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In Matthew 6.24, Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”
I have often read this passage and wondered, “Why not?” Why must I make such a stark choice between God and money? Is it not possible to be a rich Christian? And then I have gone on to wonder what precisely it means to “serve” money anyway. I understand what it means to acquire, invest, and spend money—but serve it? Perhaps you have wondered as much too. So, let me offer a few words of advice about this passage.
Consider the master/slave metaphor Jesus uses. When Jesus talks about serving two masters or serving God or money, he is using a metaphor based on a social reality of the first century, namely, slavery. And in light of that metaphor, he is quite right: A slave cannot serve two masters. At some point, one or the other must be given preference.
Since slavery is not part of our social reality, let me update the metaphor and talk about conflicts of interest. Suppose you work for a company that makes widgets. Unfortunately, you do not earn a living wage at that company, so you take a second job at another widget-making company. Now, when you’re in the field, whose widgets do you recommend customers to buy? If you recommend the first company’s widgets, you are doing a disservice to your second employer. But if you recommend the second company’s widgets, you are doing a disservice to your first employer. You cannot honesty represent competing interests.
According to Jesus, God and money are competing interests. How so? Well, take out your checkbook and look at your pattern of consumption. The Bible lays down a number of guidelines about how we ought to spend our money. For example, we ought to tithe our income to the Lord’s work (Leviticus 27.30–33), without, of course, forgetting to perform works of “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23.23). We ought to provide for the elderly members of our family who have need; this is a way of “putting [our] religion into practice,” according to 1 Timothy 5.4. Charity should extend beyond the four walls of our own houses, however. According to James 1.27, “pure and faultless” religion entails looking after “orphans and widows in their distress.”
Now, the Bible says much more on the topic of money than this, but these examples are enough for my purposes. As we look at our checkbooks, do we see a tithe of our income going to the Lord’s work? Do we see time and money being spent to help poor relatives? Do we see a pattern of donations to help the poor? If not, what do we see? Consumer debt? Living beyond our means? The purchase of items we do not need?
If you serve God, then be quick to follow his instructions about the use of money, lest you be drawn into a conflict with his commandments.