I know you’ve heard me say more than once that one of my favorite movies is Frank Capra’s, It’s A Wonderful Life. How many of you watch it every Christmas? We do—it’s a long standing Adams family tradition every Christmas Eve. In fact, we’ve watched it soooo many times that now we just kind of have it playing in the background and we stop eating or opening presents every once in a while to view our favorite parts.
If you’re familiar with the movie you know that there are two “foes” in Capra’s plot. On the one side is the evil Mr. Potter played by Lionel Barrymore—the great uncle of Drew. And on the other side is the much beloved—George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. Well these two foes couldn’t be more different. Mr. Potter lives in a huge mansion. George lives in a leaky, drafty, old house—a real fixer-upper. Mr. Potter is hated by pretty much everyone in Bedford Falls. George is much-loved by everyone. Mr. Potter is old—probably in his 80’s. George is young—in his late twenties. Mr. Potter is VERY wealthy. He has enough cash to actually buy out the bank after the stock market crash of the 1930’s. George is more lower class—or at least lower middle. He runs his dad’s broken down savings and loan and makes only $40 a week. Mr. Potter is bitter. George has his melancholy times because he never got to go to college and tour the world as he’d always wanted but he is someone who experiences joy in his life—in spite of the fact that he has almost no worldly possessions. In fact, you may remember that at one point in the film he learns that he is worth more money DEAD than alive.
And that leads me to mention the BIGGEST difference between these two foes—their ATTITUDE about MONEY. Mr. Potter’s entire life rotates around the stuff. He’s constantly working to accumulate more and more money—and in that way getting more POWER to MAKE more and more money—even if that means stealing money from George’s absent minded uncle in an attempt to ruin the Bailey Savings and Loan. On the other hand George doesn’t seem to care about money. He makes sacrifices to help others get a home of his own. He gives money to people in need. I mean, people—family—friends—THEY are what George treasures—and at the end of the film of course he discovers how VERY valuable those relationships really are. He learns that in fact he is a VERY wealthy man—whereas in that sense of measuring value—Mr. Potter is dirt poor. I suppose you could sum up the plot of this beloved film by saying that Mr. Potter is WRONG on the money—and George is RIGHT on the money.
I put it that way because we are about to begin a sermon series on this subject. I must warn you—it’s a “LENGHTY” series and includes a total of TWO entire sermons on money based on the same text from Matthew’s Gospel. This week we’ll look at how at times we are like Mr. Potter in that they are WRONG on the money. Then next week we’ll look at how we can be more like George and be RIGHT when it comes to our attitude about our funds.
Now as I have inferred, Mr. Potter LOVED his money. It was precious to him. I don’t think he would admit it but in a very real sense he WORSHIPPED it—and that’s where he went WRONG on the money. Somewhere along the road of his life bitter Mr. Potter began to worship money and all it can do. In fact, his attitude toward cash reminds me Webster’s definition of the word “idol” which is: “Any object of passionate devotion…any object that we love or admire to excess.” And, I’m sure you’d agree that, according to that definition Mr. Potter certainly idolized his vast cash holdings! But I also want you to know that his money controlled HIM. You see, the problem is money—well, it’s MORE than an inanimate object that we keep in our wallets or bank accounts or stock portfolios. Money CAN become a powerful thing. You see when we idolize an inanimate object—as Potter did his cash—when we LOVE it to EXCESS, it can indeed control our thoughts and actions without our even realizing.
Jesus warns us about this danger in our text for this two-sermon series. Take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 6:19-24 and let’s read together and I’ll show you what I mean. Jesus says:
19 – Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
20 – But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 – For where your treasure is, there your HEART will be also.
22 – The eye is a lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.
23 – But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 – 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 Mammon.”
