Worshiping Mammon instead of Jesus.

How religion works in wealthy countries.

Matthew 6.24 • Luke 16.13

In the United States today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, and the second-biggest shopping day of the year. Used to be the biggest, but that’s now Monday. In order to get customers to shop on their day off, stores offer outrageous sale prices, and many shoppers are so greedy and impatient they’ll do horrible things to one another.

I’ve been reading a bit lately about how American merchants have exported the shopping day to other countries, in the hope of kick-starting their Christmas shopping as well. Strikes the United Kingdom’s pundits as odd; why are they suddenly participating in an American phenomenon? And if so, why don’t they get our Thanksgiving too? Although as American merchants have proven, they really don’t care so much about Thanksgiving: They’d have us interrupt our holiday and start shopping Thursday if they can. And they do try.

The myth is it’s called black because merchants do so well, their ledgers are now “in the black” instead of “in the red”—they’re finally turning profits in the fiscal year, instead of losses. This is a lie. The police, who have to break up fights, work crowd control, and deal with trampled or beaten victims, began calling it Black Friday, and the name stuck.

Black Friday is one of our culture’s more obvious examples of Mammonism, the worship of wealth, money, material possessions, and the joy of pursuing all that stuff. Our word Mammon comes from something Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, repeated in Luke.

Matthew 6.24 KWL
“Nobody’s able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”
Luke 16.13 KWL
“No slave is able to be a slave to two masters: Either they’ll hate one and love the other,
or look up to one and down on the other: Can’t be a slave to God and Mammon.”

A few of the more recent translations drop the reference to Mammon and translate this verse, “You cannot serve both God and money” (GNB, NIV, NLT), or “You cannot serve God and wealth” (NASB, NRSV). Thing is, mamonás/“Mammon” isn’t the Greek word for wealth; that’d be hríma. It’s an Aramaic word with a Greek ending tacked on, as if it’s an Aramaic name. Hence people extrapolated the idea that Mammon is a person, and since Jesus says you can’t serve this person as well as God, it must therefore be another god.

A false god of course. But some god which competes with the LORD for our devotion. And since the Aramaic mamón is a cognate of the Hebrew matmón/“secret riches,” Mammon must therefore be a god of riches or wealth or money.

In Luke when this statement comes up, Jesus had just told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story: A shifty bookkeeper made friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. Lk 16.1-9 Jesus concludes, “Make friends for yourselves out of the embezzling Mammon.” Lk 16.9 And in the following Luke passage, the Pharisees rejected this teaching of Jesus because they were filiárgyri/“silver-lovers.” Lk 16.14

So is Mammon a money god? Or simply Jesus’s personification of money? Or a mistranslation?

Mammon’s a person?

First of all, there’s nothing in ancient literature about Mammon. Seriously, nothing.

When the word mamón came up in the Mishna, the rabbis meant money. When we’re taught to love the LORD with all our might, Dt 6.5 the rabbis say that means with all our mamón. Berakot 9.5 They sorta equated might with wealth—same as we might do. But they didn’t think of it as a person or god. Merely a power.

Archaeologists have dug up nothing about Mammon in Israel and ancient Aramaic-speaking territories. That’s not to say one of ’em won’t discover something someday, but till something gets found, all our talk about the god Mammon, all of it, is guesswork. The ancients may have never worshiped any such god as Mammon. We’re just extrapolating all of it from Jesus’s lesson.

But this sure hasn’t stopped us Christians from extrapolating away. The mind can’t handle gaps in our knowledge, and has to fill it with something. Anything. Myths if necessary.

We came up with all sorts of theories about what Mammon is. Fallen angel or demon. Elder god or spiritual force. What its motives and goals are. What it plots when we’re not looking. Popular Christian mythology (namely The Faerie Queene, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost) include Mammon as one of the demons following Satan. Our saints invented complicated theologies about where it fits into the devils’ hierarchy. Whole books were written. Whole industries were created.

All of it guesswork. ’Cause our only source of Mammon’s existence is the Mishna and Jesus, and neither of ’em define it as anything but money.

Is there any legitimacy to any Christian teachings about Mammon? Depends on who’s teaching. Any preacher who claims, “We know from the bible that Mammon is a demon,” knows no such thing. “We know Mammon is headquartered in the financial capitals in the world”—no we don’t. “We know Mammon gains power every time the market goes up”—we do not.

