It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
Jesus in the Gospel, Mk 10:25
Architecture can tell us a lot. If you think of a cityscape in cultures that existed before (or have somehow escaped the influence of) modern economic life, you’ll probably recall that the tallest feature of the horizon often was the dome or spire of a church, cathedral, or temple.
Now think of modern New York, or London, or Tokyo, or Beijing: The city horizon is filled with skyscrapers that are offices, usually of financial services of some sort. Contemporary cultures, worldwide, are building temples to today’s “god,” Mammon. Simply put, Mammon is the god of wealth – the symbol of what Christians call the vice of greed.
If you remember the 1987 movie Wall Street this famous moment probably sticks in mind. (It’s Gordon Gekko’s / Michael Douglas’s speech to the stockholders):
The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed — for lack of a better word — is good.
Greed is right.
Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.
Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.
And greed — you mark my words — will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.
Well, in 2008 we found out how the worship of greed worked out for “that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA”: The bankers got bailed out when Mammon led the economy over a cliff (and they have continued to make money), while thousands of ordinary people lost their retirement savings, their homes, and their shirts.
Yet Mammon continues to try to convince everyone, both rich and poor, that he is inescapable. “Let the market work” is still a mantra for the priests of finance. (See how easily we slip into “religious” language when discussing the idols of our place and time?) The Christian task is to remember, and to remind others, that only the true God is God; wealth has its place as a servant of the common good, but the economic order is not unchangeable. It should, in fact, be changed so that God’s bounty serves all, most especially the most heavily-burdened (the disabled, the ill, the elderly – “widows and orphans,” in the Bible phrase).
The Christian ideal of stewardship is the antidote to Mammon-worship: What we have is not ours, but a trust from God, to be used wisely for all God’s people. A few people (notably today, members of religious orders) forego all personal ownership of money and goods, holding all in common for the sake of the mission – thus echoing a practice we see among Jesus and his disciples during his ministry (remember that Judas “held the common purse”), and in the early years of the church. But this was always a practice for the few. The virtue of good stewardship is exercised most often by people who hold personal property but use it as the God-given trust that it is – to support their families, their community, and the poor.
Saint Paul famously said (in an often-misquoted line, leaving off the first three words), “The love of money is the root of all evil” [I Tm 6:10]. Money – in fact, any and all systems of exchange known to history – can be a good servant of human flourishing and the common good. When we love money we make it a god, and an idol. Look around this week for evidence of the worship of Mammon, and of its rituals and its temples. (The pre-Christmas shopping season is a particularly “target-rich environment.”) And pray for those who are led astray by the worship of Mammon. Until next week, peace.