Did you notice? Jesus said whatever we treasure controls our heart! Now, of course—not just money—ANYTHING can become an idol. Over the millennia mankind has worshiped everything from golden calves to rock stars—but in this text Jesus warns us that one of the EASIEST things for us to lift to idol status—perhaps THE easiest thing in all of life for us “love to excess”—is our treasures—our money. And—please note—not only did Jesus REFER to money as an idol, He went so far as to give it a Semitic NAME: Mammon. In so doing Jesus portrayed money as a living thing—an evil entity, a false god—opposed to the purposes of God.
Now—please understand—this was a new thing! I mean, no one else in the culture of Jesus’ day had given money a NAME like this, as if it were actually ALIVE and SENTIENT. But Jesus did. Jesus made this unique point because He of course saw everything in a unique way. He looked at everything with the eyes of God and from His eternal perspective He saw things the rest of the world could not. Jesus saw that money was not just a neutral medium of exchange but rather something that sinful people like you and me very easily lift to idol status. He knew that when we do this—when we idolize money—when we make it the object of our passionate devotion—it can indeed take on a life of its own.
Mark Twain agreed with this depiction of money. In fact, in order to spotlight this truth he once PARODIED the Westminster Catechism by writing, “What is the chief end of man? To get rich. In what way? Dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one and only true? Money is god. Gold and greenbacks and Stock—father, son, and ghosts of same, three persons in one; these are the true and only god, mighty and supreme.”
Now before we go any further, let me make a very important point here: it is not the AMOUNT of money that is the problem. I mean, idolizing Mammon is not a practice limited to those who are wealthy. The poor can just as easily slip into this practice because our problem with things is not how MUCH we have. It’s how much THEY have US. It’s our attitude about what we have. Whenever we make money or things, “the object of our passionate devotions,” we put ourselves under the spell of Mammon. Whenever we love money to excess, no matter how much or little we have, it can indeed take on a personality of its own.
Now before we go any further, let me ask your opinion. No verbal replies—just think about this: “Is my interpretation of this teaching of Jesus a little extreme? After all isn’t money only money? Aren’t these coins and bills just inanimate objects? Or can our cash become a controlling, evil force?” Let me put it another way. Are our wallets possessed? Is money a god of sorts in our culture? Well, I don’t know your answer to these questions but I would say “YES!” for several reasons.
(1) First, the simple truth is that in our culture money is indeed considered a SACRED thing.
I mean think about it. Our attitude toward money is very similar to our attitude toward our personal religious beliefs in that money is a very PERSONAL, PRIVATE thing in our society. To show you what I mean let me ask, how would you honestly feel if I were to say, “Let’s get to know each other better in worship this morning. Instead of our ‘shake a hand hug a neck’ deal go sit next to someone who’s not from your family and tell each other how much money you each made last year. Compare benefits packages. In fact, swap each other’s check books so you can read the register and see how you spend your money!”
If I were to do that how would you feel? It would be quite awkward, wouldn’t it. Visitors today would probably NOT return—because doing that kind of thing would make us feel as if our privacy had been invaded, because money is a very PERSONAL thing. In that sense it is indeed SACRED to us.
Here’s something else. In our culture, like a god of sorts, money does indeed dictate the VALUE of people. How many times have you heard someone comment on a person who is known to be wealthy by asking, “I wonder how much he is WORTH?” Dr. Lee Salk, professor of psychology at the New York Hospital Cornell medical Center, rightly said, “People jockey to find out what other people earn because, in our society, money is a symbol of strength, influence, and power.”
Then, consider of how much money literally LORDS over—or CONTROLS—our lives, as seen in the amount of our lives that are spent in one way or another in relationship to money:
- THINKING about money
- WORKING to ACCUMULATE money
- WORRYING about money.
- More than a few people here would have to confess that their favorite thing in life is SPENDING money.
And—speaking of SPENDING. I read this week that there is a special disease that crops up every year—not just in the fall when we fight INFLUENZA. This disease—which runs rampant in America is an all year thing and is called AFFLUENZA. To see if you are infected, here are some diagnostic questions for you. Answer “true” to many of the following, and you should probably seek the treatment I will prescribe in NEXT week’s message:
- I’m willing to pay more for a t-shirt if it has a cool logo on it.
