The Prosperity Gospel Isn't Good News
The prosperity gospel crowd (who claim that if you give to their church, you will get more back from God than you give) often misuses a verse from Matthew's Gospel to make their case.
Here, it is from the New International Version (NIV) of the Bible:
Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
A lot of biblical translations employ similar language for the last line of the verse, translating the last word as "money," "wealth," or "riches."
However, there is one version that leaves intact in its original form, the word used by the author of Matthew's Gospel, the Revised Standard Version (RSV). The word many other versions translate as "money" is mammon in the RSV.
Adherents and leaders within the prosperity gospel movement love this verse because it gives them an on-ramp to an argument that people should give more to their ministries.
Aside from being a gross and self-serving interpretation of the text, those who focus solely on translating mammon to money miss the whole point of the statement itself.
There's so much more here than a simple indictment of loving money more than God, so much more.
The word mammon refers to an entire system Fr. Richard Rohr describes as "disorder." Money may be a part of it, but the more expansive interpretation of mammon shows us that it includes power, inequality, oppression, and privilege.
The word mammon has been further expanded by many scholars to be a slang reference to a Canaanite and Mesopotamian god who demanded sacrifices from his adherents, including the sacrifice of their own children, in order to grant them their wishes.
In short, Jesus appears to be describing a system that acts like a false god or an idol that constantly demands more and more of us without offering anything in return other than emptiness and misery.
Those who short-change this interpretation by focusing solely on money unwittingly buy into what they say they are trying to avoid.
Jesus is saying here that you can't live in two worlds. You can't have one foot in the kingdom of God and another in the kingdom of mammon. There's no middle ground with this.
Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:
The love of God can’t be doled out by any process whatsoever. We can’t earn it. We can’t lose it. As long as we stay in this world of accumulation, of earning and losing, we’ll live in perpetual resentment, envy, or climbing.
This also needs to be said:
If you have ever been poor, you know what it's like to live in scarcity, to be uncertain whether to feed your family or keep the lights on because sometimes you must make that choice.
For some cynical preacher to take a verse like Matthew 6:24 and use it to prey primarily on people who don't have any wealth at all is unconscionable.
These preachers are either unwittingly or uncritically serving mammon when they do this. Their business model is grounded in accumulation and earning. The "gospel" they preach is a self-serving black hole that takes and takes but rarely gives.
God's love is not contingent upon how much or little we give to our church. God's love is unconditional. When we live with both feet firmly planted in God's kingdom, we become ambassadors of God's shalom.
We live out of the abundance of God's love rather than the scarcity of mammon.
When we live this way, our generosity is not coerced or an obligation. Our entire lives are an offering of gratitude for what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives.
May we learn to live more fully out of this abundance. May we plant our feet firmly in God's kingdom of shalom. And may the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with us now and always. Amen.