we can’t serve both God and high-heeled shoes.
If we think high-heeled shoes are the most important thing in life, that makes it impossible for us to serve God. Instead of doing what God wants us to do, which is to love God above all else and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:36–40; and see my article, “How Do I Love My Neighbor?”), we’ll be busily devoting our lives to amassing a collection of high-heeled shoes to rival Imelda Marcos’s.
Okay, that’s a bit of a silly example, too.
But you get the idea. Jesus does not say we cannot love both God and money. He says we cannot serve both God and money. One of them will be more important to us than the other. And if money is what’s most important to us, we will come to hate and despise God, because God tells us that we should not put money first—and we don’t want God telling us what to do.
Another way of saying this is that we must not love money more than we love God. God is to be the “lord” whom we love and serve, whereas money is to be a mere servant, and not our lord and master.
Do not treasure up for yourselves . . .
Now let’s look at the first sentence of Jesus’ statement:
Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust cause them to vanish, and where thieves dig through and steal. (Matthew 6:19)
A quick reading of this passage may suggest that it means we should never save any money, or amass any wealth.
But notice that it says, “Do not treasure up for yourselves treasures on earth.” It’s not about whether or not we save up money and amass wealth. It’s about our motives for doing so.
If we’re storing up money and amassing wealth only for ourselves and our own benefit, that is not a good thing. We humans don’t really need all that much to live. A roof over our heads, food, clothing, warmth, companionship. Yes, these things cost money. But the basics needed for our survival, plus a little extra for recreation and relaxation, don’t cost that much money.
If we keep on piling up more and more money beyond what we need for the necessities and comforts of life, what is our purpose in doing so? What do we plan to do with all that wealth?
If our plan for piling up more and more money involves giving ourselves more and more power, possessions, and pleasure, then we are headed for spiritual destruction. We are serving money, not God.
But if our plan involves putting our money to use in serving God and our fellow human beings, we are not storing up money for ourselves. And even if we originally were making money solely for our own benefit, if over time we have a change of heart and decide to use our money to benefit humanity, then we are no longer storing up money for ourselves.
Jesus is not concerned about storing up money in itself. He’s concerned about our motives for doing so. If we are driven by a love of money (otherwise known as greed) in order to serve ourselves only, then we are running afoul of the teachings of Jesus.
But if we are not storing up money only for ourselves, but are using it for the benefit of others in small or large ways, then it is not evil, but good.
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also
The question is, where is your treasure? What do you treasure most in life? Do you treasure money and wealth for its own sake, and for everything it does to benefit you and you alone? If so, your treasure is an earthly one, and sooner or later it will be eaten by moths and stolen by thieves.
However, if above all you treasure love for God and love for your fellow human beings (aka “the neighbor”), then your heart will not be in any material treasures you may have amassed. Rather, that earthly treasure will simply be a tool in your hands that you can use to do greater good for your fellow human beings.
This saying about treasure in Matthew segues into Jesus’ famous teaching that we are not to worry about our life, what we will eat and drink, and so on, but are to seek God’s kingdom first, and all of these other (material) things will be given to us as well. See Matthew 6:25–34, and the parallel passage in Luke 12:22–34, which comes to the same conclusion: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This is also one of the places where Jesus says, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.”
Once again, we must read the passage carefully, and not add or subtract words. In this passage Jesus did not say, “Sell all of your possessions and give to the poor.” He simply said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor,” without specifying how many of our possessions we must sell and give to the poor. For that, we need to look at other examples found in the Gospels.
Do we have to give all of our wealth to the poor?
Many wealthy people are in fact “selling their possessions and giving to the poor.” With much of their fortune they have set up large charitable foundations in order to help people in need, and make the world a better place for everyone.
In doing so, they are following the example of someone in the Bible whose actions Jesus approved and celebrated. The example of Zacchaeus helps us to understand what Jesus did and didn’t mean when he said, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”:
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1–10)
Now, notice: Zacchaeus did not give away all of his possessions to the poor. He gave half of his possessions to the poor, and promised to make quadruple restitution for anyone he may have cheated.
Did Jesus say, “Sorry, Zacchaeus, you must give away all of your possessions”?
Jesus accepted Zacchaeus as a saved man, based on his pledge to give half of his possessions to the poor, and make generous restitution for any financial wrongdoing he may have engaged in. Assuming Zacchaeus wasn’t too dishonest in his past dealings, he would still be wealthy after carrying out his pledge. He just wouldn’t be quite as wealthy.
Zacchaeus was not Jesus’ only wealthy follower. Another was Joseph of Arimathea, who is called a disciple of Jesus, and who provided the fine tomb in which Jesus was laid after he was crucified. For that story, scroll down to the section on “Working for Love and Money” in my article, “What Does Religion Have to Do with My Profession and My Daily Work?”
Yes, Jesus did tell at least one person to give away all his money (see Matthew 19:16–22; Mark 10:17–22; Luke 18:18–23). It seems Jesus realized that this man’s heart was in his money, and that the only way this very wealthy man could put God before money was to divest himself of all of his wealth.
But Jesus did not tell all of his followers to give away all of their money. Those who were able to put God first even while having money could continue to be wealthy, provided that they used their money wisely for the benefit of others in addition to themselves.
So the question is: Where is your heart? Where is your treasure? If for you money is an obstacle to putting God first, then you may have to divest yourself of it in order to focus your life on doing God’s work.
But if you are ready and willing to put your money in service to God and your fellow human beings, then God will welcome you among the saved just as he welcomed Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, wealthy as they were.
Serve God, use money
If we read the Bible carefully and pay attention to its exact words, and if we put together the various statements and stories throughout the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, we find that it says something different than the common interpretation that if we have money, we must give it all away in order to be a Christian.
The teaching of the Bible about money is not simplistic. It is deep and thoughtful. It takes into account the different spiritual states of everyone who is willing to listen to its wisdom.
For those whose hearts are so deeply attached to money and wealth that they are bound to serve money instead of God, the Bible does teach that it may be necessary to give it all away in order to remove that obstacle to salvation and spiritual life.
But for those whose hearts are moved more strongly by love for God and love for the neighbor than by the love of money, the message of the Bible is that our money is to be used not just to benefit ourselves, but to serve God and our fellow human beings.
God is our master. Money is just a servant. Keep it that way!
Thanks again to jesusandthebible for bringing up some fine points and great Bible passages!
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