Matthew 6:24

THE EXCLUSIVE SERVICE

Matt. 6:24

No man can be a slave to two owners; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cleave to the one and despise the other. You cannot be a slave to God and to material things.

To one brought up in the ancient world this is an even more vivid saying than it is to us. The Revised Standard Version translates it: No one can serve two masters. But that is not nearly strong enough. The word which the Revised Standard Version translates “serve” is douleuein (GSN1398); doulos (GSN1401) is a slave; and douleuein (GSN1398) means to be a slave to. The word that the Revised Standard Version translates master is kurios (GSN2962), and kurios is the word which denotes absolute ownership. We get the meaning far better, if we translate it: No man can be a slave to two owners.

To understand all that this means and implies we must remember two things about the slave in the ancient world. First, the slave in the eyes of the law was not a person but a thing. He had absolutely no rights of his own; his master could do with him absolutely as he liked. In the eyes of the law the slave was a living tool. His master could sell him, beat him, throw him out, and even kill him. His master possessed him as completely as he possessed any of his material possessions. Second, in the ancient world a slave had literally no time which was his own. Every moment of his life belonged to his master. Under modern conditions a man has certain hours of work, and outside these hours of work his time is his own. It is indeed often possible for a man nowadays to find his real interest in life outside his hours of work. He may be a clerk in an office during the day and play the violin in an orchestra at night; and it may be that it is in his music that he finds his real life. He may work in a shipyard or in a factory during the day and run a youth club at night, and it may be that it is in the youth club that he finds his real delight and the real expression of his personality. But it was far otherwise with the slave. The slave had literally no moment of time which belonged to himself. Every moment belonged to his owner and was at his owner’s disposal.

Here, then, is our relationship to God. In regard to God we have no rights of our own; God must be undisputed master of our lives. We can never ask, “What do I wish to do?” We must always ask, “What does God wish me to do?” We have no time which is our own. We cannot sometimes say, “I will do what God wishes me to do,” and, at other times, say, “I will do what I like.” The Christian has no time off from being a Christian; there is no time when he can relax his Christian standards, as if he was off duty. A partial or a spasmodic service of God is not enough. Being a Christian is a whole-time job. Nowhere in the Bible is the exclusive service which God demands more clearly set forth.

Jesus goes on to say, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The correct spelling is with one m. Mammon was a Hebrew word for material possessions. Originally it was not a bad word at all. The Rabbis, for instance, had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbour be as dear to thee as thine own.” That is to say, a man should regard his neighbours material possessions as being as sacrosanct as his own. But the word mammon had a most curious and a most revealing history. It comes from a root which means to entrust; and mammon was that which a man entrusted to a banker or to a safe deposit of some kind. Mammon was the wealth which a man entrusted to someone to keep safe for him. But as the years went on mammon came to mean, not that which is entrusted, but that in which a man puts his trust. The end of the process was that mammon came to be spelled with a capital M and came to be regarded as nothing less than a god.

The history of that word shows vividly how material possessions can usurp a place in life which they were never meant to have. Originally a man’s material possessions were the things which he entrusted to someone else for safe-keeping; in the end they came to be the things in which a man puts his trust. Surely there is no better description of a man’s god, than to say that his god is the power in whom he trusts; and when a man puts his trust in material things, then material things have become, not his support, but his god.

THE PLACE OF MATERIAL POSSESSIONS

Matt. 6:24 (continued)

This saying of Jesus is bound to turn our thoughts to the place which material possessions should have in life. At the basis of Jesus’ teaching about possessions there are three great principles.

(i) In the last analysis all things belong to God Scripture makes that abundantly clear. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps.24:1). “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine” (Ps.50:10,12).

In Jesus? teaching it is the master who gives his servants the talents (Matt. 25:15), and the owner who gives the husbandmen the vineyard (Matt. 21:33). This principle has far-reaching consequences. Men can buy and sell things; men can to some extent alter and rearrange things; but man cannot create things. The ultimate ownership of afl things belongs to God. There is nothing in this world of which a man can say, “This is mine.” Of all things he can only say, “This belongs to God, and God has given me the use of it.”

Therefore this basic principle of life emerges. There is nothing in this world of which any man can say, “This is mine, and I will therefore do what I like with it.” Of everything he must say, “This is God’s, and I must use it as its owner would have it to be used.” There is a story of a city child who was taken for a day in the country. For the first time in her life she saw a drift of bluebells. She turned to her teacher and said, `Do you think God would mind, if I picked one of his flowers?’ That is the correct attitude to life and all things in the world.

(ii) The second basic principle is that people are always more important than things. If possessions have to be acquired, if money has to be amassed, if wealth has to be accumulated at the expense of treating people as things, then all such riches are wrong. Whenever and wherever that principle is forgotten, or neglected, or defied, far-reaching disaster is certain to follow.

