Image: xhowardlee | flickr.
A couple weeks ago I went to Mass at my alma mater’s Newman Center. Once I discovered that the Gospel reading focused on not being able to serve both God and mammon, I figured the homily would be a pretty standard explanation of what the verse means: avoid mammon—the material goods and worldly prestige of the world—because it distracts us from God, our true master. But when the priest got up to give the homily, he gave me insight into how much deeper the conflict between God and mammon goes.
The priest started by explaining the meaning of the word mammon. In a literal sense, mammon means money or wealth, hence its interpretation as any sort of material good. After that, though, he told the congregation how that definition wasn’t quite sufficient, because sometimes people can serve mammon without even meaning to. Then he told a story from before he was a priest when he met someone who had either fallen away from the faith or had never been exposed to it at all.
Eventually he convinced that person to start going to church with him, but the priest said his reaction to the person’s decision was a little skewed. Rather than continue the friendship with the person he’d brought to church, he turned to some of his older friends in the congregation to say how proud he was that he’d brought someone new to church. He continued to avoid developing a true friendship with the new churchgoer and, after only about a year, the person had stopped going to church.
The priest went on to say that for a long time he thought nothing of this whole turn of events. Surely he was a little disappointed that his friend hadn’t stuck with the faith, but he assumed the friend’s decision was out of his control. When he told this story to a religious sister, though, his perspective completely changed. She suggested that if he had done a better job treating this friend as a person rather than a means to the self-satisfaction of bringing someone to church, maybe he would’ve stayed.
This friend, father told us, left the church because he had brought him in to serve mammon, not God.
Choosing to serve God rather than mammon doesn’t just mean believing God is more important than material things—it means serving the Lord and other people purely out of love, rather than as a means to an end. As the priest at my alma mater’s Newman Center put it, God and people are ends in themselves, not simply means to another end. When we do volunteer work just to put it on our résumés, give to charities just for the tax breaks, or help other people in our everyday lives for a reason other than love of God and neighbor, we serve mammon. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do these sorts of things at all; it just means we need to examine our intentions and see if we need to rethink them.
Choosing to serve God rather than mammon is difficult, but it’s something we all have to work on. I, myself, had to work on it while I was staffing a retreat several years ago. I was upset that I didn’t get a more glamorous role on the retreat staff, and I eventually realized this was because I was serving on the retreat for my own benefit rather than the benefit of the retreatants or the glory of God. I reevaluated my intentions, and I think now I’m much better for that. In any case, let’s all keep our intentions focused on God and away from mammon, whatever form that might take.