God And Mammon Or Advice
To Fortune Hunters
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. resides in Dallas, Texas, and is a teaching elder at Believers Chapel.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 6:19-24
Poor Howard Hughes! His assets in one brief moment went from $2,000,000,000 to $.00! And to make the ignominy of it all the worse, only sixteen persons were at his funeral, which consumed a total of eight minutes. Oh, his assets are still here. That’s not the problem. The problem is that Howard Hughes is no longer still here. Thomas Fuller, one of the old Puritans, once said, “Riches may leave us while we live, we must leave them when we die,” and “Riches are long in getting with much pain, hard in keeping with much care, quick in losing with more sorrow.”
One might get the wrong impression from the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,” He said. One might think that the Lord is speaking against the possession of money. Does He not say, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth”? But that can hardly be right, for His great apostle has written, “For the children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the PARENTS FOR THE CHILDREN” (cf. 2 Cor. 12:14). In order for the parents to “lay up” (the word is literally, treasure up, the same word that is used in our text in Matthew) for the children, it is necessary that they obtain and save money for their sons and daughters. It would appear that the Lord’s words, then, do not prohibit the possession of money for certain purposes. Perhaps the stress rests upon the words, “for ourselves.” Money, it seems, is a kind of trust; it is to be held and used for others. In the Parable of the Rich Fool He has God saying to the fool, “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee; then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure FOR HIMSELF, and is not RICH TOWARD GOD” (cf. Luke 12:20-21). Now, we are beginning to see the point. Riches are fine, if they are “in heaven,” and to be rich is praiseworthy, if we are rich “toward God.” And earthly riches are also good, if one remembers that they are a trust, bestowed by God for the benefit of others. What a difficult lesson that is for mortals!
One might even get the impression from the New Testament that the possession of private property is wrong. But that would be to obtain a false impression. For example, the eighth commandment says, “Thou shalt not steal” (cf. Exod. 20:15). The command, however, while it tells me not to take that which belongs to another, also tells others not to take from me. The story of Ananias and Sapphira, told in the fifth chapter of the Acts, confirms this. Peter said to Ananias, “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, and to keep back part of the price of the land? While it remained, WAS IT NOT THINE OWN? And after it was sold, was it not IN THINE OWN POWER? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men but unto God” (cf. Acts 5:3-4). These words clearly teach that heaven recognizes the right of private property. Contrary to the claims of many socialists and the communists, the biblical teaching does not demand that a Christian dispose of his property. It does demand, on the other hand, that he recognize its true owner.
The connection with the preceding context seems to be along this line: the Pharisees had the common view of life that riches are the result of righteousness. That view of things is not an ancient view alone. It pervades the thinking of the world. The rich man must be blessed, for how else can he be so fortunate? And this type of reasoning is also characteristic of some sub-Christian preaching, often propounded by radio preachers of limited training and spiritual understanding. “God never intended his saints to be poor,” so the line goes. “He wants us all to be rich and prosperous. He does not intend that we dress shabbily, eat poorly, and drive an old Ford. He wants us to dress well, have plenty and drive a new Cadillac. To learn how to prosper, send for my book, entitled, “How to be Rich, Though a Christian,” enclosing $2.00 for postage and mailing costs.” Such teaching leads inevitably to avarice, and it is against this that our Lord speaks.
Negative: treasures upon the earth (6:19). The section begins with exhortation, and the exhortation is first of a negative type and then of a positive type.
The references to moth, rust, and thieves call to mind the three great sources of wealth in Palestine and the great dangers that were faced. First of all, the moth suggests clothes. One thinks immediately of “a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day” (cf. Luke 16:19). It is foolish, of course, to set one’s heart upon fine clothes, for, when they are put away and not in use, moths infest them and destroy both their beauty and their value.
Second, Jesus refers to the corruption of “rust.” The word translated “rust” is a word that means literally eating away. It is used a number of times in the New Testament and always refers to the eating of food (cf. Rom. 14:17; John 4:32). Since corn and grain, stored in large barns, was often the principal source of a man’s wealth, the eating away that destroyed the grain was often that of mice, rats, and other vermin. There was no permanence in possessions subject to such infestation.
Finally, the Lord Jesus refers to the thieves who stole by breaking through the walls of houses. Since the houses in the land of Palestine were often made of nothing stronger than baked clay, it was not uncommon to return home to find that thieves had dug through the walls to steal the gold or other precious possessions hidden away. And, of course, there could be no permanence to such treasures; they were at the mercy of enterprising thieves. The purpose of this admonition is to impress upon the minds of the disciples the transitory and uncertain character of material things. There is a familiar little couplet, which goes like this,
“Wise bees save honey,
Wise men save money.”