- I have trouble closing my closet door because I have a shoe collection Imelda Marcos would envy.
- I’m willing to work 40 years at a job I hate so I can buy lots of stuff.
- When I’m feeling blue, I like to go shopping and treat myself.
- I want a sports utility vehicle, although I rarely drive in conditions that warrant one.
- I usually make just the minimum payment on my credit cards.
- I believe that whoever dies with the most toys wins.
- I’d rather be shopping right now.
This disease was first mentioned in a PBS special about 10 years ago. The definition is: “The bloated, sluggish and unfulfilled feeling that results from efforts to keep up with the Joneses.” Do you have affluenza? Does much of your life revolve around SPENDING? I think all of us would have to confess that we have at least a touch of this “virus.”
In any case, for all these reasons, I think we would be accurate in saying that there is a sacredness and spirituality to our attitudes about our funds.
(2) A second reason I would say it is accurate to describe money as an idol is because it has the ability to DECEIVE us like a false god would.
In John 8:44 Jesus described Satan as “a liar and the father of all lies.” He said that when Satan lies, “he is speaking his native tongue” and money is like that. Its very nature is deceit. Think of it. Money tricks us all the time. It promises things it does not and cannot deliver.
1. For example, it assures us that it will make us happy, that it will bring us fulfillment.
Money leads us to believe that if we only had more of it, everything would be great—because then we could buy a bigger house or a nicer car or a better wardrobe and then we would be truly happy. But when we achieve those goals in life, when we get a bigger house or a nicer car or a better wardrobe we realize we’ve been deceived. When we expend time and effort to gain more and more things, we discover that things don’t in fact make us happy, no matter how many things we have. We never have enough to make us happy. We find that Ecclesiastes 5:10 is literally right on the money when it says, “Whoever loves money never has enough. Whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.”
You know, since we are the wealthiest nation in the world, you would think that people in the United States should be among the happiest people on earth. I mean, we enjoy a higher per capita income than most countries. We have more opportunity for education, medical care, home ownership, car ownership, food avai1ability, freedoms, and so on. But a 2012 Gallup Poll ranked the United States thirty-third in the world on a happiness scale. Having more doesn’t increase our happiness. In fact, seven of the top ten happiest countries were in Latin America, which generally ranks low on the typical economic indicators we might associate with happiness. Civil war-torn Guatemala, which ranks just above Iraq on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, is seventh highest in the world in terms of positive emotions. Despite escalating gang violence that produces one of world’s highest homicide rates and cripples the economy, Guatemalans are happy. A similar story is reflected in Panama. Residents of Panama, which ranks 90th in the world with respect to GDP per capita, are among the most likely to report positive emotions. Residents of Singapore, which ranks fifth in the world in terms of GDP per capita, are the least likely to report positive emotions.
So—money DOES deceive us. It promises happiness. It promises to make our dreams come true if we get more of it but then it does not deliver. In fact the opposite of joy—depression—usually follows most purchases. That’s the way Mammon works. I mean, think about it. We buy something believing it will make us happy and then it doesn’t. We realize it wasn’t worth it but what do we do? Money prompts us to go and buy something else thinking it will make us happy. Eventually we find ourselves on a treadmill of sorts. We’re like alcoholics thinking one more drink will solve our problem. We experience what King Solomon did when he had everything money could buy. Listen to his words from Ecclesiastes 2: “I built great houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem. I amassed silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I denied myself no thing that my eyes desired. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done. everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; no thing was gained under the sun.”
