“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”
Jesus’ final words in today’s Gospel Reading—“You cannot serve both God and mammon”—are sometimes falsely interpreted. They’re taken to mean that you cannot have both God and money in your life. In other words, this false interpretation claims that there’s a competition in your life between God and money. They battle against each other in a zero-sum game. The holier you are, the less money you will have, and the more money you have, the less holy you must be. This interpretation of Jesus’ words is false.
In fact, our spiritual well-being and our financial well-being are not in competition. When Jesus plainly tells you that “You cannot serve both God and mammon”, the key word is “serve”. “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” You can serve God or you can serve mammon. But you cannot serve both.
God, of course, wants us to serve Him alone. He had declared to Israel many centuries before Christ: “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today” [Deuteronomy 6:4-6]. To love someone is to serve her. This is true in our relationship with God, as well: to love Him is to serve Him.
The beautiful thing about serving God is that through this form of love, we become more like Him. After all, St. John taught the first Christians that “God is love” [1 John 4:8]. Serving God is as God wants, and in fact this is what you want in your heart. God Himself planted that desire there when He created your heart: the desire to serve Him, and so become more like Him.
On the other hand, what happens when you try to serve money? One simple way to get at an answer is to ask yourself whether your self-image goes up and down with the amount of money that you have. Do you feel worse when you lose a significant amount of money? Do you feel better when you gain a significant amount of money? If so, then there is a certain likeness between your money and you.
As your money grows, so you grow. As your money diminishes, you diminish. This is a false form of love, and a false servanthood. It is a love of something beneath you. God wants us to serve Him alone.
By contrast, money is meant to serve us, to facilitate our needs in this world: not our desires, but our needs, and especially needs connected to our vocations. In turn, financial wealth is a means by which we serve others. If a person gains financial wealth, God intends for that wealth to be used for others.
That doesn’t mean that the wealthy person has to give it all away, like St. Francis of Assisi. Despite what some socialists might say, there’s nothing inherently immoral about accumulating wealth. The sin lies in not using one’s wealth for others, especially within the setting of one’s vocation.
We can speculate that God allows financial wealth to accumulate to those who have the skills to use that wealth for others. Some persons just don’t—for whatever reason—have it in them to handle the responsibility that comes with significant wealth. If those persons were to come into wealth—as happens, for example, with government lotteries—they would end up with ruined lives. But some persons do have the skills required to deal with wealth in a way that not only allows them to grow that wealth, but also to use it to serve others.
Money when loved instead of being used for service stunts one’s growth in Christ. The one who serves money closes himself off from others. Money has no power to foster growth within persons. Becoming like money by loving it can only be a downward path, a descent from the personal dignity with which God created us.
God gives us stewardship over all things—including money—for the sake of service. This service fosters love among persons. God gives us relationships with other persons—human and angelic—to foster a communion of saints. God gives us Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in order that we might enjoy eternal life amidst God’s very essence as a communion of the three divine Persons. From a Fr. Thomas Hoisington