We know money is a force. Educated economists understand how we create it (yes, we humans create it) and how it does its thing. Uneducated people believe it has a life of its own, and attribute all sorts of special powers to it. Those are myths too. Stands to reason these same folks would imagine Mammon has a life of its own too. And that it controls money, not humans. And that we’re powerless against it—when in fact we humans have a great deal of power over everything we’ve created. Yeah, even when it gets away from us sometimes.

So I treat Mammon as the same as money. And define it as a spiritual force. Yes, it’s always possible there’s some no-foolin’ spiritual being which has attached itself to money, and claims power over it. After all, there are humans who do the very same thing; why not a devil? But it has no more power over money than we do. It’s tricking us into thinking it’s mightier than it is. We can dismiss it, because through Christ we can easily defeat it. And our fear or awe of it will simply get in the way of our understanding.

So… why’d Jesus personify it? Because it’s what poets do. When the Greeks described éros/“passion” as if it’s a being—one which could strike you with its arrows of love or hatred—it’s a clever way to describe just what it is passion can do. Problem is, the Greeks also began to mix up personification with personhood. They worshiped Éros as a god, same as they did Phobos (fóbos/“fear”) or Plutos (plútos/“wealth”—not the Latin god Pluto; notice the -S at the end). But that wasn’t Jesus’s intent. It’s not a competitor god. But it will, wrongly, get our worship, which only rightly belongs to God.

Mammon doesn’t need to be a person before humans’ll worship it. A money manager doesn’t go to any Church of Mammon to pay homage to her god; she just goes to the office. A banker doesn’t need to pray to Mammon; accessing his online bank account serves the very same function. The ancients worshiped lifeless stone gods, and Mammonists just happen to worship lifeless wealth. Worshiping a dead god is just as wrong as worshiping a spirit; the pursuit of a fake deity will lead us just as far afield.

Yeah, every once in a while some Christian claims they had a prophetic dream where Mammon is one of the archdemons, battling the holy angels with their silver arrows. Speaking for myself, very very few of the prophetic dreams I’ve heard are profound sources of revelation: It’s just their subconscious, telling ’em stuff we Christians already believe, and sometimes take for granted, and shouldn’t. Mixed in with all that are all the myths we Christians already believe. The human subconscious is an unreliable messenger, so remember this when people share their prophetic dreams. Dreams regularly represent Mammon as a being, but it’s still not. It’s a force. It’s money.

Money. It’s a gas.

Money isn’t material.

I know; pocket change is material, as are dollar bills. But these things only represent the actual value of money. That’s why people will pick up a quarter when they find one in the street, but they won’t pick up a washer. They’ll pick up a $10 bill, but not a napkin. Currency makes money appear tangible. In fact money is a cloud of mathematics, behavioral psychology, economic theory, and political theory. When we convert it into bills, coins, and bonds, we make it look tangible, solid, countable, and controllable. It may be countable and controllable, but it’s really not solid.

For the longest time, instead of bills and coins, humanity used gold and silver: Money was made of metal, and we attached a specific value per gram to the metal. (Or in the States, value per ounce.) For this reason certain people wanna put s back on a gold and silver standard: Gold, they claim, has a built-in value. Dollars don’t. But they’re wrong: Gold does not have a built-in value. ’Cause we can manipulate that value.

It’s actually easier to do with gold than dollars: One of the first events people called “Black Friday” was when Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to manipulate the New York gold market. They slowly bought up a lot of gold… then on 24 September 1869 they sold all their gold, dumping it on the market. Thanks to the rules of supply and demand, too much gold made gold’s price plummet. Gould and Fisk took advantage of the new cheap price of gold, and bought back more than they sold. And if we didn’t pass laws against that sort of behavior, people would do it again and again, just to enrich themselves. (And if there weren’t countries which can ignore our laws, gold might be a safe investment. But it’s not.)

Goldbugs insist such acts artificially alter gold’s price. ’Cause they refuse to believe gold doesn’t have a fixed value. Proving they’ve no idea how money works. All value is entirely based on what people believe it to be worth. Same with collectible comic books; same with gold; same with the dollar.

The U.S. dollar is worth a dollar because the American people believe it can buy a dollar’s worth of something. If we figure a dollar can buy a cup of coffee, that’s how far its power extends: Any coffee sold for more than a dollar is “too much,” or less than a dollar is “a bargain.” Everything gets tied to that dollar=coffee metric. We don’t even think about why they should be equal. Says who? Um… the government? The Federal Reserve? The economy? Clearly not Starbucks. The collective belief of every American? (Actually yeah, it is that last one.)

