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Mammon at the Malls, Part 2

When Jesus uses the word Mammon, he gives it a nearly demonic connotation–or at least a spiritual connotation distinct from simply “cash”–that sets it up as an alternative to God in a way that Caesar, for example, doesn’t have to be.

When Jesus uses the word Mammon, he gives it a nearly demonic connotation–or at least a spiritual connotation distinct from simply “cash”–that sets it up as an alternative to God in a way that Caesar, for example, doesn’t have to be.

In Jesus’ usage, Mammon (see part one) connects to Original Sin: namely, that effort of human beings to take for themselves an existence that God hadn’t given to them. Rejecting God’s gift, they tried to claim autonomy for themselves. But–and here’s where Mammon comes in–Mammon is what they got.

As Jesus uses it here, Mammon is another name for the spiritual goal to which the original humans aspired in their first sin. The sinfulness comes from their disobedience to God. But why are they disobeying? What’s the motive? They wanted to claim something that could be their own: not as a gift, because everything they had was a gift.

No, they wanted something free and clear, something they could possess, hang on to, say, “I have rights toward this.”

In the first sin, they tried to be owners rather than the stewards that God had made them to be. They tried to become wealthy. They were willing to trade stewardship of all God’s gifts–in which they owned nothing–for ownership of the one thing, knowledge of good and evil. And ownership depends on a concept of wealth, Mammon, to rule it. The first humans, in seeking to own themselves, gave birth to the one who would rule over them.

As we’ve seen, their sin was a lie. The things they claimed as possessions–as wealth–were in fact the gifts of God. Everything is a gift, even what we pretend is our property. The truth of our original existence as God intended it, where everything was a gift from God and everything was ours, can’t be denied. It’s still the case.

So the reason Jesus poses God and Mammon in such a stark contrast is because what’s really at stake when choosing between them is: (1.) God, and the existence that God gave us in the beginning, and to which God wants us reconciled; or (2.) Mammon, who rules over and perpetuates the existence we’ve chosen for ourselves in the fall. The second is the existence to which human beings are committed and in which we continue to invest ourselves. That existence is the one overseen by the spiritual power of Mammon, which says: mine and not thine, thine and not mine.

This is why the illusion of selfhood offered by consumerism is so pervasive despite its fragility (i.e., the fact that consumerism so obviously lacks the capacity to give us what we want it to, but our entire culture has come to place its trust in it). We’re not believing in consumerism per se, but in the whole sinful order of the fallen world, to which we sold ourselves into bondage. And that order is powerful, indeed.

That existence is one in which we call some of creation worthy and some of creation worthless–though God created all things good. So, when serving wealth, you know what’s worth getting. You know what sort of business to run. You know what sort of things you want to acquire and have dominion over, and you know what is worthless. And the people who acquire the right sorts of things are wealthy, and the people who don’t, aren’t.

The Pharisees, Luke says, loved money. They loved it spiritually; they loved the system that left some people with the worthwhile things and others without. They didn’t get it! The Pharisees heard “Mammon” as though Jesus was talking literally about the contents of their purses. But what they didn’t realize was that love of actual money was merely a symptom of serving Mammon–that is, serving the lord of the original sin, and serving the world that we made for ourselves through it.

Mammon embodies original opposition to God and God’s wishes for us. That is why Paul writes in First Timothy 6 that the root of all evil is the love of money. I know that many Christians reading this will say that they do love God and they don’t love money. But in our culture, regardless of what we say with our mouths, the way that many of us live expresses most of all a love of money.

We speak about our love of God, but we live out our love of Mammon. We live it out to the degree that it is the rare, rare Christian person or Christian community that authentically loves God over its love of money. And as long as we continue to love money, we have the root of evil in our midst, and that means everything we do is corruptible.

Tyler Wigg Stevenson is a Baptist preacher and a writer. A former aide to both the Rev. Dr. John Stott and the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, he now heads Faithful Security, an organization working to catalyze the moral willpower of American religious groups toward nuclear disarmament. The above is excerpted and adapted with permission from Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (Seabury Press, 2007).