# # #
More than a decade ago I made a couple of trips to Alaska. Driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks, I made a stop with some friends to take pictures of Mt. McKinley, or Denali, the tallest peak in North America. It was a bit cloudy, as the Denali range is so massive it creates its own weather, so it wasn’t the best day to view the mountain. Still we took in the sight and took some good pictures. In Fairbanks the next day we had the pictures developed (there was not much digital photography “back in the day”), and I was showing them to a friend of mine who lived in Fairbanks at the time. He was quick to correct me. The pictures I held in my hand were not of Mt. McKinley, but of a smaller mountain, properly named Mount Deception.
Mount Deception earned its tragic name in September of 1944 when a United States Air Force C-47 transport plane crashed into the side of the mountain in bad weather. The pilot was flying blind, using only instruments, and could not see where he was going, thus the name. Deception has lived up to its name ever since, but for a different reason. It continues to fool tourists like me, because from certain angles the mountain looks just like Denali. The next day the weather was clear and my friend took me back to see Denali. There in the distance was Mount Deception at 11,500 feet. Looming behind it, what I could not see earlier, was Denali at more than 20,000 feet, terrifyingly large. It was so large, that what I thought were clouds the day before was actually the slopes of that massive mountain. I simply failed to see the peak. My friend showed me where and how to look for it.
Too many of us are looking at a mountain we think is the real thing, but it is Deception. We are blind to the greater reality that a bigger mountain has materialized on the horizon. We fail to see that we have fixed our eyes on the wrong goal. As a result, we will never arrive at the right place because what we begin with is where we end up. Our sights are set too low and we are blindly crashing our lives against this mountain. We have chosen to be enslaved by the god of Mammon.
Most modern English Bibles use the contemporary word “money” over the archaic “Mammon” when referring to riches. But I think Mammon, with a capital “M,” is a better translation. Harmlessly, Mammon originally referred to possessions or money that was put into trust. Mammon was what was given to a banker or a trustee as collateral or as an investment. Over time, the meaning of Mammon transitioned sinisterly from resources that were entrusted, to resources in which a person put his or her trust. Jewish Rabbis eventually capitalized the word, regarding it as nothing less than a competing god. George Watts captures this false idol best in his oil painting where he portrays Mammon as fat, ugly creature, grotesquely sitting on his throne, nursing his money bags, and crushing poor souls with his weight.
Jesus makes it clear that Mammon is a god you can serve. You can bow the knee and worship at the altar of Mammon, but you can’t do that and follow Jesus at the same time. No one can be a slave to two masters. This isn’t a shame-inducing strategy by Jesus to make us feel bad about our decisions. It is the God’s honest truth. You are not able to be married to one while keeping the other as a mistress; it is impossible. Sometimes, the anxiety we feel about our financial security, is that we are in a tug-of-war trying to follow Jesus, while under the power and spell of Mammon (a rival god who ruthlessly demands everything, but delivers nothing).
I will hurry to say this: Jesus does not declare money itself to be evil. Money is not evil, but it is dangerous – extremely so – like a loaded gun; and it is as dangerous as liquor to an alcoholic or crack to an addict. One has to be careful with it, because unlike anything else in the world, it has the power to steal our souls, and not just rich souls. One can be as poor as a dirt farmer and still be serving Mammon, enslaved to that horrible god with barely two nickels to rub together. So no, money is not the root of all evil, as we have been told. The love of money is the root of all evil, goes the Hebrew parable.
In regard to this, Tony Campolo asked a tricky question a few years ago: “Would Jesus drive a BMW?” Here is his answer: “This is a car designed to do 200 miles per hour on the German autobahn and corner at 150 mile per hour. Why would anybody in the United States, where the speed limit is 55, need a BMW? The answer’s simple: The BMW is not a car. It is a statement, a symbol of an individual’s status. The question for a Christian is this: In a world where there are such incredible needs, can I spend [this kind of money] on a status symbol? In the face of hunger and need and suffering, would Jesus say, ‘Hey, more important for me is buying a BMW?’ If he were living today, I’d have a hard time believing he would do that. The point is not whether you should have a BMW. The point is, what is it about you that makes you want this car? The issue is why you get pleasure out of that instead of getting your pleasure out of [the Kingdom of God].”