Greek: Οὐδεὶς δύναται δυσὶ κυρίοις δουλεύειν· ἢ γὰρ τὸν ἕνα μισήσει καὶ τὸν ἕτερον ἀγαπήσει, ἢἑνὸς ἀνθέξεται καὶ τοῦ ἑτέρου καταφρονήσει· οὐ δύνασθε θεῷ δουλεύειν καὶ μαμωνᾷ.
My Translation: No one can serve two masters; for either one he will hate and another he will love, or he will hold to one and despise another; y'all cannot be a slave to both God and mammon. [Mammon is the Aramaic word "mmôn" copied directly into the Greek as "mamonas" and means "riches".]
KJV: No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
My translations are purposefully stretched and should not be viewed as more accurate than the KJV translation unless I say so in the post. I'm trying to show the range lying between the] original Greek text and the English.
Update May 2013 This scripture has been removed by the Church Educational System from the Scripture Mastery list. However, it had remained within this list for over two decades and as such is still familiar to many graduates of the LDS Church's Seminary program. So I'm keeping this exploration of it online, but it is no longer applicable to CES.
Ah yes, God and Mammon. Can't serve both. It's a very Matthean approach, as the author of Matthew is very much concerned with issues of serving God and keeping the Torah and thus emphasizing the stories and teachings of Jesus that further this goal. Very much in line with the issues of 1st Century Judaism, Matthew presents the message of Jesus and service to God in opposition to the pursuit of wealth. Judaism and early Christianity were very focused on the needs of the poor and lower classes of society (indeed, for the first few centuries of the Christian movement, most Jesus followers were themselves poor and members of the lower classes of classical society). Matthew's very Jewish perspective is thus very much in line with this verse.
What is interesting about this scripture is how it usually gets applied with Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saints are an apocalyptic Church. That's not a slur or a smear (indeed, Christianity itself grew out of apocalyptic Judaism and many strands of Christianity today are still apocalyptic in their viewpoint), but rather just a short-hand way of saying that their theological point of view is one of apocalypticism: the idea that God's justice upon an unjust world is quickly approaching and that soon all inequalities, the result of sin and evil, will be forcefully righted by the arrival of God's justice upon the world. For most apocalyptic societies, being on the very cusp of the approach of God's kingdom is associated with that kingdom beginning to "break through" into the world with visions, healings, and miracles. And since part of the message of the coming kingdom of God is that the arrival will be heralded by great violence upon the unjust world, the only way to escape that violence is to join with the kingdom before it arrives. This can produce a worldview of those who belong to the kingdom, the insiders, and everyone else, the outsiders, with an accompanying binary worldview of the world divided into those things that either are with God and his coming kingdom or with the world that stands ready to be destroyed.
This binary worldview produces the uncomfortable problem, however, of what are followers of God supposed to do before the Kingdom of God arrives? How are followers of God supposed to live in the midst of a world living on borrowed time? Scriptures like this scripture mastery scripture serve to help believers have the moral courage to stand with the apocalyptic society in those places where the needs of the society conflict with the fallen world. Whether or not we, as 21st Century people, should agree with this morality is a tough question.
From this point of view it should be plainly obvious why the original point of the scripture, that the pursuit of wealth and power is in opposition to being a follower of Jesus, has been extended for Mormons to mean more than just wealth. The following are three examples provided in the Seminary manual for youth to illustrate how Mormon youth are expected to view this scripture:
- Michael (age 18) chose to have a job that requires him to work every Sunday so he can save money for his mission.
- Donna (age 16) says she is doing missionary work by having a steady boyfriend who is not a member of the Church.
- Brother Smith (age 35) pays tithing and extra fast offerings on the money he makes selling products in which he is not entirely honest with his customers.
Apart from the oddity of having to specify the ages of these fictional characters, the "mammon" in question is not always money. For the first two examples, the "mammon" in question are actions not in keeping with the expectations of the religious community: working a job on Sunday and having meaningful associations with those outside of the community. It's obvious that "mammon" as defined for Mormon youth is far more than the "riches" meant by the author of Matthew originally two thousand years ago. Of course, part of the reason for an apocalypticist like Matthew's Jesus to avoid riches is because riches belong to the rulers of the world, and the current rulers of the world are evil and will be overturned when the kingdom of God arrives. This is part of the reason why Jesus tells some people to sell all they have, give it to the poor, and their treasures will be in heaven. To find salvation, followers of Jesus need to reject this sinful and evil world that rules without justice. So this viewpoint of "Mammon" being the world, while technically incorrect, is not entirely without merit. However, for the apocalyptic Jesus this rejection of the world is far stronger than just not working on Sunday or dating a non- Mormon (seriously, this is a real issue for Seminary manual writers?!?), but in fact represents a complete rejection of the present world. The message of Jesus in Matthew is not usually "be in the world but not of the world" but is usually "reject the world entirely in preparation for the approaching kingdom of God": indeed, you should even "take no thought what you should eat or drink." Give up this world entirely and let your life be run fully upon God's mercy until he arrives and you are given a position of power and authority in his kingdom.
I personally think that a verse like this is a great example of how problematic the New Testament can be. It is an ancient book, written from a very different point of view than how we generally read it in the 21 Century. Unless you agree that the end of the world is fast approaching and that your behavior must include a rejection of wealth, power, influence, and the injustice of this evil world in order to receive a place in the coming Kingdom of God (you know, instead of just being a good person), then this verse can obviously provide some very damaging perspectives on life. We usually view the New Testament, and the Gospels in particular, as books full of ethical statements on how to treat our fellow humans. It is, but the reasons for such treatment are usually very different from what we might expect. If we assume that the teachings of the New Testament are meant for the 21st Century, we'll have a lot of difficulty resolving statements like God and Mammon, or how one must reject family to merit salvation in the Kingdom of God, or how Jesus is said to come to set father against son, mother against daughter. To me, this scripture is a good example of how I view the New Testament: like a pet python. Pythons are beautiful, exotic, fascinating, and a lot of fun. Yet they can also be dangerous if they are approached without any care for what they truly are. You don't play with and treat a python like a puppy. The New Testament is an artifact of history, and to ignore the context and apply it without serious thought can be dangerous. Do I agree that one cannot serve God and mammon? Personally, no, but to me the more problematic aspect is what these apocalyptic black and white scriptures can do to people who simply accept them uncritically and how they then interact with others in the world around them. The examples from the Seminary manual illustrate to me just how this sort of scripture can get in the way of just being a good, ethical person.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the Church itself, as a corporate entity and not as individual members, has a huge problem in following this verse. As an incredibly large organization that charges itself with serving millions of active members worldwide and handling hundreds of millions of dollars of donated tithing for its operations, the LDS Church has adopted a corporate character similar to many large corporate companies. Producing manuals, videos, pamphlets, programs, and countless other goods and services requires paid employees, budgets, contracts, and all of the countless headaches that go along with it. The Church is in the uncomfortable position of often having to figure out how to serve God through the use of mammon, and frankly it doesn't always do a very good job at walking that line. Perhaps the statement of Matthew's Jesus is applicable today to the modern Church Office Building, but if so one wonders what the solution could be.
Why Do I Think This Is Part of Scripture Mastery?
To help enforce a binary view of life as a choice between obedience to God (represented in all examples as obedience to and activity in the Church) and the "world" (a word often used colloquially by Mormons to mean everything either non-Mormon or anti-Mormon, sometimes without distinction). By expanding the meaning of "mammon" beyond riches, youth are encouraged to keep all aspirations, employment, relationships, and choices within the bounds defined by the Church; because of this verse, they could easily be taught that doing so is the only way to honestly serve God.