Serving God and Mammon

By John B. Cobb, Jr.

Luke story of the rich, young ruler

It has been very risky for a long time now to make statements about what Jesus said. Accordingly, I won’t claim that the explicit assertion that we cannot serve both God and Mammon came from him. But unless the synoptic writers seriously misunderstood him, it constitutes a good indication of his views.

From the first, this has been a problem for the church. It took seriously still more extreme teachings attributed to Jesus, about the impossibility of rich people inheriting the kingdom an about giving all our possessions to the poor. Of course, it never expected strict conformity with these teachings on the part of all believers. Probably Jesus did not expect that either.

The story of the Rich Young Ruler is instructive here. In this story, when the young man asked Jesus what he must do to be saved, Jesus initially said nothing about his wealth. He pointed to the standard requirements in Judaism. But when the young man said he had already done all that and had not found what he sought, Jesus told him what more he needed to do. For the final freedom of the spirit that he sought, he would have to give up all his possessions and join the group of disciples around Jesus. The church held that this was a council of perfection, and it made a place for those who wanted to devote themselves to the spiritual life without the tensions and distractions bound up with the acquisition and care of possessions.

The rich young ruler was not willing, perhaps not able, to take this drastic step. This does not mean that he served Mammon. Every indication is that his first commitment was to serving God by obeying all the standard commandments. These required great generosity in giving, but they were not incompatible with retaining his possessions. Jesus in no way condemned him. But the man went away sorrowful because he saw that the final hunger of his heart would never be satisfied, that he was condemned to the compromises and halfway measures involved in living with possessions in a society in which others needed those possessions more than he.

The Reformers were troubled by the two-tiered structure of the church. They were also skeptical that in fact the provisions for the more perfect life, free from care about goods, actually worked well. They thought that the fullness of Christian life must be worked out in all the complexities of social life, including the making of money and the care of possessions. Wesley summed up the early Protestant ethic on this topic quite well with his age: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

Between the Catholic and Protestant responses to Jesus’ teaching about money, I do not know which is more faithful. The chief problem with both is that they can so easily be corrupted. The Reformers responded to Catholic corruption, but the actual results of their alternative led to a situation in which the service of Mammon increasingly has gained the upper hand.

The story has been told often, but perhaps not often enough. Luther and Wesley themselves conformed rather closely to the Reformation teaching. In both cases quite a lot of money passed through their hands. In both cases they live frugally. In both cases they gave away what they did not need and died leaving few possessions. No doubt thousands of faithful Protestants lived and died in this way.

But hundreds of thousands stopped short, as do most of us, of the third step. Many of us through the centuries have earned all we could, and for a long time, until fairly recently, frugality was a Protestant virtue that was widely practiced. Many of us over the centuries have also been quite generous in our gifts to the church and for human need, although probably few have given as much as the Rich Young Ruler, who observe all the Jewish laws.

The gap remains, however, between generosity and giving all we can. And because of that gap, Protestantism as a social phenomenon has often led to the poor becoming middle class, and the middle class accumulating capital.

Of course, there have always been people with capital who use it to increase their store, chiefly by charging interest for their loans. In that sense there was nothing new in the modern situation. But our concern here is not in the history of economic activity; it is in the church’s teaching about the worship of mammon that Jesus said was incompatible with the worship of Go. Here a new situation envelopes.

During the Middle Ages and the time of the Reformation there were no doubt many people who ordered their lives to the acquisition of wealth. No doubt their success was envied by others. But greed and envy were not socially approved. Their status as sinful was generally agreed upon, even, no doubt by many of the greedy an envious. There was far more public admiration for those who embraced poverty for Christ’s sake. Short of this, most people would agree that one’s honor was of greater importance than one’s wealth. Those who ma e money by lending money, instead of working for it were called usurers. Their practices, while tolerated, were disapproved.

Furthermore, during this period it was assumed that the overall function of economic activity was for the common good. Of course, individuals could and did exploit this activity for private a vantage. My point here has little to do with individual virtue. But no one would have asserted that economic activity was the primary function of social life, that other values should be subordinated to the increase of wealth. Wealth, however greatly prized, was instrumental to other ends. Although some individuals sinfully worshipped mammon, society as a whole did not.

We, however, are the heirs of a great reversal! It proceeded gradually, so gradually that despite the shocking contrast of the results to everything for which Jesus stood, the church has largely acquiesced.

One step was the separation of the economic order in thought, and partly in practice, from the remainder of society. It was discovered that this order flourished best when greed, now called rational self-interest, was given a free hand. Within the now autonomous economic order, now widely called the market, greed became the fundamental virtue. It was discovered that the greedy behavior of each was transformed by God into the benefit of all! It turned out that the individual worship of Mammon was approved by God.

