In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24b, King James Version). It’s clear from the context that mammon means “wealth,” and the Lord is juxtaposing two forces competing for our allegiance. But there’s so much packed into this six-word sentence that it’s worth exploring more thoroughly.
Here’s a peek at how other Bible translations render this passage:
- You cannot serve both God and money. (New International Version)
- You cannot serve God and wealth. (New American Standard Bible)
- You cannot be slaves of God and of money. (Holman Christian Standard Bible)
- You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. (New Living Translation)
Let’s take a deep dive into the word “mammon” and uncover what it means, how the church has used it, and what Jesus was trying to communicate about material possessions.
Where did we get the word mammon?
Like many words in the Bible, mammon is a transliteration. To understand what this means, it’s helpful to understand the difference between transliteration and translation.
The Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic languages use entirely different writing systems. If you’re a native English speaker with no background in these languages, documents in these languages will not make any sense to you. They’ll simply look like a jumble of symbols.
Take, for example, the Greek word χριστός. If you’re entirely new to Koine Greek, that word won’t mean anything to you. But when it’s transliterated as chrīstós, it becomes a little more accessible to an English speaker. You still won’t understand it, but at least you’ll be able to sound it out. This is a transliteration, and it’s more focused on pronunciation than meaning.
Now, if I’m a Bible translator, I’m faced with a choice. What should I do with the word chrīstós? I can translate it into a word that conveys its meaning. In this case, I might translate it as “anointed.” Or I might simply take the transliterated word and Romanize it as “Christ.” This means that I create a new English word that’s very close to the transliterated Greek word.
This happens quite a bit in the Bible. Words like sabbath, apostle, baptism, and mammon are all examples of transliteration.
The Greek word μαμωνᾶς is transliterated as mamōnas. In the first English translation of the New Testament (1382–1395), Wycliffe and his followers translated mamōna into richessis (riches) in Old English. But King James translators opted to keep the transliterated and Romanized mammon (mammona in Latin).
What does mammon mean?
There is some debate about the origin of the word mammon. It would appear to come from the Aramaic word māmōnā, which would make sense since it’s likely that Aramaic was Jesus’ primary language. But because Aramaic shares such a close relationship with Hebrew, it appears that it might derive from the Hebrew mihamon—which literally translates as “from accumulation.”
It makes sense that mammon would be translated as “money” or “wealth,” but it might be better translated as “greed” or “riches.”
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Is mammon a literal demon?
Personification is when you attribute a personal nature to something non-human. In this case, Jesus talks about mammon as if it can be worshipped like God. This personification had a significant impact on early theologians.
Gregory of Nyssa was a bishop in Cappadocia from 372 to 376 (and then again from 378 until his death). In a homily on the Lord’s Prayer, he made this statement:
“It seems to me that the Lord names the Evil One by many and various titles according to the variations of evil operations. He calls him by many names such as Devil, Beelzebul, Mammon, ruler of the world, murderer of man, Evil One, father of lies, and other similar names.”
The view that mammon was more than a personification of wealth abounded in early Christianity. Peter Lombard (1096–1160), Bishop of France and academic theologian, said, “Riches are called by the name of a devil, namely Mammon, for Mammon is the name of a devil, by which name riches are called according to the Syrian tongue.”
The idea that mammon was a specific demon became fairly common teaching in the church. A sixteenth-century bishop, theologian, and witch hunter named Peter Binsfeld published a list of the demons associated with each of the deadly sins:
- Pride: Lucifer
- Lust: Asmodeus
- Wrath: Satan
- Gluttony: Beelzebub
- Envy: Leviathan
- Sloth: Belphegor
- Greed: Mammon
And one of the most influential and well-read Christian poems of all time—Paradise Lost—features the demon Mammon, who is more interested in the gold of heaven’s floor than the holiness of God:
Mammon led them on—
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heaven: for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed
In vision beatific.
The leap from Jesus’ metaphoric use of “mammon” as an inhuman tool competing for our worship to a literal demon is in keeping with some of the embellishments that came out of the middle ages. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is absolutely no value from overly personifying mammon.
The lessons we receive from personifying mammon
Jesus was a master communicator. He wasn’t using an empty rhetorical device when he compared serving God with serving wealth. By following Jesus’ logic, we can take away some very meaningful lessons.
- Both God and wealth are things we put our faith in
Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (English Standard Version). This is a beautiful representation of our belief in God and His kingdom. We are so assured of God’s reality that we’re willing to make changes in our life to align ourselves with the things we hope for.