2. Another way money deceives us is by giving us a false sense of SECURITY.
Mammon leads us to believe that with sufficient funds we have control in an often uncontrollable world. We think, “If bad things come along, I’ll be SAFE because I’ve got enough money.” By 30 years old, Sam Polk had made more than $5 million in bonuses alone during eight years working on Wall Street. As a trader, he was living it up in Manhattan by the age of 25. Polk said, “It was an easy thing to go to a World Series game, which for a lot of people was like a dream. [I had] a tremendous feeling of importance and power especially as a 25-year-old kid.” But at the age of 30, he abruptly quit his job on Wall Street. Despite the money Polk had been making, he was still consumed by envy. He went on to work at a hedge fund, and his obsession with money only got worse. In a New York Times op-ed, he wrote:
“Now, working elbow to elbow with billionaires, I was a giant fireball of greed. I’d think about how my colleagues could buy Micronesia if they wanted to, or become the mayor of New York City. They didn’t just have money; they had power. Senators came to their offices. They were royalty.”
Polk describes getting angry over a $3.6 million bonus because it wasn’t big enough. He realized that he had what he know calls “a wealth addiction.” Polk explained: “I came to realize I had been using money as this thing that would quell all my fears. So I had this belief that maybe someday I would get enough money that I would no longer be scared. I would feel successful. And one of the things I learned on Wall Street was no matter how much money I made, the money was never going to do it.”
Polk learned that wealth promises security—but it doesn’t deliver.
3. And then one final way that money deceives us is when it leads us to invest in things that are worthless.
Jesus warned us of this in our text for this morning when He said that the love of money causes us to tend to, “Store up for ourselves treasures on earth—where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” We need to internalize verses like this because if we’re not careful we’ll fall in love with mammon and give our lives to it. And when the day dawns for us to leave this world we’ll realized we have been duped because on that day when we enter eternity all our mammon will be worth absolutely nothing.
You may remember that on January 1, 2002, twelve European countries began switching from their existing currencies—the lira, franc, mark, and so on—to a new currency, the euro. After a grace period of six to eight weeks, all traditional currency became worthless. Well, according to The Chicago Tribune, people in Europe came up with some very interesting uses for the old out-dated currency. For example, two men in Berlin, made plans to,“…fill an empty swimming pool with nearly $45 million worth of deutsche marks, and invite people to dive in. The state government of Hesse burned its marks in a heating system, and organizers of the Cologne carnival used shredded notes as confetti. The Austrians turned their schillings into 560 tons of compost.”
Well there will come a day when all our money will become no more valuable than compost but our love of money deceives us. It blinds us to this truth and leads us to spend our lives accumulating worthless things. Money leads us to get the true worth of things mixed up as we invest in temporary things instead of things of eternal value. In an article for Christianity Today, Gary Thomas writes, “Thinking about eternity helps us retrieve perspective. I’m reminded of this every year when I figure my taxes. During the year, I rejoice at the pay checks and the extra income and sometimes flinch when I write out the tithe and offering checks. I do my best to be a joyful giver, but I confess it is not always easy, especially when there are other perceived needs and wants. At the end of the year, however, all of that changes. As I’m figuring my tax liability, I wince at every source of income and rejoice with every tithe and offering check. More income means more tax, but every offering and tithe means less tax. Everything is turned, up-side down, or perhaps more appropriately, right-side up. I suspect Judgment Day will be like that.”
And he’s right. It WILL be like that. In 1st Corinthians 3 Paul reminds us that when we stand before God at the end of time, “…our work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.” But until we embrace that eternal perspective many of us idolize money and when we do we ascribe worth to the wrong things.
(3) A third example of money acting like a false god is the way that it leads us to SIN.
Remember the warning God issued through the Apostle Paul? In 1st Timothy 6:9-10 he said, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root to all kinds of evil.” Now, please don’t misunderstand this text. The Bible isn’t saying that money is evil. No, it’s saying the love of it can be a root of all kinds of bad in our lives. You see as our Creator, God knows that if we get too chummy with money and the things money can buy—if we walk around with a mental wish-list of things we’d purchase—or things we’d do if we just had more money, if our favorite “indoor sport” is shopping—we may be headed for trouble. God knows that if we are not very careful, our love of money and the things money can buy will open the door to a landslide of sins.