It has to be true because it rhymes! But it is not. According to Jesus, what does the wise man get from saving money? Three nervous breakdowns — moths, mice and marauders!
Positive: treasures in heaven (6:20). If in our Lord’s day the normal thing was to put one’s wealth in a house or in the field, in our day it is to put it in banks or in securities, hoping for mammoth increases in the Dow Jones averages. “Every boy remembers,” Morgan comments, “that he has often been told that the miser says coins are flat and that they may rest; and the spendthrift says they are round that they may roll.”1 The Lord teaches something different from the wisest of human wisdom. It is this: Wealth is that which we store in heaven, and it comes from spending our material things from heavenly ends. What we invest in ministering to others is the true capital, laid away in God’s heavenly bank.
One might ask, “What are the heavenly treasures?” From the general context of the Sermon on the Mount it would seem that they must be the Christian rewards, the natural result of souls won to God, of work done that leads to the edification of the body of Christ, of money spent for the progress of the preaching of the gospel.
The Jews were familiar with the phrase “treasure in heaven,” and they identified it with deeds of kindness and with character. Barclay’s illustration makes the point, “In the days of the terrible Decian persecution in Rome, the Roman authorities broke into a Christian Church. They were out to loot the treasures which they believed the Church to possess. The Roman prefect demanded from Laurentius, the deacon: ‘Show me your treasures at once.’ Laurentius pointed at the widows and orphans who were being fed, the sick, who were being nursed, and poor whose needs were being supplied, ‘These,’ he said, ‘are the treasures of the Church.’ The Church has always believed that ‘what we keep, we lose, and what we spend, we have’.”2 The Mohammedan Koran has it, “When a man dies men ask how much he has left behind; angels how much he sent before him.” And the futility of building a giant estate here for oneself is grimly parodied by the Spanish proverb, “There are no pockets in a shroud.”
Is it, then wrong to make provision for future physical needs? Is all profit-making wrong? Is it wrong to care for one’s family? Are all rich people reprobates? No, of course not. Did God condemn Joseph for advising Pharaoh to store up grain for future use (cf. Gen. 41:33-36)? Were Solomon and Agur wrong in pointing to the ant as an illustration of the common sense revealed in providing during the summer for the needs of winter (Prov. 6:6; 30:25)? Business and banking are encouraged by implication in our Lord’s parable (cf. Matt. 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-23). And it is surely right to lay up for the needy (cf. Eph. 4:28), and one must care for those of his own house, or he is properly called an infidel (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). Even our Lord received help from the Happy Ladies who ministered to him of their substance (Luke 8:3).3
One must remember through all of this that money can be a great blessing, if it is not made the end, but the means to the end, namely, to help the saints and one’s own family, and to encourage the work of the preaching of the Word (cf. Phil. 4:15-17; 1 Tim. 5:17-18).
The “for,” which begins verse 21 provides the connection with the preceding. It explains the reasoning that lies behind the previous exhortations. A man’s interests are where his investments are.4 They draw his heart like a magnet. “If his treasure is God,” Hunter points out, “then his heart, like ‘poor Susan’s’ in the poem, ‘will be in heaven,’ even while he walks the dusty ways of earth. If it is money, it will be, like Scrooge’s, in his miser’s hoard, absorbing ‘all thoughts, all passions, all delight’.”5
“If everything that a man values and sets his heart upon is on earth, then all his interest will be upon earth, and he will have no interest in any world beyond this world. If all through his life a man’s eyes are on eternity, then he will evaluate lightly the things of this world. If everything which a man counts valuable is on this earth, then he will leave this earth reluctantly and grudgingly; if a man’s thoughts have been ever in the world beyond, he will leave this world with gladness, because he goes at last to God. Once Dr. Johnson was shown through a noble castle and its grounds; when he had seen round it he turned to his companions and said, ‘These are the things which make it difficult to die’.”6 These words of Professor Barclay are true, with one stricture. When the time comes for us to die, God takes the difficulty out of it!
Put in Scriptural language it is this, “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (cf. Prov. 23:7).
The single eye (6:22-23). In the first illustration of the teaching that He has just given the Lord refers to the “single eye.” What does He mean? Barclay explains, “The eye is regarded as the window by which the light goes into the whole body. The colour and state of a window decide what light gets into a room. If the window is clear, clean, and undistorted, the light will come flooding into the room, and will illuminate every corner of it. If the glass of the window is coloured or frosted, distorted, dirty, or obscure, the light will be hindered, and the room will not be lit up. The amount of light which gets into any room depends on the state of the windows through which it has to pass. So, then, says Jesus, the light which gets into any man’s heart and soul and being depends on the spiritual state of the eye through which it has to pass, for the eye is the window of the whole body.”7 The eye, it seems to me, stands for the mind of the believer. Our spiritual minds determine the spiritual health of the whole man.
