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The only time you ever hear the word “mammon” is when Christians are talking about, and trying to disparage, money. Mammon is a synonym for money. Supposedly it was an ancient money god, which I’ll discuss in a bit.

I realize it’s rare that American Christians even will disparage money. We’re a very money-centered society. What we’ll usually do is critique the money-centeredness, not the money. Paul taught “the love of money”—emphasis mine, and theirs—“is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1Ti 6.10) So they’ll critique money-loving, but not money itself: Money, they’ll emphasize, is a tool, and morally neutral. That way they won’t blaspheme money. That way they can justify accumulating lots of it, and claim it’s all for the Kingdom’s sake. Seriously.

Mamón and Mammon.

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 both God and money.

—Jesus, Matthew 6.24 = Luke 16.13 NLT

Jesus spoke Aramaic, but the gospels translated his teachings into first-century Greek for the sake of the larger Greek-speaking audience. However, that word the NLT translates “money” is not a Greek word: It’s an Aramaic one, mamón, with a Greek ending on it, making mamonás. The proper Greek word for money or wealth would be críma. Why do Matthew and Luke have Jesus’s original Aramaic word, instead of translating it into Greek? Obviously there’s something about the original word that loses something in translation. (Which is why the KJV/NKJV translates it “mammon” instead of “money” or “wealth.”)

Certain Christians have deduced that you wouldn’t translate a word if it’s a proper noun—if it’s a name. Since Jesus compares this mamón to God, it must therefore be a competitor god. Of what? Of wealth. Mamón means wealth (it’s related to the Hebrew word matmón, “secret riches”). Maybe there was some ancient Canaanite wealth-god called Mammon.

In the context of Luke, right before Jesus said this, he told the Undercharging Bookkeeper story, in which a bookkeeper makes friends by undercharging his master’s creditors. (Lk 16.1-9) He concludes, “Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon…” (v9 NKJV) and “if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (v11 NKJV) And the response to Jesus’s teaching is that the Pharisees, “who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him.” (v14) Clearly they were Mammonists.

So, Christians have concluded that mamón—which became our English word Mammon—is a money god. The only problem is that there is nothing about Mammon in ancient literature. Archaeologists have found nothing about Mammon. That’s not to say that they might, someday. But until they find anything, this is all guesswork. We have no idea whether any such god as Mammon existed. Maybe not.

But this hasn’t stopped Christians from inventing a whole mythology around Mammon. We’ve developed complex theologies about what Mammon is and how it fits into the hierarchy of hell. Mammon is in our literature—The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and The Faerie Queene—and of course these are the sources of most popular Christian myths. Whole books have been written about what Mammon does and how it works. And again: This is all guesswork.

Mammon and money.

Is there any legitimacy to any teachings about Mammon? Well, it depends on the teaching.

When any Christian, speaking on Mammon says, “We know from the bible…” or “We know from history…” or “I know for a fact…” they actually don’t; it isn’t there. When someone wants to tell you of a vision she had where Mammon is one of the archdemons of hell, fighting the saints with silver arrows, my first reaction is gonna be, “This is an apocalypse; you can’t presume from it that there’s a literal being called Mammon in the spirit-world.”

The only thing we do know is what money is. It’s a spiritual force. Money is value, and value is spiritual. This is particularly true with money: Its value has no relation to its physical form. A piece of currency, or a check, or a credit card, can be physically the same. But they have different values based on the numbers we’ve written on them—and nothing else. Put $1 on a check and people treat it differently than if you put $10 on it. Or $100, or especially $1,000,000. That’s because of the value we see in money.

A dollar is worth a dollar because everyone roughly agrees on how much a dollar can buy. But a dollar is not a material object, like an ounce of gold. And even gold’s value is determined by what we as a society mutually agreed it’s worth. Fans of gold, those who want to make it into our money again, don’t recognize this: They think because gold is material, its value is material. But value is spiritual.

Capitalists will scoff, and materialists will reject this idea. But the reason Jesus talks about money so often, and the reason he warns against making a master of it, is because money is spiritual. The reason why Christians have preached about Mammon so often, and created such complex theologies about it, is because—particularly nowadays—it is a spiritual competitor with God. People look to money to solve their problems, to achieve their dreams, to secure their futures, to pay for health, to conquer their adversaries, to give them peace. And for those who can afford to be frozen cryogenically, it can even offer them kind of 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,” and sadly for most folks, renting will do.

Why Jesus called it Mammon, and why the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew and Luke to keep that particular word Aramaic, is because Jesus meant to personify wealth. The ancient Greeks invented many of their gods by personifying a concept. They took their word for romance, éros, and created the god Eros from it; they took their word for fear, fóbos, and created the fear-god Phobos. The Greek wealth-god, Plútos (no relation to the Latin underworld-god Pluto), is a similar idea to Mammon. Jesus uses Mammon to personify wealth as a spiritual being so that we would take it more seriously than we do. We’d recognize that there’s an intelligence behind the spiritual force of money.

We don’t deduce what Mammon does from scriptures or tradition. We deduce it by looking at what money does. Whenever I, or other Christians, talk about Mammon, we’re acting as if money were a living being who has its own agenda. Its agenda is obviously to get you to do what riches-crazed, wealth-worshiping individuals will do, and have done. When a Christian says, “Mammon’s ultimate goal is…” and lists something terrible, it should be something that anyone can figure out that money will do to the money-hungry. And that’s all we can really say about Mammon. Anything more—like the loony theories about what level of hell Mammon lives on—is when Christians overdo the guesswork, and go off the deep end. Ignore those people.

Certain Christians believe in the “prosperity gospel,” which is the same thing the Pharisees used to teach: God wants us to bless us, and the way he blesses us is to give us lots of material possessions. That’s why Jesus’s students were so astounded when he told them rich people would have a hard time making it into the Kingdom. (Mk 10.23-27) They had been raised to believe the prosperity-gospel Pharisees were correct; that if God loves you, he’d make you wealthy. But the result of that teaching is that people become Mammon worshipers. God becomes a means to an end: Follow God, and he’ll give you stuff. He’ll give you money, a nice car, a nice house… and when you get to heaven, he’ll give you a mansion and a crown.

Is money evil?

Christians are correct when we point out that money is only a tool; that it can do good or evil, depending on who uses it. But notice that this teaching only comes up whenever someone points out how money is currently being used for evil.

“Money is a tool” is the usual justification for being a money-worshiper. Being a “good steward” is the usual justification for being stingy. Being “responsible with money” is the usual justification for not giving to the poor, who are supposedly poor because they are not responsible with money. We Christians have invented a lot of Christianese words to justify what is ultimately social Darwinism: The rich are rich because they deserve their riches, and the poor are poor because they don’t. Even though the scriptures teach that the value of money has nothing to do with the value of character. Evil people can be rich. Good people can be poor. And vice-versa. But one who has an abundance of money is far more likely to be led astray by it, than someone with no money who will rarely experience that temptation.

Money is a tool. But money is also a symptom. The more time that’s put into money, and accumulating and managing it, means the more value that’s put in money over God. The wealthy have to make an extra effort to keep their money from affecting their relationship with God. They have to resist money’s spiritual force: They have to give more away. They have to be more generous. They have to fight the tendency to hoard, or to buy away their problems, to trust their bank accounts to save them rather than God. It is hard for rich people to live in the Kingdom. But with God everything is possible.

Any pursuit of wealth for the sake of accumulation is the worship of wealth—of Mammon. If a Christian isn’t willing to give up everything to follow Jesus, you may as well say that person isn’t following Jesus. That’s serving the other master. As Jesus says, you just can’t serve both.