July 12 – Matthew 6:24

“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.”

This week we’re in Matthew 6:24, and since we’re working with only one verse let’s take a look at some of the words Jesus’ used here. Many of your Bibles will have a footnote on “money” at the end of verse 24, indicating the word there is actually mammon, a word of Hebrew or Aramaic origin for material possessions or wealth. Over the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, mammon was personified in writings and other art, but in the archaeological record there isn’t any evidence that mammon was ever worshipped like a deity, though that is often assumed by the way Matt. 6:24 is constructed. So mammon is just possessions, wealth, or “things.”

“Serve” here in Greek is douleuo, taken from the noun doulos meaning bondservant or slave. Slavery in the Roman world was different from the American slavery we’re more familiar with, the primary differences being that slavery wasn’t based on skin color and wasn’t a permanent condition—typically people became a bondservant due to debt and could work themselves out from under that debt. That’s not a defense of the institution in Jesus’ day (or any day), just an explanation of the differences between doulos and how we think of slavery, and of the concepts Jesus was working with among his audience. Douleuo means “to serve as a dolous/slave,” so when Jesus talks about service here he’s talking about having rendered actual ownership of yourself to the one you serve. 

Lastly, “master” is kurios, the Greek word for Lord that is often used to talk about God the Father or Jesus in the New Testament. So Jesus is giving a serious assessment of how we relate to God and material possessions, indicating that you can’t give exclusive rights to yourself to more than one Lord. More than that, this total surrender is the way we do that relating. If we’re honest we would much rather understand this teaching in terms of priorities, telling ourselves that as long as wealth and possessions aren’t a higher priority than God we’re doing fine. But Jesus isn’t talking about priorities, he’s talking about Lordship. He talks about mammon as something that owns you, not something on your to-do-list. And since only one thing can own you, there isn’t room for giving God 90% and material possessions the other 10. Surrender is an all-or-nothing deal. And aside from our ownership, our affection is binary too. Jesus says that if you love one master you’ll despise the other, so letting yourself fall in love with mammon only means one thing for your relationship with God.

The fact that Jesus talks about possessions possessing you is rather interesting; you might think you own and control it, but actually it owns and controls you. That’s one way to understand sin in general; slavery and bondage is a common metaphor for sin in the Bible (ex. Romans 6:16). Often we think we can manage our sin, control our behavior and desires, and only indulge when we choose to, but that’s a fiction we tell ourselves. I think that’s part of the reason Jesus treats this so seriously in Matthew 6:24, because we’re so prone to deluding ourselves that he wants to shake us out of our fiction. Jesus came to free us from bondage, not bad habits, so his seriousness, what I would say is concern, is understandable.

If being a doulos to sin in general, and money in particular, is such a serious threat, then we should also ask about the opposite: what does being a doulos of God mean for us? We typically don’t talk about relating to God like that; we prefer talking about being a child of God or a friend of God. But in Romans 6:22 Paul says just that, “But now…you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God.” Our American ideals of freedom and individualism make us resistant to the idea of being owned by God (because we think we own ourselves). But I wonder if, beneath the idealism, we’re most often just afraid to fully belong to God. Our fear that he won’t take care of us, be good to us, or give us what we need makes us run to other things like money that we wrongly think will treat us better. But Jesus is pointing us away from things like money, which neither loves us nor seeks our best, and away from our fear, which is a terrible guide, and instead  points us towards a loving relationship with God in which our total surrender to him provides an unshakeable security that frees us from anxiety (more to come on that next week with the passage right after this one). Especially in this difficult year, security and well-being are on our minds often, so we should keep a close eye on the allegiance of our hearts lest our fear lead us to hope in hopeless things.

Questions for Discussion

•  Would someone read Matthew 6:24 for us?

•  What stands out to you from this passage?

•  When Jesus says we can only serve one master, what exactly does that mean?

•  When Jesus talks about serving God as a master, how do you react to that? (feel free to check out Romans 6:16-23 for more on that)

•  How are you prone to turn to wealth or possessions as master instead of God?

•  Based on this passage, how do you think Jesus wants us to relate to wealth/possessions?