If you doubt that, stop and think about all the sinful behaviors and attitudes that are related to money in your life.
- Do you ever LIE for the sake of money?
- Do you ever shade the truth on your income tax return or your expense report or in the information you give a customer in order to close a deal and get that commission?
- Do you ever covet something that somebody else has?
Don’t forget, coveting is one of God’s “big ten.” God lists coveting right up there with “Thou shalt not murder” and “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” He obviously takes coveting things very seriously. Well, what about it? Did you ever covet because of money?
- Have you ever become angry or bitter or hateful with someone else because of money?
A boss who didn’t give you what your feel you are worthy of, or a business partner who cheated you out of a deal? Or a family member who got a more sizeable portion of the inheritance than you?
- Have you ever spent your money on stuff like smutty magazines or a movie you shouldn’t have seen?
- Did you ever use your money to purchase something you got drunk with or high on?
- Did you ever work seven out of seven days to make more money, ignoring God’s clear command—another one of the BIG ten—
- —that you ought to set aside one of those days each week to focus on worshiping Him?
- Did you ever use your money to register your kids for so many extracurricular activities that there’s no time left in their schedules for you to pass on spiritual values to them—much less for them to attend church?
- Did you ever ignore the Lord’s work or ignore the poor with that portion of your income that God says needs to be set aside for the purpose of being generous?
- And while we’re on the subject, how about sins related to spending TOO MUCH money?
Are you like most Americans who, due to their over-spending are deep in DEBT? If so then you have experienced the god-like power of Mammon firsthand, because as Proverbs 22:7 says, “The borrower is a servant to the lender.” Debt makes money your master and those little plastic lenders we all carry around can be cruel masters indeed for they obligate us to earn more and more money—like the bumper sticker that says, “I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.”
So to summarize, when we lift money to idol status like Mr. Potter did—it can coerce us to do evil things-sinful things—things we come to regret greatly. And this leads to the fourth reason I think this is an accurate interpretation of Jesus’ teaching.
(4) The love of money can even push us away from God.
Remember? In this text Jesus sets money—Mammon—in opposition to God. He said, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Our Lord said that to try and do so would force us to hate one and love the other because their purposes are opposed to each other. We can’t love both money and God because, as Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “Our hearts have room only for one all-embracing devotion, and we can only cleave to one Lord.” And Jesus is warning us here that Mammon can indeed become a LORD in our lives, a force that disrupts our relationship with God and leads us away from accomplishing His purposes.
I came across some other interesting stats about money recently. A study was done that found that in American households with an income under $10,000 a year the average giving to charitable causes is 2.8%. Now, you would think that when the income goes up the percentage of giving to God’s purposes, such as helping the poor and the needy, and the percentage of giving to the church would rise. But it doesn’t work that way because many people let money ensnare them and push them away from God and doing things that would please Him. And the statistics prove this to be true. Studies show that in households with income between $50,000 and $75,000 a year the average giving is only 1.5%, half that of families living at the poverty level. You see, money can get a hold of us. Mammon can change our focus in life—-from doing God’s will to doing what we want, from working to meet the financial needs of the kingdom of God to selfishly satisfying our own desires. I mean, we think we use money, that we own it, but if we are not careful it is the other way around. Money owns and uses us.
So, back to our original question: Is Jesus being extreme when He gives money the name Mammon and describes it as a false God? Well, no, I don’t think He is for as we have pointed out in our study—money—Mammon—has many characteristics of a false God.
- It can become a very sacred thing to us.
- It deceives us-promising one thing and delivering another.
- Like the devil himself it leads us into sinful behavior.
- And our love of it puts us in opposition to the purposes of God.