Gold works precisely the same way. Gold is worth $40 per gram because gold buyers believe it’s worth $40 per gram. When they don’t anymore, that’ll change. Might go up, or down. Claiming, “But it’s real value never changes” is the illusion: Everything’s real value changes. And you don’t want two speculators who don’t mind bankrupting the world, wielding the power to make those changes so they can make themselves rich. That’s why we left the gold standard.

Stocks are a more obvious example of this. A corporation might be really profitable, and doing great, yet its stock value is low because stockholders think their shares aren’t worth much. Some ninny with a sound effects box on CNBC said its price should be low, so it is. Conversely some corporation might make no money, and hasn’t for years, but it’s an internet company, and people put a lot of hope in the internet—so its stock is outrageously high. Some ninny on Fox Business said it’s got a great future, and the investors wanna believe that too, so here we are.

The collective belief of shareholders just happens to be far more volatile than that of every American. But even American faith and credit has its limits. When other things take greater priority than money, like food during a famine, humans will trade a decent pile of money for donkey heads and dove crap. 2Ki 6.25

So money isn’t material. And any force which isn’t material is spiritual.

I know, some folks are gonna object to my reducing things that way. In part because many pagans imagine material things are real, and spiritual things are not. And money’s real!—therefore it must somehow be material. But it’s not material. Yet it’s real. Therefore spiritual.

No, others will argue; it’s intellectual. It’s psychological. It’s conceptual. Pick any synonym with means “immaterial but real,” and they’d far rather use that word than “spiritual.” ’Cause that word “spiritual” bugs ’em, and they wanna strictly limit it to religious stuff. Stuff they don’t believe in. They believe in money; God’s another deal. If money is spiritual just like God is spiritual, perhaps they’ve gotta take another look at God… and they really don’t wanna.

If that’s your hangup, get over it. Spiritual is real. God is real. Stop treating religion as if you’re only pretending. This is substantial stuff.

And too often money has taken religion’s place. It’s why Jesus warned us about making a master of it. People look to money to save them! It solves their problems, achieves their dreams, secures their futures, buys their health, conquers their adversaries, gives them peace. Heck, if they can afford to be cryogenically frozen, it’ll even offer them an afterlife.

But like every false god, it destroys more than it gives, and all its promises are deceptions. The Beatles figured out money can’t buy you love. I joke sometimes, “No; but you can rent it.” Sadly, for a lot of people, renting will do.

In Jesus’s day: The opposite problem.

Back when Jesus first taught about Mammon, it was to make his students more aware that money is substantial. Y’see, they had the opposite problem from us: God was real, but money not so much.

First-century Palestine didn’t practice free-market capitalism. Back then the Roman Empire was on the gold standard, but gold wasn’t common enough for common people to use. (Hence the big parties they’d throw when you found a lost coin. Lk 15.8-10) Only the wealthy had actual coins. For everyone else, wealth was tied up in property: Land, slaves, animals, and personal possessions. They practiced barter-based theocratic feudalism: Everything ultimately belonged to their lord, i.e. the LORD. And every seven years the LORD decreed they’d cancel debts and free their slaves. Not all wealth would last.

God was more tangible to them than money. Jesus taught about Mammon because he wanted them to take money more seriously. Well, nowadays we do. Often too seriously.

Our economic system is rigged in such a way, it’s no longer possible to follow the rules set out in the Law. Selling yourself into slavery to pay debts? On the up side, slavery’s illegal; on the down side, debt repayment can take the rest of your life. Debts aren’t cancelled every seven years. And when government takes part of our income to help the needy, same as the Hebrew priests did with tithes, conservatives scream bloody murder about socialism.

Every once in a while I hear of some Christian money-manager who holds a seminar, and claims they’ll teach you some biblical principles for dealing with wealth. I’ve been to a few. What they actually teach is free-market capitalism. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it is the system Americans live under.) The rest is about debt avoidance, based on various scriptures they quote out of context to support their ideas. Again, not that debt avoidance is a bad idea; it’s a really good idea. But what they teach about money, and Mammon, come from economics, not theology.

