The Meaning and Origin of ‘Ye Cannot Serve God and Mammon’

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon’. This is one of many famous Bible quotations. Indeed, it is one of many famous quotations from the New Testament. More specifically, it is one of many famous quotations from a single moment in the New Testament: the Sermon on the Mount.

But what exactly did Jesus mean when he warned his disciples that they ‘cannot serve God and mammon’? What is ‘mammon’?

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ contains some of the best-known teachings of Jesus Christ, although it would be a mistake to view this single sermon as representing all of Jesus’ core principles and ideas. Indeed, it’s inaccurate even to view it as a single sermon: the teachings which appear in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the Gospel of Matthew are probably taken from several different gatherings rather than one event.

Nevertheless, it’s certainly true that the Sermon on the Mount contains a number of Jesus’ core teachings. The theme of the Sermon can perhaps best be summed up with the word ‘humble’. One should pray and fast in humility, not showily; one should be humble in the number of possessions or amount of wealth one has; and one should act humbly or meekly and give oneself to God’s power.

This is where ‘ye cannot serve God and mammon’ comes in. This quotation specifically relates to the second of these examples of humility mentioned above: namely, that one should be humble or modest in the amount of wealth one accumulates and keeps.

So when Jesus addresses the topic of wealth, he tells his followers not to accrue vast treasures in this life, because ‘Ye cannot serve God and mammon’ (Matthew 6:24). Here, ‘mammon’ is an untranslated Aramaic word for ‘wealth’ or, if you like, ‘money’. So Jesus is really saying ‘you cannot serve both God and money’. In other words, you have to pick one. If your goal in life is to amass material wealth and possessions, then you will be distracted from worshipping God and following his moral teachings.

But if you instead choose to follow God’s path and do as Jesus recommends, you will not be distracted by material wealth, and will be welcomed into heaven when you die. There you will be much ‘richer’, spiritually speaking.

Because ‘mammon’ is juxtaposed with ‘God’ in Jesus’ famous saying, mammon came to be viewed as a kind of demon, as Isaac Asimov notes in his guide to the New Testament.

Indeed, in Book One of Paradise Lost, his great epic poem about the Fall of Satan and the subsequent Fall of Man, John Milton (1608-74) makes Mammon not only one of the fallen angels who follow Satan into Hell, but the worst of the lot:

There stood a hill not far, whose grisly top
Belched fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire
Shone with a glossy scurf—undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic ore,
The work of sulphur. Thither, winged with speed,
A numerous brigade hastened: as when bands
Of pioneers, with spade and pickaxe armed,
Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,
Or cast a rampart. 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.

In other words, Mammon has always been corrupted by wealth, and in heaven he used to get distracted by heaven’s gold pavement beneath his feet, when he should have been looking up towards God.

So, in short, ‘ye cannot serve God and mammon’ is a call not to channel one’s energies and life’s efforts into acquiring wealth, but to focus on developing spiritual richness, through following God.

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