Friday, May 17, 2013

That Dang Mammon (Part 2)

[And he speaks again]

So, I was thinking about “mammon”.  A weird word . . . not a typical occupant of our everyday vocabulary; but such a great word . . . foreign, exotic, mysterious.

“Mammon” is Aramaic in origin (actually, it has an uncertain Semitic root, meaning “wealth, property or profit”.)  We know it only in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus. Obviously His hearers knew it well enough because He did not have to explain it to them.

To us, however, the term sounds a mysterious, even sinister, note—I mean, remember when your mother would inveigh against “the evils of mammon”. (No? Well, maybe she should have.)

Anyway, the very fact that this word is remote and impersonal renders it safe and non-threatening; i.e., the absence of familiarity allows us to treat it as something to which we need give little attention.

The fact of the matter is, however, the business of “mammon” happens to be pretty serious stuff. Jesus drew a very stark line: “Either God or mammon. One or the other. You can’t serve both.” In this text, Mt. 6:24, money is personified as an object of worship.  “Wealth in itself is not bad—but if you serve it as a slave serves his master, then your professed loyalty to God is a sham and you are fooling only yourself.”

Jesus used “mammon” in the cryptic story of the dishonest manager. Now, this guy was not held up as an icon of virtue, but he did reveal that he was teachable. He took quick action with the mammon at his disposal to cut some deals and prepare for the crisis that lay ahead of him.

You see, the sneaky, conniving steward eventually realized that he was going to have to face his Master. In the end, what he did with the money (which, admittedly, was less than stellar) showed that he understood the power and authority of the Master and the scary fact that a personal accounting would be required of him. The Master was impressed that the steward wised up and took care of business before it was too late (Lk. 16:1-8).

In the first part of this three-part series, we explored briefly the relationship between our central theological touchstone, the resurrection of Jesus, and the practice of “taking up an offering” (Paul made the connection first!)

In this second part, we want to press a little further into the utterly radical nature of Jesus’ view of money. His teachings on the subject are hard precisely because they run against everything we have been taught about growing wealth, being successful, preparing for the future, etc.  

Indeed, Jesus’ portentous take on “mammon” grabs us by the nape of the neck and gives us a good shake. He was not kidding around. Though He did not apparently advocate vows of poverty for everyone, He did promote eternal Kingdom values that simply don’t allow much room for building earthly empires.

(Parenthetical interjection: This discussion is not really about spending and saving and debt and credit and insurance and preparing for retirement and all that. I gladly leave this financial stuff to Dave Ramsey . . . who does a very good job with these important issues.

This is also not about whether Jesus was for or against capitalism or socialism. In spite of the claims of some, His ministry was not about setting up any sort of economic system.)

Jesus hit the money issue hard. He knew full well how easily it takes His place in our hearts. He knew how easily swayed we can be by the allure of wealth and all it promises. He knew that the condition of our heart and the status of our faith are revealed in the way we handle money.

He knew the lies that human society perpetuates; i.e., namely, that money brings power, promises security, and buys prestige—chimerical temptresses that lead to destruction.

The quintessential countercultural radical, Jesus simply did not share the priorities of the world He came to save (imagine that.) He came to seek and to save the lost, not save for a rainy day. He came to make disciples, not make wealth. He came to establish a Kingdom beyond this world, not build an empire.

Here are a few more crazy things He said . . . .
“Money won’t buy you everlasting comfort . . .” The “I Got Mine and I’m Good” outlook just doesn’t work very well (Lk. 16:19-26).

“A great retirement plan will not get you into heaven . . .” Actuarial tables do not account for eternity. The “Bigger Barn Retirement Plan” won’t get you there (Lk. 12:16-21).

“Invest your treasure in things that last . . .” Saving and spending wisely are good practices, but at some point you’ve got to put your money where your faith is (Mt. 6:19-21).

“Manage your money wisely—then God will know He can trust you really valuable things . . .” (Lk. 16:9-13).

“Stop worrying so much. Do you really think it all depends on you?” Really, where is your faith?   (Mt. 6:25-34)

“Trying to be good is ok, but it is pointless if you’ve made your stuff your god.” (Lk. 18:18-25)

“I want your offerings, but I want more than that.  I want everything you’ve got.” I want you, and your heart, soul, mind, and strength. I want your trust, your commitment, your loyalty, and your love . . . everything (Lk. 21:1-4).

“There is one thing that is more valuable than anything you can imagine” (Mt. 13:31-32; 44-46). Not one of us will find greater worth in God’s eyes because we had a lot of money or cool gadgets or the admiration of others. He will know His people by the fact that they seek His Kingdom above everything else.

But, of course, all of this is so strange, foreign, exotic, and unreasonable. Could it be that Jesus simply did not understand the economic exigencies of we face today?

What do you think? Was He simply out of tune with the realities of our world? I mean, He was on earth only a few years. He did not have a family, career, debts, and other responsibilities . . . and He lived a long time ago. Don’t you suppose He would change His advice if He were here now?

It comes down to a simple choice: either we take seriously what He said and figure out how to apply His teachings to our lives . . . or we carefully excise those parts of the Bible and dismiss them as archaic and irrelevant.

My sense is that He is hoping that we will wise up before it is too late.

Drawn by the ideals of the Savior—yet still a struggling captive of a broken world, I am, as always,


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