Desacralizing Money: Hiding the Actions of the Right Hand from the Left

Posted: 30 April 2012 in Faith and Life
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(This posting also appears at

In the sermon he preached on the mountainside, Matthew records Jesus as saying (in the midst of a long discussion of the worship of, prayer to and trust in God):

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. (RSV Chapter 6 v 24)

Why is the original Aramaic word that Jesus used kept in the English Revised Standard Version (and in most English versions)? What can this choice mean: serve God or Mammon? Why the personalization of the concept of Mammon?

Mammon means simply money or wealth but here Jesus elevates it to more than just a monetary conceptualization. He names it as a personal power vying for our allegiance and worship.

French jurist and sociologist Jacques Ellul, in his 1954 work L’homme et l’argent (literally: Man and Money but translated into English as Money and Power) says this about Jesus’ choice of words and its meaning:

We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and Mammon. He is not using a rhetorical figure but pointing out a reality. God as a person and Mammon as a person find themselves in conflict. Jesus describes the relation between us and one or the other the same way: it is the relationship between servant and master. Mammon can be a master the same way God is; that is, Mammon can be a personal master…

Jesus is not describing a relationship between us and an object, but between us and an active agent. He is not suggesting that we use money wisely or earn it honestly. He is speaking of a power which tries to be like God, which makes itself our master and which has specific goals.

Thus when we claim to use money, we make a gross error. We can, if we must, use money, but it is really money that uses us and makes us servants by bringing us under its law and subordinating us to its aims… We are not free to direct the use of money one way or another, for we are in the hands of this controlling power. Money is only an outward manifestation of this power, a mode of being, a form to be used in relating to man—exactly as governments, kings and dictators are only forms and appearances of another power clearly described in the Bible, political Power. (Money and Power, pp 76-77)

It may seem that Ellul is overstating the case of money as a power to make some point but his point is simply that we must take Jesus’ statement that money (an embodiment of Mammon) sets itself up as an object of worship—a source of life and meaning—at face value. Any “being” with this aim is powerful indeed.

I don’t think Ellul is overstating the case and I say this because of how money maintains its power to shape human relationships even when we give it away. Let me explain my point and suggest a way I believe we can desacralize money—in at least one way (for our “warfare” against this power must be fought on many fronts).

I did my doctoral research in the West African nation of Mauritania seeking to understand how people survive in such an inhospitable environment. Specifically, I was interested in how people—individuals, families and whole communities—insure themselves against loss in a part of the world in which one cannot purchase insurance in the market. There is no life insurance, health insurance, home insurance, crop or cattle insurance or any other kind of insurance to be had on the deserts edge. And yet, my research showed that people were finding ways to insure themselves against loss.

The key to insurance in this environment was suggested to me by the theory of gift giving (which forms a subset of thinking on the formation of social capital). My empirical research offered powerful support for the theories about which I had read and my results go something like this:

When people cannot purchase insurance they develop a variety of innovative approaches to obtain it and most of these approaches have to do with the “creation of obligations” towards themselves occasioned by them giving gifts to others. By giving a gift of grain, milk, labor, cows or goats people were, essentially, making premium payments on an insurance policy that they could draw on in time of need. While I did not find any correlation between the specific type of gift and the insurance need, what was clear was that people targeted specific people or groups with their gifts knowing that they could provide the givers with specific, tangible support in time of need.

In one village a gift of labor to another village was to obtain expertise in healing. In another a loan of a cow was used to obtain transportation in case of illness. In still another, gifts of grain could be converted into support in case of loss of cattle or food. And the list goes on and on.

The point is that gifts were never neutral and they were always done in a way that the receiver was fully aware of who gave them. Now, I am NOT condemning the poor folks of Mauritania for engaging in this kind of giving but it should give us pause about our own giving and the kinds of obligations—implicit or explicit—that it creates towards us.

We can see this in the extreme when a person gives a large sum of money to an institution to have a building (or an entire institution) named after him/her. Thus my alma mater is no longer the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health but the Bloomberg School of Public health. More subtly, however, are the gifts we give that give us recognition in the eyes of others (think of the annual reports of non-profits that list donors). Most subtly (and we may not even be fully conscious of it) are the gifts we give that enable us to “have a say” or “speak into” the lives of people and organizations. The latter may be hard to identify but I have seen the tendency in my own life and know that it is an example of Ellul’s point that “we are in the hands of a controlling power.” Even if we do not want it to, giving “creates obligations.” Regardless of our motives, giving conditions relationships.

Given this bent of money to shape human relationships—to create obligations—is there anything we can do to limit money’s power? Is there anything we can do to put it to use in a way that removes its sacred claims on humanity?

I believe one key comes also from Jesus’ mountainside sermon—also recorded by Matthew. In talking about the practice of religious obligation Jesus said:

Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (RSV Matthew 6:2-4)

Jesus clearly understood the way that money was used to condition human relationships. He grew up in subsistence agriculture and fishing society—perhaps not unlike the one I studied in West Africa—and understood how money could be used to direct human relationships—to create obligations. His solution—give anonymously.

A gift given in anonymity cannot create an obligation. It cannot condition a human interaction. It cannot create power for an individual. It abuses the power of money and makes it a worthless thing for the giver.

In our ongoing warfare against the power that is money, I suggest we turn all our giving into the anonymous kind in order to bear witness to the fact that only God can claim our allegiance and that we will give honor and glory to no other.

Addendum: Lessons from my grandson in desacralizing money

My grandson just turned three and at his birthday party (in Oakland) his father took him down the street to visit with some neighbors. He returned with two crisp $20 bills rolled up in his little hand. As he entered the house to show us what he had gotten he immediately tried to give the money away to whomever would take it. Several did take the money but quickly returned it to him saying “this is your money”.

My grandson looked confused. These pieces of paper had no use for him. While those around him seemed excited by the gift, he could see no value in it. If others were excited by it—why not give it to them? In the end he just dropped it on the ground. It had no use to him and it had no power over him.

My grandson’s actions reminded me of a character in the “Lord of the Rings” that has always intrigued me: Tom Bombadil. The ring of power had no power over Tom—indeed the Hobbits were warned about leaving it with him because he was sure to lose it or misplace it leading to more malevolent forces obtaining it and its power.

Can we ever enter into a relationship with money that would allow us to misplace it, drop it on the ground or just give it away in a winsome and carefree way? Perhaps not. But it is true that anything we are willing to trample underfoot in total disregard neither holds any value for us nor any power over us.


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