Bonhoeffer :: Chapter 17 - Mammon

We are now in chapter 17 of Dietrich Bonhoeffers’ The Cost of Discipleship.  While the last few weeks have had a very similar theme (examining our motives for our good deeds and religious observances), the sermon on the mount begins to shift gears and discuss other facets of the life of a disciple.  “Money” is the first topic he turns to, and as I read, note carefully what Jesus does not say.

19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 22 "The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! 24 "No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Something that immediately strikes me about this passage is what Jesus is not doing!  You might expect that when Jesus talks about money he would give us ethical instructions about how to deal with our money.  This would be in keeping with the general tenor of the Old Testament where God is obviously concerned that we not earn our money through oppression and exploitation and that deal with what we have honestly and charitably.  Jesus could have instructed us on the importance of using our money for the work of the Church or on the necessity giving to the poor and needy.

Jesus does none of this.  Instead he says “do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth”.  Now this is the ultimate end of economic activity and striving, both in our time and in Jesus’.  Isn’t that true?  The winners are the ones who succeed in laying up a little treasure, whether that treasure is measured in dollars or denarii.  Jesus doesn’t ask if we do this for the right motives, he doesn’t insist that if we have treasure we must take its responsibilities seriously.  He merely says “don’t”.

Now why is Jesus so adamant about this?  First he references the transitory nature of wealth in this world.  To Jesus it seems to obviously make more sense that we lay up eternal treasure rather than worldly riches that are temporary, transitory, fleeting in the eternal scheme of things.  More than that simple observation, however, is at work here.  Jesus indicates that are hearts are focused on our treasure (wherever it may be) and cryptically comments “you cannot serve both God and Mammon.”

This word “mammon” is interesting.  My Robertson’s commentary says it is the Chaldean or Syriac name for the money-god, the spiritual personification of money.  Here I must agree with one of my favorite theologians, Jacques Ellul, who says that Jesus is saying something very significant.  This identification of money as “mammon” is not at all common in Hebrew thought of the time.  Jesus is personifying money and setting it in opposition to God as an active agent.  Ellul’s analysis, which I cannot delve into here, is that money, like power, death, and so on has a spiritual reality which is in opposition to God.  Paul comments in Eph 6:12  “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world's rulers, of the darkness of this age, against spiritual wickedness in high places” and in Ellul’s view mammon is a spiritual expression of those powers.  Money in the Christian life, then, is not primarily an ethical problem (what should I do with my money) but rather a spiritual problem (how can I avoid the snare of mammon and resist its influence?)

I do not insist on this point.  It is significant to me, whatever the cause, that in this passage Jesus cautions us against idolatry only here, in regards to money.  So what is to be our attitude?  We must, by virtue of living in this world, seek to provide for ourselves and our families.  Does Jesus want us to live on the edge of poverty with no financial security?  Perhaps that is what Jesus wants.  He goes on to say in verse 25

"Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?  So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin;  and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 0 Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?'  For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This passage rebels against my “common sense” and against my instincts.  When I read I feel a need to immediately temporize, to look for other Scriptures that make more sense to me.  I am immediately aware of the Biblical  obligation to provide for my family and I think comfortingly of  the parables which approve careful planning and good stewardship.  And yet, here we are.  Jesus wants us to live lives of total and complete security.  But it is a security that is based on faith in the provision of our Father and not in our own financial provision. 

We have all heard stories of those in service to God whose needs are met supernaturally time and time again: the check in the mail for the exact amount of rent, the basket of food just when the cupboard is bare.  I know my God can provide for my physical needs but I lack the faith to lean on Him alone.

How can we practically apply these hard sayings of Jesus?  How can we serve God alone with no thought of loyalty to Mammon?  I would like to suggest two applications.  First, I think that Jesus desires for us to cultivate a childlike faith in the ability of God to provide for our needs.  I will not say that God wants us to refrain from planning for the future or from saving now in order to provide farther along.  I will say that our anxiety in relation to our finances absolutely represents a lack of faith in God’s providing power.  This is difficult I know: my wife will tell you that I do my fair share of worrying about how things will work out financially.  Ultimately, however, all of our provision is up to a God who cares for flowers and sparrows.

Secondly, I am again impressed by Ellul’s analysis of our relationship to money.  He suggests that we place money in a sacred and holy sphere in our lives and that this is the idolatry of which Jesus speaks.  We can desacralize money by entering into the economy of grace – by freely giving money away at the spirit’s prompting we mock mammon.  By lending with no thought of return, much less interest, we refuse to be bound by its seductive logic.  God knows that you need a roof over your head and food on your table.  But Jesus calls us to look to our father, and not the false God mammon for our provision.  This week, when you feel the pull of money in your life, give some away.  Whether you feel anxiety about what you will eat tomorrow or how you will pay for your children’s college,  turn all anxiety over to God and seek first the kingdom.  Only in this way will God be the unquestioned Lord of your life.