“Hear, O Israel:
“The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
These are the first words of the Shema. The Shema is one of only two prayers that are specifically commanded in the Old Testament. (The other is Birkat Ha-Mazon – grace after meals.) It is the oldest fixed daily prayer in Judaism, recited morning and night since ancient times. The Shema appears in Deuteronomy 6:4.
This is the bedrock of Jewish belief. Our reading this morning is from the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is not straying from the bedrock. He is affirming the foundation of Judaism.
There is only one God. There are lots of false gods and demons, but only one Yahweh. Jesus says you can only serve one master. We have to choose which one. We may find our lives spinning out of control. We may find we want to get closer to God, but we don’t have the time. We may find ourselves too busy or too distracted. What has happened to us in these cases? Listen to Jesus’ words.
“No one can serve two masters.
“For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other.
“You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24)
There are some difficult words in this verse. Look at the word ‘serve’ in the first line. It means slave. It means to be owned by, whether you like it or not. It could mean to serve like a husband submitting to a wife. You can only belong to one master.
If you try to serve two masters, you will hate one of them. The word ‘hate’ is familiar to you. We think of hate as a strong emotion of dislike. We hate prejudice. We hate liars.
When Jesus was speaking, in the culture of his time, he used the Eastern mindset and vocabulary. ‘Hate’ did not always mean ‘hate’ as we generally use it today, in the sense of extreme hostility or intense dislike.
Especially when it used as a contrast to love, as here, it means love less. In Romans 9:13 for example the NIV says ‘Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.’ Because of this meaning of hate, in the NLT this is translated as “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”
Jesus is not saying we will hate one of our masters. He is saying we will love one of them less than the other. We will always favour one master before the other. We will always be biased toward one master over the other.
It was normal in the culture of those times to reinforce your meaning by repeating yourself. So Jesus says we will be ‘devoted’ to one master and ‘despise’ the other. There is little problem knowing what devoted means, but despise can give us trouble. Despise is normally thought to mean intense dislike and even loathing. It also means to look down upon with contempt.
As students of the Bible, we should be aware that Jesus was not saying a person would be devoted to one master while intensely disliking or loathing the other master. Why would anyone have to hate or despise someone just because he loved or was devoted to someone else? That does not make sense. Jesus was making the simple statement that if a person had two masters, he would often be devoted to one and end up ignoring the other.
When Paul writes personal advice to Timothy, he uses the same Greek word that was translated despise. “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young.” (1 Timothy 4:12) Paul told Timothy not to let anyone ignore him just because he was young.
When Jesus was crucified, he did not hate the shame. He ignored it. Hebrews 12:2 uses the same Greek word. Jesus shows us how we should live. If we are to be true followers of Jesus, we will have to ignore the shame and mistreatment we endure.
The next difficult part is the phrase “enslaved to money”. You may be familiar with the King James version: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” The word ‘mammon’ was originally not translated. It is the actual word Jesus spoke in his native language, Aramaic. Mammon is an Aramaic term for wealth, property, or anything of value. ‘Wealth’ is probably a better translation of mammon than ‘money’. The Greeks had other words for money, but the Bible doesn’t use them. That ought to tell us something important.
Jesus is talking about mammon as if it were a god. People of the time often thought of concepts as gods. Abundantia was the divine personification of abundance and prosperity, Aequitas (Equity) was the divine personification of fairness, and Bonus Eventus was the divine personification of “Good Outcome”.
It seems quite clear that Jesus is saying with this play on words that the you cannot be a servant of the one true God and not the false gods of possessions.
We decide, by what we think about and where we spend our time, energy and resources, who we follow in life: the Lord, or our “god” of stuff.
We need to examine our hearts to see if they are devoted to serving Jesus and seeking his kingdom above all else. Or are we slaves to other desires. Are we slaves to desires of the world. Are we thinking the way the world thinks. We cannot desire both. If we are greedy for anything other than Jesus and his kingdom, we are not paying enough attention to God. We are ignoring the one true God.
Following Jesus is not easy. It isn’t just as simple as saying you are a Christian and attending church on Sunday. Being a disciple is about what we are thinking of first every single day, all day. When you have to choose, do you automatically choose God first. What is your mammon? What are the things in your life that you want more than to do God’s will?
Do you stay up late at night and find it hard to wake up for church because of something you were doing. That might be you serving mammon. Do you have theories or ideas about life you won’t let go of even when they conflict with the Bible? That might be your mammon.
“Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” Matthew 6:21
Resist the devil and he will flee. Resist your mammon, and he will leave you. Are you a Christian? Do you have the spirit of Christ in you? You can resist your mammon. You can escape slavery to mammon when Jesus sets you free. You don’t have to go back.
But it is always a choice. You have to choose your slave master. You are not free. You are going to serve one or the other. Jesus says, ignore the siren call of mammon.
Help each other to ignore mammon. Encourage and love each other. Do you see a brother or sister caught be a false god, love them. Share the truth with them. We don’t look at a brother or sister struggling with enslavement to mammon and accuse them of not being a good Christian. We pray for them first. We love them. We talk to them and encourage them to reject mammon. People aren’t slaves to mammon because they are bad people. We are struggling with mammon because we are all sinners. But Jesus has the victory.
Jesus concludes with these words: “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” Matthew 6:33
If we follow the advice of Jesus, we won’t be troubled by false gods or by mammon.