Economics in the bible were greatly different than economics today, so of course what these money-managers teach doesn’t wholly jibe with the bible. Problem is, it doesn’t always jibe with the parts of the bible which can apply to our culture. Generosity, fr’instance. Giving to the needy so we can have treasure in heaven. Mt 6.19-21 Giving to everyone who asks, and not turning people away. Mt 5.42 Money-managers don’t teach that. Instead they teach “stewardship”—a concept which they claim is biblical (and it does exist in the bible, Lk 16.1-13) but it’s not about giving; it’s about gathering. It’s about investing our money, and spending none of it, so that our pile of money will grow, so that the power and security Mammon could bring us will increase. It’s about storing up treasure on earth, disguised as kingdom principles. It’s Christianism.

True Christianity is forsaking everything, everything, to follow Jesus. When we spend too much time on wealth’s “stewardship,” rather than making God’s kingdom grow, we forget to be generous: It’s not good stewardship. We forget to take leaps of faith with our money: It’s not prudent to be foolish and wasteful, even if it’s for the kingdom’s sake. We trust our pile, instead of trusting the ultimate Owner of every pile, who can easily tap those other piles for our sake. We serve the wrong lord. And as Jesus said, we just can’t serve both.

But dammit, we Americans are determined to try.

The prosperity gospel.

Prosperity gospel /prɑs'spɛr.ə.di 'gɑs.spəl/ n. The good news that God doesn’t just want to save his people, but bless us materially.

A particularly American teaching—one popular among the poor, and one we’ve even exported to poor countries—is that God doesn’t want his kids living lives of defeat. (Which is true.) He wants us to find success in everything we do. (Which is also true.) He wants us to be rich. (Wait a minute…) He wants us to be fat and comfortable, to have so much wealth it makes pagans jealous, and want to get in on this Christianity stuff so they too can become fat and comfortable. (Wait, God tells us not to covet, Dt 5.21 but it’s okay to use covetousness to spread the kingdom?)

To these folks, Mammon isn’t God’s opponent or competitor. The love of money isn’t the root of many kinds of evil. 1Ti 6.10 On the contrary: Money is God’s tool, and money-love is God’s bait. It’s our reward for trusting him, following him, for giving money away to Christian charities or churches. God’s gonna open heaven’s windows and make it rain, baby. Make it rain!

This prosperity gospel isn’t a new idea. The Pharisees believed in it too. It’s how the rich justified their many possessions… and their stinginess towards others. They were wealthy because God blessed them… and the poor had nothing because God didn’t bless them. Why? Well, they must’ve sinned or something. Some defect of character.

Nowadays we call this attitude social Darwinism—only the worthy are successful, and the unworthy aren’t. In bible times it was simply the way Pharisees believed the world worked. It’s why Jesus’s students were floored when their Master informed them the rich are gonna have the darnedest time getting into the kingdom. Mk 10.23-27 To their minds, the rich were already in the kingdom—it’s why they were rich! But in this age, God gives people wealth for one and only one reason: To spread his kingdom. Not to grow our own. If we aren’t growing his kingdom, we likely aren’t in it. We’re worshiping Mammon… but we call it “Jesus,” and pretend its power came from God.

Nope, the prosperity gospel folks aren’t really worshiping God. He’s a means to an end, and that end is wealth. They’re Mammonists. Whether they think God’s got a mansion and a crown waiting for them up in heaven, or they think God’s gonna get them a Bentley and an Apple Watch here on earth, they’re following him for the bling. They’re proclaiming him to world because hopeful Christians who believe their tripe will send them donations, and these contributions will fund their lifestyle. They’re exploiting the poor, same as plutocrats who make 10,000 times what their underpaid employees do. They irritate God just as much.

Look, I have no problem with billionaires, or with preachers who make really good salaries. But like I said, God gives his people wealth so they can spread his kingdom. Hoarding it spreads nothing. And one of the surest signs we’re dealing with a Christianist instead of a Christ-follower, is when people justify this sort of behavior. I’ve heard many a Christianist misquote Jesus’s story of the Vineyard Employer, “Isn’t this my money, to do with as I please?” Mt 20.15 Forgetting the reason the employer said this was to justify his generosity, not his miserliness. In Jesus’s culture, the only one who really owned everything was God. And it just so happens, the employer in Jesus’s story represented God. It is his money, to do with as he pleases—and it pleases him to be generous, and it pleases him when his children are likewise cheerful givers. 2Co 9.7 ’Cause when we’re not, when we’re fruitless and tight-fisted, we’re likely not his children either. We’re Mammon’s.