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Mammon.

Mammon [MAM•ən, noun] Money.
2. A personification of money or riches; a false god of money.

“Nobody can be the slave of two lords,
for either he will hate one and love the other,
or he will look up to one, and look down on the other.
None of you is able to serve God and Mammon.”

—Jesus,

Luke has, “No house-slave can be the slave of two lords.” Otherwise the verses are identical. These verses, and a reference in Jesus's story of the Undercharging Bookkeeper, are the only three instances of “Mammon” in the bible.

A few of the more recent translations have, “You cannot serve both God and money,” (ESV, NET, NLT, NIV) or “God and wealth,” (NASB, NRSV) or “God and riches.” (ISV) Thing is, mamonás isn’t a Greek word. (The proper Greek word would be khríma/“wealth.”) It’s an Aramaic one, mamón, with a Greek ending attached to it. The writers of the gospels didn’t translate it; they left it in the original language. That’s why I left it in the original, lest we lose something in translation.

So what’s Mammon? Three popular interpretations.

A money god?

The most popular interpretation is Mammon was the ancient Canaanite god of wealth. Christians figure Matthew and Luke didn’t translate the word because it was a proper name. Since Jesus compared this Mamón to God, it must therefore be a competitor god, an idol the Hebrews worshiped. A god of what? Of wealth. Mamón means wealth. (It’s related to the Hebrew matmón/“hidden treasure.”) So Christians believe Mammon is the false god, the demon, behind money and wealth.

Only problem: There’s nothing about Mammon in ancient history. Scholars haven’t found him in ancient literature. Archaeologists haven’t dug up any temples or statues or charms or writings or anything. That’s not to say somebody might find something someday. But you’d think something would’ve turned up by now.

So, the idea Mammon was an ancient money god is entirely guesswork. Still, that’s not stopped us Christians from inventing a whole mythology around Mammon. We’ve developed complex theologies about who Mammon is, and how it fits into the hierarchy of hell. Most of the Christian mythology about hell comes from medieval poetry, namely the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and The Faerie Queene—and you’ll find Mammon in all three. Whole books have been written about how to detect Mammon’s evil schemes, and defeat it.

And again: All guesswork. When any Christian, speaking on Mammon, claims, “We know from the bible…” or “We know from history…” or “I know for a fact…” they actually don’t. It’s not there.

Yeah, sometimes you’re gonna come across some would-be prophet who wants to tell you about some vision they had, where Mammon is one of the head demons of hell, fighting the angels and saints with fiery silver arrows. And that’s very creative and poetic and clever of them. Now, is the Holy Spirit behind it whatsoever? I sincerely doubt it. Take it with a grain of salt.

An anthropomorphism?

Yeah, that’s a big long word, but an important one. Anthropomorphism is when you take an inanimate object, and pretend it’s animate, or pretend it’s a person. (Comes from Greek: Ánthropos/“person,” morfí/“form of.”) The Greeks did this all the time when they invented their gods: Fóbos means fear, and they personified it and turned it into their fear-god Phobos. Éros means romance, and they personified it and turned it into their romance-god Eros.

In the same way, when we’re talking about money, that’s one thing; but when you capitalize it and talk about it as if it’s some guy named Money, that’s quite different. And bothersome. ’Cause money is an inanimate object, and just a tool; it’s only harmless or harmful in the hands of a certain user. But this guy named Money—when we talk about money that way, Money sounds like it has a brain, has intentions, has a will. Is it a will to do good? Or evil?

And maybe that’s just what Jesus was doing when he’s talking about Mammon, and what the apostles were doing when they quoted him. He’s making us wake up and take money a little more seriously than we do. It’s more than just an inanimate object. Much more.

This is the direction I lean towards. But there’s a third theory.

Just another word?

And this appears to be the direction most of the recent translations have gone with: It’s the Aramaic word for money. The fact Matthew and Luke used the Aramaic word, instead of the Greek one, is a fluke. Just translate it into English, same as the Greek. Jesus didn’t mean anything special by it.