In this country we are to this day suffering in the world of industrial relationships from the fact that in the days of the industrial revolution people were treated as things. Sir Arthur Bryant in English Saga tells of some of the things which happened in those days. Children of seven and eight years of age–there is actually a case of a child of three–were employed in the mines. Some of them dragged trucks along galleries on all fours; some of them pumped out water standing knee deep in the water for twelve hours a day; some of them, called trappers, opened and shut the ventilating doors of the shafts, and were shut into little ventilating chambers for as much as sixteen hours a day. In 1815 children were working in the mills from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. without even a Saturday half-holiday, and with half an hour off for breakfast and half an hour off for dinner. In 1833 there were 84,000 children under fourteen in the factories. There is actually a case recorded in which the children whose labour was no longer required were taken to a common and turned adrift. The owners objected to the expression “turned adrift.” They said that the children had been set at liberty. They agreed that the children might find things hard. “They would have to beg their way or something of that sort.” In 1842 the weavers of Burnley were being paid 7 1/2d. a day, and the miners of Staffordshire 2s. 6d. a day. There were those who saw the criminal folly of all this. Carlyle thundered, “If the cotton industry is founded on the bodies of rickety children, it must go; if the devil gets in your cotton-mill, shut the mill.” It was pleaded that cheap labour was necessary to keep costs down. Coleridge answered, “You talk about making this article cheaper by reducing its price in the market from 8d. to 6d. But suppose in so doing you have rendered your country weaker against a foreign foe; suppose you have demoralized thousands of your fellow-countrymen, and have sown discontent between one class of society and another, your article is tolerably dear, I take it, after all.”

It is perfectly true that things are very different nowadays. But there is such a thing as racial memory. Deep in the unconscious memory of people the impression of these bad days is indelibly impressed. Whenever people are treated as things, as machines, as instruments for producing so much labour and for enriching those who employ them, then as certainly as the night follows the day disaster follows. A nation forgets at its peril the principle that people are always more important than things.

(iii) The third principle is that wealth is always a subordinate good. The Bible does not say that, “Money is the root of all evil,” it says that “The love of money is the root of all evils” (1Tim.6:10). It is quite possible to find in material things what someone has called “a rival salvation.” A man may think that, because he is wealthy, he can buy anything, that he can buy his way out of any situation. Wealth can become his measuring-rod; wealth can become his one desire; wealth can become the one weapon with which he faces life. If a man desires material things for an honourable independence, to help his family and to do something for his fellow-men, that is good; but if he desires it simply to heap pleasure upon pleasure, and to add luxury, if wealth has become the thing he lives for and lives by, then wealth has ceased to be a subordinate good, and has usurped the place in life which only God should occupy.

One thing emerges from all this–the possession of wealth, money, material things is not a sin, but it is a grave responsibility. If a man owns many material things it is not so much a matter for congratulation as it is a matter for prayer, that he may use them as God would have him to do.

THE TWO GREAT QUESTIONS ABOUT POSSESSIONS

Matt. 6:24 (continued)

There are two great questions about possessions, and on the answer to these questions everything depends.

(i) How did a man gain his possessions? Did he gain them in a way that he would be glad that Jesus Christ should see, or did he gain them in a way that he would wish to hide from Jesus Christ?

A man may gain his possessions at the expense of honesty and honour. George Macdonald tells of a village shop-keeper who grew very rich. Whenever he was measuring cloth, he measured it with his two thumbs inside the measure so that he always gave short measure. George Macdonald says of him, “He took from his soul, and he put it in his siller-bag.” A man can enrich his bank account at the expense of impoverishing his soul.

A man may gain his possessions by deliberately smashing some weaker rival. Many a man’s success is founded on someone else’s failure. Many a man’s advancement has been gained by pushing someone else out of the way. It is hard to see how a man who prospers in such a way can sleep at nights.

A man may gain his possessions at the expense of still higher duties. Robertson Nicoll, the great editor, was born in a manse in the north-east of Scotland. His father had one passion, to buy and to read books. He was a minister and he never had more than 1200 a year. But he amassed the greatest private library in Scotland amounting to 17,000 books. He did not use them in his sermons; he was simply consumed to own and to read them. When he was forty he married a girl of twenty-four. In eight years she was dead of tuberculosis; of a family of five only two lived to be over twenty. That cancerous growth of books filled every room and every passage in the manse. It may have delighted the owner of the books, but it killed his wife and family.

There are possessions which can be acquired at too great a cost. A man must ask himself: “How do I acquire the things which I possess?”

(ii) How does a man use his possessions? There are various ways in which a man may use the things he has acquired.

He may not use them at all. He may have the miser’s acquisitiveness which delights simply in possession. His possessions may be quite useless–and uselessness always invites disaster.

He may use them completely selfishly. A man may desire a bigger pay for no other reason than that he wants a bigger car, a new television set, a more expensive holiday. He may think of possessions simply and solely in terms of what they can do for him.

He may use them malignantly. A man can use his possessions to persuade someone else to do things he has no right to do, or to sell things he has no right to sell. Many a young person has been bribed or dazzled into sin by someone else’s money. Wealth gives power, and a corrupt man can use his possessions to corrupt others–and that in the sight of God is a very terrible sin.

A man may use his possessions for his own independence and for the happiness of others. It does not need great wealth to do that, for a man can be just as generous with half a crown as with a thousand pounds. A man will not go far wrong, if he uses his possessions to see how much happiness he can bring to others. Paul remembered a saying of Jesus which everyone else had forgotten: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Ac.20:35). It is characteristic of God to give, and, if in our lives giving always ranks above receiving, we will use aright what we possess, however much or however little it may be.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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