“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

In our Western affluent culture you don’t hear too many pastors preaching on this verse. It is among what I would call an ‘untouchable sin’… meaning that pastors won’t touch it because it is so widespread they fear offending the guilty.  There are several of these untouchable sins in our culture, like gluttony for example.  We may hear sermons railing against the evils of ‘drunkenness’ but almost never on its biblical companion ‘gluttony’.  Why not?  Too close to home!  Overeating is as much a part of our culture as breathing.  Not to mention the fact that many of my contemporaries would have no personal credibility on the issue … if you know what I mean.

Mammon is an Aramaic word, that I believe Jesus carefully choose for this verse, because of its specific meaning.  It does not mean ‘money’ per se but would be better translated ‘riches’ or ‘wealth’.  However the translators choose not to translate it at all since it really means more than that.  It is a personification of wealth to the level of something you could actually worship.  The best example we have in English language is when someone would accuse another of “worshipping the almighty dollar”.  They don’t worship it in the traditional sense, but because they have allowed wealth to get such a powerful hold over them, money has become the master and they have become the slave.  We all know people like this.  The desire for greater wealth and possessions seems to drive every decision and nothing is too big a price to pay to achieve more.  They sacrifice their marriages and families, friends and employees, and often eventually their morals and ideals.  Bernie Madoff comes to mind.  He defrauded every person he ever met out of some $65 billion in the world’s largest Ponzi scheme.  In 2009 he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his efforts.  The good news is that he is eligible for early release in 2139 and can spend some of the money he hid abroad… assuming he lives to 201.

Madoff is an extreme secular example of course, but there was a story coming out of South Korea last month that should alarm us all.  David Yonggi Cho the pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel, the world’s largest church, was sentenced to 3 years in jail for his part in embezzling $12 million from his congregation.  Cho, 79 founded the church 56 years ago in Seoul, South Korea and today boasts some 800,000+ members.  Over the last couple of years 28 of his elders have been accusing the iconic pastor of misappropriating close to $500 million from the church.  The allegations include privatizing church assets, borrowing money for other projects and not returning it, and electing to pay himself a $18 million severance package when he officially stepped down as senior pastor.  Last year at this time the 28 elders were all expelled from the church for not withdrawing the allegations.  Last month the Korean court agreed with Cho’s accusers on at least one count; that of selling the church shares of a stock for 4 times their actual value.  Cho claimed his miscreant son Hee-jun Cho, the church’s former CEO, had him sign to approve the purchase but he neglected to read the 1000 page document.  The court did not accept the ignorance plea but in the end gave the senior Cho a lenient 5 year suspended sentence and required that he repay $4.6 million.  Meanwhile Junior got sent up the creek for 3 years.  Cho’s defense was weak in that Hee-jun has a bad track record of 4 failed marriages, affairs with national celebrities and has already served prison time for similar crimes.  These facts alone proved that, at the very least, David Cho used extremely poor judgment in trusting his son.  It still doesn’t explain the whereabouts of the other millions of dollars the elders claim is missing. The story is far more complicated than I care to take time to explain but you can get most of the sordid details from this news report.  http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/611326.html

When the news broke I read in sheer disbelief at astounding amounts of money involved in this scandal. I had an opportunity to meet Cho briefly once at a conference and heard him preach in person. I have read many of his books and it is impossible not to admire what the man has accomplished in the church world. The whole thing is very disappointing. This wasn’t a mistaken entry in his automobile mileage expense… it was millions and millions of dollars that belongs to God ultimately and not the church, and certainly not him and his family. Power corrupts, but apparently so does mammon.

The untouchable sin of mammon in the church today is most insidious because instead of preaching against it, we often hear preaching in favour of it.  In the Western church we have taken the American dream and woven it seamlessly into the gospel.  We take the scriptures that deal with prosperity and elevate them to a disproportional level.

“The blessing of the Lord makes one rich and He adds no sorrow to it. (Prov 10:22)

“Beloved I pray that you would prosper and be in good health just as your soul prospers” (3 John 1:2 ) 

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) 

All true and valuable promises of God, if kept in the proper context of their counterbalances like:

“A faithful man will abound with blessings, But he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.”  (Prov 28:20)  

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”  (1 Tim 6:9)

Scripture presents money as both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing when restricted to a means to an end… to buy food and shelter, pay the bills, advance the Kingdom of God and care for the poor.  It is a curse when it becomes an end to itself.  When it turns into the ‘love of money’ the desire for the things of this world begins to consume us so that we no longer have money, money has us.  We in North America have become accustomed to listening to some highly gifted and articulate preachers with oratory skills that surpass any speakers in any field, secular or otherwise.  They have built mega-churches, written best-selling books and in the process have amassed enormous sums of money.  Some of them have adopted lavish lifestyles, living in gated mansions, driving Rolls Royces and flying Lear jets.  What message does that send the faithful?  How about, that you can serve both God and Mammon?

This is supposed to be the home of one of your favourite female preachers.  Which one belongs to her?  Apparently, all of them.  I wouldn’t know for certain as I have not been invited for tea.

This is reported to be the home of the man sometimes known as the Prophet of Prosperity.

A 34 year old preacher was shocked when he was criticized for building this 16,000 square foot home.  His initial defense was, “It’s not that great a house.”

I realize that it is easy to criticize when you are in a place where you do not have to deal with the burden of great wealth.  Fortunately there are still good examples out there of preachers that actually figured out that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.  When Rick Warren pastor of Saddleback Church in California wrote The Purpose Driven Life he was surprised that it became the second best-selling non-fiction book in history next to the bible itself.  Instantly he was a multimillionaire and needed to figure out what to do with the money.  He started a charitable foundation with a focus of helping some of the biggest social problems on earth including poverty and AIDS.  He gives over 90% of his income away, lives in the same house as before and drives a 12 year old truck.  He also paid back his salary for the first 25 years and works as a volunteer pastor now since he really doesn’t need the additional income.  The contrast to many other uber-successful preachers was significant enough that Forbes (the money magazine of the rich and famous) ran an article on it.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlaura/2013/03/21/pastor-rick-warren-is-practicing-what-he-preaches-and-getting-ready-for-retirement/

The interesting thing about mammon is that you do not need a lot of it for it to get a hold of us.  The love of money is never restricted to the rich.  I have seen 10 year olds that have already fallen prey and have developed a greedy spirit.  They then go through life as takers and not givers.  The antidote to greed is generosity.  If we cannot give it away when we have a little… we will never be able to give it away when we have a lot.  You simply cannot serve both God and Mammon.