So, no, Jesus was not being extreme. It is very easy for us to love money to excess, to worship it, to idolize it. And when we do Satan is more than ready to step in and use it as a powerful evil force. This is one reason Jesus had so much to say about money matters—because our attitude about money matters so much! In fact we see His comparison of money to a false god—a living entity—not just here in Matthew but repeatedly in Scripture. For example, do you remember when the rich young ruler asked Jesus how he could have eternal life and he received the startling reply, “Go and sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will have treasure in Heaven and come follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21) To this mixed up young man, material things had become a god—an all—consuming idol opposed to God—so before this guy could follow Jesus he had to reject his personal Mammon. And then do you remember Jesus’ lunch with Zacchaeus? Jesus freed him of this possession by Mammon and Zach was so excited that he responded by exclaiming, “Half of my goods I give to the poor and if I have defrauded any one of anything I will restore it four fold.” (Luke 19:8) Jesus’ response to this statement was to say “Today salvation has come to this house.” or, “Since you have ceased to worship the false god, Mammon, salvation has come to this house!” You see in these cases Jesus saw money as an idolatry these two men had to be converted from before they could be converted to Him. And money—Mammon—can just as easily becomes a god in our lives. If we are not careful we can become WRONG on the money.
Well, what are we to do? How can we prevent this from happening, or if it has already happened, how can we free ourselves from Mammon’s destructive power? How can we prevent it from staking claim to our lives? How can we break money’s hold? We’ll talk more about this next week but I want us to understand that God gives us a very simple solution to the problems money can cause: give it away. Like Scrooge giving his employee a raise and a giant goose for Christmas dinner—and paying for Tiny Tim to see a doctor—we free ourselves from Mammon’s control by giving it away. Specifically, as Christians, we defeat Mammon by acknowledging that all we have belongs to God, saying, “God, here is my life, here is my bankbook, here are my possessions. Use them as You see fit. Enable me to be Your steward by using all this to further Your eternal kingdom.” You see when we give our “things” to God we go from idolatry to true worship because the essence of true worship is giving—giving to God. Mammon’s law is to GET and GET and GET so when we do the opposite, when we GIVE and GIVE and GIVE, we deal it a fatal blow. Wherever there is selfless giving, God is exalted and mammon is rendered impotent.
So, do you understand what a revolutionary thing it is that takes place when we give our tithes and offerings each Sunday morning? We’re not just doing this so that we can pay salaries or the utility bill or buy discipleship materials or send money to missions. No, we are doing this to worship. The primary reason we pass these plates every Sunday is because to do so is an act of worship because in giving we exalt the One True God. When we put money in the offering plate we are at the same time saying “Yes” to God and “No” to Mammon. We’re saying, “I’m giving sacrificially because I trust God—the ONE TRUE GO— to provide for my needs.” When we calculate the amount of our tithe checks we’re acknowledging how much God has blessed us. Whenever we give to God, we profane the false god, Mammon, and say “You have no power over us.” Gordon Crosby once put it this way. He said, “To give away money is to win a victory over the dark powers that oppress us.”
As we come to the end of our service I hope you realize that our response to this time of invitation is in itself a time of offering, a time of giving. It is a time every week for us to renounce Mammon’s claim on our lives as we once again commit to give all we have and are to God. This is a time for us to say, “God, I want to give You the coming week. Take my life and use it to further Your purposes.” If you are here and are not a Christian then, I encourage you to give your life to God right now. Respond to what Jesus Christ did on the cross by deciding today to follow Him as Savior and Lord. As Timothy Keller points out, every treasure but Jesus will insist you die to purchase it. Jesus is the only Treasure Who died to purchase you! And he’s right. When Jesus died on the cross, He was paying the debt for your sins so if you’ve never done so, I urge you to respond to that this morning. Pray to God and say, “I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son. I believe He died for me. I want to live for Him. Forgive me and use me.” If you’re already a Christian and aren’t active in a local church then perhaps God is asking you to give Him your life to use in this church. If so, come and join us. We’d love to have you as part of the Redland family. So, as God leads, won’t you come?