The word translated “single” in the Authorized Version probably should be rendered “generous,” a meaning that the root often has (cf. Rom. 12:8; 2 Cor. 9:13; Jas. 1:5). It is the generous eye, the generous mind, that our Lord commends. A similar thing may be said concerning the word translated “evil” in verse twenty-three. While evil is the normal meaning of poneros, the Greek word, yet it also in certain contexts means niggardly, ungenerous, such as in the Greek Old Testament text of Deuteronomy 15:9 and Proverbs 23:6 (cf. 28:22). Most likely that is the meaning here, for it forms a proper contrast with the preceding verse.
Our Lord, then is recommending a generous spirit in the believer and promising a blessing for the whole man. On the other hand, for the ungenerous spirit there is only darkness, loss of communion and loss of reward. Spiritual astigmatism occurs.
The single service (6:24). Dr. South said, “Mammon has enriched his thousands and damned his tens of thousands.” It is true. William Hendriksen puts it this way, “The man with the misplaced heart (verse 21) and misdirected mind (verses 22 and 23) also suffers from a misaligned will, a will not in line with God’s will (verse 24).”8
“Mammon” was the Aramaic word for gain, and it stands for money as a master in the sense of a competitor with God for the worship of men. It is Paul who speaks of covetousness as idolatry (cf. Col. 3:5), as that which competes with God for man’s proper response to Him in worship. The Lord contends, “No man can serve two masters.” One might debate this, for can we not have a gardener who serves us on Mondays, and then serves others on the other days of the week? Yes, but that sense of the word “serve” is not the sense of the Greek word used by our Lord. It meant to serve as a slave, and no man in New Testament times could serve two men as a slave. A slave could only be the slave of one man. To the one man he belonged completely. There was no room for a divided heart and a divided service.
But what does the expression “hate the one” mean? It has the sense in the New Testament of to respect a rival claim in certain contexts (cf. Rom. 9:13; Luke 14:26). In the relationship to God, there is no possibility of giving Him His proper place and at the same time serving Mammon as a slave. We cannot have two masters. We cannot please God by compromising as those in 2 Kings 17:33, who “feared the Lord and served their own gods.” That is an impossible situation.
This passage has great relevance for Christians who live in our affluent society with its many pressures and temptations to conform to the money-seeking society of which we all are a part. Our covetousness has often become idolatry. May God deliver us from it! As Richard Baxter said, “God is your safest purse-bearer.” May we allow Him to control the strings of our purses!
Is wealth, then, wrong? No, but the “love” of it to the extent that it becomes covetousness is. It is Paul who writes, “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, which, while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim. 6:10). The text seems to refer to Judas, whose love of money led to his own destruction (cf. Acts 1:18), but it is a warning for all in the family of God (it must not be forgotten that the words of our passage are addressed to disciples!). It is a clarion call for us to set proper priorities for guidance in the handling of our monies, to remember that our money belongs to Him and is ours only as a trust, and to regard greed and covetousness as spiritual idolatry.
Wealth, then, is a trust, not a treasure for ourselves, a means, not an end. Therefore, “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations (Luke 16:9).
For the rich Thomas Watson has a warning, “It is hard to carry a full cup without spilling, and a full estate without sinning.” But our Lord’s words are for the poor, too. “As sick men used to love health better than those that never felt the want of it; so it is too common with poor men to love riches better than the rich that never needed. And yet, poor souls, they decide themselves, and cry out against the rich, as if they were the only lovers of the world, when they love it more themselves though they cannot get it,” Richard Baxter wisely has noticed. The fact that we are poor does not allow us to escape the temptation to love that which we cannot obtain.
There is an old story of a little boy who was given two nickels by his father and told that one was to go into the Sunday School collection plate, for it was the Lord’s nickel, while the other may be used for an ice cream cone (yes, they used to cost only 5c!). Hastily the youngster ran from his father’s presence down the street to the local ice cream emporium. On the way, however, as he was passing a street corner he dropped one of the nickels and was horrified to see it roll down the sewer. Nevertheless, he went on to the store and bought his cone and returned to his home. He told the story of the accident to his father, who promptly asked, “Why, then, did you buy the cone?” The boy replied, “Well, Dad, it was the Lord’s nickel that rolled down the sewer!” It does seem that it is always the Lord’s nickel that is lost. May He give us the grace to remember that all we have is His, and may He direct us in the use of it.
1 Morgan, p. 64.
2 Barclay, I, 244.
3 King, p. 82.
4 Hunter, p. 77.
6 Barclay, I, 245.
8 Hendriksen, pp. 347-8