The same can be said for money. We have faith that our cash will retain its value. That we will keep being compensated for the work we do. That the financial securities we have are enough to stave off any immediate hardships.
Faith in God and faith in finances aren’t necessarily in competition. In fact, it’s entirely possible (and preferable) to believe that our finances can be used to serve our faith in God. (These 20 Bible verses on tithing provide a good view of how that can take place). But it’s also possible that the security and power that comes from money can corrupt us in ways that cause us to put more of our faith in wealth than in God.
- Our faith is revealed in our behavior
The Book of James is full of wisdom. In its second chapter, James talks about the fact that our faith and our deeds go hand in hand:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14–18).
James makes it abundantly clear that faith and works go hand in hand. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we have faith in something even when our behavior says otherwise. James wants his readers to understand that true faith in God is demonstrated by what we do.
This is also true when it comes to who we’re truly serving. We have an almost neverending capacity for fooling ourselves. We may believe we serve God, but our true allegiance is seen in how we devote our time and how we use our resources.
We must be careful not to worship God in word while worshiping mammon in deed.
- Both God and mammon require different sacrifices
Everything we worship requires something from us. Jesus encouraged his followers to follow his example and to take up their own cross. He told them to put one another first and to put themselves last.
His parables and teachings often encouraged personal and private sacrifices that would be rewarded by Jesus.
Mammon also requires sacrifices. There are a million offerings we can make to mammon. As a receiver of our worship, mammon isn’t picky. You can work tirelessly. You can horde your wealth. You can take advantage of others. There are millions of ways to serve mammon, and many of them appear to reward us faster than serving God.
John Chrysostom, the early fifth-century archbishop of Constantinople, explained it this way:
“‘You cannot serve God and mammon,’ and, ‘No man can serve two masters’ (Matthew 6:24), for they lay upon us contrary orders. Christ says, ‘Spare the poor’; mammon says, ‘Even from the naked strip off the things they have.’ Christ says, ‘Empty yourself of what you have’; mammon says, ‘Take also what you have not.’ Do you see the opposition; do you see the conflict?”
Jesus’ words in context
If we want to understand what Jesus was trying to tell us about mammon, we need to look at his words in context.
Treasures in heaven
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19–21, English Standard Version).
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins talking about treasure. Many of the things that his first-century Jewish audience would have considered valuable would have been subject to decay. Expensive fabric was in danger of moths, and precious metals could rust, tarnish, or be stolen.
Instead of putting their hope in these ultimately worthless treasures, Jesus encourages them to invest in heavenly treasures. This is in keeping with many of the things he’s already told them about what God rewards:
- Giving in secret (Matthew 6:2–4)
- Praying in secret (Matthew 6:6)
- Fasting in secret (Matthew 6:17–18)
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he promised to reward people for their sacrificial obedience. The catch was that they had to have faith that they’d receive this reward at the final judgment. This was Jesus’ promise at the end of Revelation, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12, ESV).
But he also assures his listeners that as they pour their treasures out on God’s kingdom, their hearts would be turned in that direction. Their faith would grow. As they continue to invest in God’s kingdom, the giving gets easier because their faith grows.
The lamp of the body
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness” (Matthew 6:22–24, ESV)!
Jesus then explains what he’s saying using a metaphor about sight. If your vision is healthy, your whole inner world is flooded with light. The more unhealthy your vision is, the less light there is. If your entire inner world is full of darkness, you’re in serious trouble.
And it’s here that Jesus puts an exclamation point on his discussion.
You cannot serve both God and mammon
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).
When Jesus gets to mammon, he’s driving home his point. Your loyalties cannot be divided. You can only devote your life to one master, so you must choose wisely. If you choose to serve God, you will learn to despise the empty accumulation of wealth and material things. And if you choose to serve money, you will find yourself set against the things that matter to God.
The centrality of giving
One way that we combat the encroachment of mammon into our lives is to grow in our generosity. By regular, sacrificial giving, we serve God and care for our community of faith. If your church is looking for ways to make giving simple and easy for your members, check out Sharelife Giving.
It seamlessly integrates into your website, church app, and social media through a link, donate button, or QR code. It makes it incredibly easy for people to give as the Lord prompts them.
As you consider Mammon, and what it can teach you and your congregation, you may be interested in the following resources:
- 4 Things to Avoid When Talking to Your Church about Giving
- 3 Kinds of Givers in Every Church (and How to Communicate with Them)