Adam Smith, the most influential spokesman for this view, assumed that the economy was immersed in a larger social order in which other values prevailed. The market he studied was an important part of that society, but it did not determine its overall character. Indeed, the proper functioning of the market depended on values of honesty and on community bonds to which the market did not contribute. For Smith, the basis of ethics was sympathy, not greed. In his thought, the service of God still checked the service of Mammon. Nevertheless, the market should be allowed to follow its own laws so as best to serve the community and the nation. Smith’s great book was an account of how to increase the wealth of nations.

Greed approved and affirmed can be a far more powerful social force than the guilty greed it superseded. It became the driving engine of British society. Karl Polanyi’s classic work, The Great Transformation, describes the change it effected. Whereas in all previous human societies, market activity was understood to be in the service of society, now societies were transformed for the sake of market activity. The service of Mammon became primary.

Referring back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this is still an exaggeration. Primary service was directed neither to God nor to mammon, but to the nation state. On the whole, the Protestant churches acquiesced in that, too. But as time passed there was some recognition of the idolatrous character of nationalism. The church’s acquiescence in and critique of this idolatry is another story.

In the twentieth century, this idolatry plunged the world into two great wars. After the second, its evil was so fully explored that Western Europe, at least, could not be reorganized on its basis. Millions of Christians rejoiced in its demise and in the emergence of new structures, such as the European Economic Community, that made further wars among the European nations almost unthinkable. The idolatry that had ordered the life of Europe for three hundred years was overthrown. It seemed that Europe was reorganized for the common good.

But how was that good to be defined. The answer is given in the original name of the new European community. By the middle of the twentieth century it had become self-evident that the common good was defined as economic. Wealth was the supreme goal of society, now at last free from its subordination to the nation state. Europe, and increasingly the whole world, has been reorganized in the service of Mammon. Yet to the best of my knowledge no voice of concern has been raised by the church!

Although I have used Western Europe as my example, the United States may be an even fuller expression of a market-driven and thus Mammon-serving society. The major institutions that once existed alongside the economic order, have now been absorbed into it. Sports, entertainment, communications are good examples. More strikingly, government itself has as its primary function the service of the market. Until recently it was taken as evident that it also needed to serve those whom the market passed by, but now this secondary function has become problematic. It is seen as a threat to the primary one.

Perhaps even more striking is what has happened to education. In the nineteenth century the primary function of the public schools was to prepare people for citizenship. Colleges were to prepare leaders for society. At all levels, education also had moral and cultural functions. The self-descriptions of liberal arts colleges were not mere window dressing.

Now all of that is gone, or at least drastically subordinated to the service of the economy. The public schools are to prepare workers. Higher education, too, prepares workers, but also managers and experts. Decisions about what to teach and where to expand and contract are primarily market-driven.

As more and more of society has been drawn into the service of Mammon, there has been almost no protest from the church. There are occasional complaints about the commercialization of Christian holidays, and there have been some church colleges that have resisted the dominant service of the market. But on the whole, liberals and conservatives alike have acquiesced. The worship of Mammon has paid hand some dividends. The quest for wealth has been immensely successful. We either enjoy its fruits or hope to do so. We are unlikely to denounce the idolatry from which we benefit and hope to benefit more. If we deplore the negative consequences, we do so in ways that make it clear that these could be rectified without challenging the idol as such.

What, then, of the church itself? Does it participate in the idolatry in which it acquiesces? The answer must be mixed, more mixed, I think, than with any other major social institution. As individual members of the church, professional or lay, most of us do serve Mammon quite extensively. We are caught up in market forces more than in any competing Christian ones. Also the institutions of the church begin to think of themselves in market terms, sometimes quite explicitly. If we are to succeed, we are told, we must be clear about what our market is and what product we can offer. The question of what will sell sometimes supersedes the question of what is faithful to Christ. Again, this marketization of the church can be found in both conservative and liberal contexts.

Nevertheless, the church, perhaps even against the intentions of many of its leaders and members, resists the service of mammon. It still hears another drummer and steps to a   different beat. It has memories of a different order in which greed was not a virtue and in which the well-being of the poor was more important than the increase of wealth for the rich. By its reading of scripture, even if not always in its sermons an prayers, it remains engrafted into a way of being in the world in which God, and not Mammon, is supreme.

Just as the idolatry of the nation state brought ruin upon the world, so the idolatry of wealth is now doing. It is clearest in Africa and Latin America, but those who have eyes to see, will find that our own cities are not far behind. The worship of Mammon leads to the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, where decisions are made with less and less regard for the good of the larger community. It leads to the rapid exhaustion of natural resources and the pollution of air, water, and land. It leads, in other words, to death.

The worship of God, on the other hand, is the choice of life. Today it has been pushed to the margins, even, perhaps, in our churches. But it is still there. May we who profess to follow Jesus, and who, in some small measure, are genuinely influenced by him, preserve and extend that worship. There is a deep conflict between the service of Mammon and the service of God. May we find life in choosing God.