The Sermon on the Mount’s “either/or” choice

Embedded at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ teaches us that “no one can serve two masters; for 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 God and mammon” [Matthew 6:24].

In these words, Jesus confronts us with an “either/or” choice.  The “either/or” dilemma usually means that we have two starkly different choices before us, and also that the stakes are quite high in making that choice.  “Either” we choose the one, “or” we choose the other—and the consequences of this choice are far-reaching indeed.  We could actually say that in this teaching of Christ, we encounter an ultimate “either/or” choice, because on the one hand we have the choice of God—and for Jesus that is the living God revealed in the Scriptures and human experience—and on the other hand, we have the choice of mammon, an untranslated Semitic expression that means worldly wealth or property.  Yet, we cannot treat mammon as a neutral term, for the connotation is that this wealth is gained by obsessive pursuit at the cost of a meaningful relationship with God.  Jesus made this clear a bit earlier in the same general passage with these words: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Matthew 6:19-21].  To further illustrate the negative effects of the type of wealth associated with mammon, we can turn to Saint John Chrysostom who, with his characteristically powerful rhetoric, reveals the dangers of choosing mammon over God:  “Now Jesus calls mammon here ‘a master,’ not because of its own nature but on account of the wretchedness of those who bow themselves beneath it.  So also He calls the stomach a god, not from the dignity of such a mistress but from the wretchedness of those enslaved.  To have mammon for your master is already worse itself than any later punishment and enough retribution before the punishment for any one trapped in it.  For what condemned criminals can be so wretched as those who, once having God for their Lord, do from that mild rule desert to this previous obsession with money?  Even in this life such idolatry trails immense harm in its path, with losses unspeakable.  Think of the lawsuits!  The harassment, the strife and toil and blinding of the soul!  More grievous, one falls away thereby from the highest blessing—to be God’s servant” [The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 21.2].

We will gain no benefit from trying to soften the words of Christ.  However, I believe that a careful reading of these words does not mean that Jesus is rejecting the ownership of what we like to call “things” or “possessions.”  It would be simplistic to reduce this passage to an anti-materialistic diatribe, pure and simple.  Certainly Jesus realizes that we are in great need of food and drink, as well as clothing [6:25-33].  In fact, it is our responsibility to make sure that persons deprived of such basic needs are provided with them, to the point where our own judgement is at stake [Matthew 25:31-46].  I imagine that Jesus would also realize that we need a car to get to work and back with the earnings for our daily bread!  Perhaps one important interpretive key in this teaching of Christ would be the use of the term “master,” as pointed out for us in Saint John’s words above.  “Master” in this context means that to which we are drawn to obsessively—wholeheartedly, we could say.  Something that demands our allegiance and deepest levels of commitment; our undivided attention and zealous pursuit.  Or, even more bluntly, if mammon is our master, then we are its servants/slaves.  This would be the “treasure” to which are hearts are drawn.  But mammon is a treasure unworthy of our hearts!  The effect would be to debase our very humanity by such idolatry.

Yet, if God is our “master,” then that very wholehearted commitment and zeal, the allegiance and commitment implied in such a relationship, would result in making us God’s worthy servants.  And the word “servant” [Gk. doulos] can also mean “slave” - - and here with a very positive meaning!  So, when Christ uses the verb “serve” [Gk. douleuein] it really means something like “being a slave to.”  Once again, with God this is good—but with mammon it is not!  We know that the Apostle Paul often referred to himself as a “servant/slave” of Christ: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle….” [Romans 1:1].  Further, the apostle includes us in the good results of being a “slave” of God: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regards to righteousness….  But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life” [Romans 6:20, 22].

This “either/or” choice, sharply delineated by the term “master,” is further reinforced by how Christ will use the words “love” and “hate.”  We almost invariably understand these words to express powerful emotional feelings, as in “I love you” or “I hate you.”  But these are Semitic expressions that actually mean “allegiance” and “non-allegiance.”  Some would also remind us that the Semitic expression “to hate” really means “to love less.”  We find this use of hate as meaning to “love less” in the almost shocking words of Christ, when He says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” [Luke 14:26].  Clearly, we are not to hear these words as referring to some sort of emotional abhorrence or disgust with our family members—and our own self!  In following Christ, we are being challenged to sacrifice what we already love for an even greater love.  These words, then, are about ultimate allegiance and the new direction that our lives must take if we are to be His disciples.

The Sermon on the Mount presents us with some of the most arresting and attractive moral, ethical and spiritual teachings ever uttered within the realm of human history.  The Sermon reveals Christ as the Teacher.  And as the Messiah, Jesus is expressing the very will of God.  This is why He can categorically claim, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” [Matthew 5:17].  Jesus is thus giving us the most perfect interpretation of the Torah (Law).  In the process, He is teaching us how to live according to the will of God.  It is here that we face a challenge: If we are simply aware of the existence of the Sermon on the Mount, that will not be enough.  A vague awareness of the contents of the Sermon—for Orthodox Christians, the Beatitudes that we hear at every Liturgy may pretty much cover that—may lead us to romanticize or idealize the teachings of Christ found there.  We may further be aware of the “lilies of the field” and “the birds of the air.”  This may sound wonderfully poetic, but the context of those words is about our many anxieties and worries that undermine our trust in God.  In that idealized notion of the Sermon, we may put aside the teachings about anger, adultery, divorce, and loving our enemies.  Or about striving to be “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Matthew 5:48].  In other words, as Christians we need to know the Sermon on the Mount thoroughly, and not just know about it.  As a pastoral suggestion, I would say that a regular reading of the entire Sermon—Matthew 5-7—on a monthly or bi-monthly pattern would serve us well.  The seeds of the Sermon will be able to grow in time within our minds and hearts.  When Christ finished the Sermon, we are told that “the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” [Matthew 7:28-29].  We are no longer simply “the crowds,” but the People of God equally astonished by His teachings and serving Jesus Christ as our Lord and Master.