What’s the down side of making this assumption? Simple: Jesus was likely making a point by using the Aramaic word. Why are we ignoring that point? Because it’s not good English? That’s not enough of a reason. Especially since, thanks to the King James Version, the word Mammon is now an English word. It’s not that familiar a word, but we can still find it in dictionaries.

If you believe Mammon is a demon or an anthropomorphism, the least you can do is capitalize the English word you’ve chosen: “You cannot serve both God and Money.” But a lot of English translations haven’t bothered to even do that.

Well, maybe they don’t believe money is that big a problem: It’s not their master. They’re not even tempted to serve it.

Or maybe they believe, as most Americans do, that we really can serve both God and Money, regardless of what Jesus says.

Money is a spiritual force.

Any force which isn’t physical, is spiritual.

I realize some folks are gonna object to that reduction: “Well, what about psychological forces?” Simple: Those are spiritual forces. You’ve got used to using materialist names for spiritual things. Start relearning.

We’ve created a cloud of math, behavioral psychology, economic theory, and political theory around money. We’ve made it look like it’s tangible, controllable, and countable. Since it takes the form of coins and paper, we think of it as material. But it’s not. It never was.

Money’s value has always been based on what people believe money is worth. People believed gold had an inherent value… and so it did. (No, it didn’t really. But they believed it did. Still do.) People believe silver and platinum and diamonds have an inherent value. People believe American dollars have an inherent value. But none of these beliefs are based on anything but pure faith: Faith that gold is rare enough to be in demand; faith that the diamond suppliers and Federal Reserve will keep the supply limited in order to keep demand high, yet stable; faith that others will see it as valuable as we do, so we can use it for trade.

Yeah, faith. That’s how you know it’s 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 taken such an interest in Mammon, and created such interesting myths about it, is because—especially nowadays—it’s God’s spiritual competition. People put their faith in money: They expect money to solve their problems, achieve their dreams, secure their futures, conquer their foes, give them health, and give them peace. And if you can afford to be frozen cryogenically, money will even offer you an afterlife.

American Christians don’t take money seriously enough. We think we do, but that’s only because we preach against loving it too much, ’cause loving it produces evil. But when we talk about loving it, we’re using one of the other definitions of love. Usually infatuation. Not the one Paul used, fílos/“friendship.” Plenty of us American Christians are very good friends with money. But we think we’re heeding Paul’s warning just fine because we don’t worship money.

Hence American Christians will rarely speak ill of money. We’ll bash money-lovers; never the money itself. Money, we’ll emphasize, is just a tool. It’s morally neutral. In the right hands it’s harmless. And in so doing, we’ll never denounce it, never reject it, never blaspheme it. We’ll go right on accumulating lots of it, and claim it’s all for the Kingdom’s sake. Seriously.

How Mammon undermines the Christian.

Yes, money is only a tool. And so’s a torture-rack. Now, notice how nobody ever seems to point out, “It’s only a tool” till someone’s busy using it for evil.

“Money’s a tool” is the usual justification for spending lots of it. Being a “good steward” is the usual justification for stinginess. Being “responsible with money” is the usual justification for not giving it to the needy, who it seems aren’t as responsible as we are.

We Christians have invented a lot of Christianese terms to justify what is ultimately social Darwinism: We figure the rich deserve their riches, and the poor deserve their poverty. If we’re doing all right it’s because God’s blessed us, and if we’re struggling it’s because he hasn’t. The Pharisees taught this, and certain Christians follow the “Prosperity Gospel,” an extreme version of this belief which claims God won’t just give you wealth, but luxuries. Even though the scriptures teach time and again how wealth has nothing to do with character: Evil people can be rich. Good people can be poor. And vice-versa.

But one who has made friends with money is far more likely to be led astray by it. Whereas someone with no money will rarely experience that temptation.

Money’s a tool, but money’s also a symptom. The more time we put into money, accumulating and managing it, the more value we 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 fight 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 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.

If money is a friendship you can’t part with for the sake of the Kingdom, something you can’t leave behind to follow Jesus, you may as well admit it’s your master. And as Jesus said, you can’t serve both.