This Sunday’s Gospel in the three-year series is the account of the rich young man from Mark 10:17–22. Jesus preaches a sharp law sermon against greed to this rich young man. Here you will find a similar sermon, this time from the pen of C. F. W. Walther.
One wonders what was going on in the congregation when Walther preached this sermon. It is an attack on the sin of greed and the love of mammon, so much that precious little gospel is found in the sermon. This is striking as the sermon comes from the lecturer on The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, who insisted there that the gospel ought to predominate in preaching. Walther’s sermon, much like Jesus’ sermon in Mark 10, reminds us that repentance must clear the way for Jesus, casting greed from its throne in the heart of man to clear that same throne for its rightful possessor, Jesus. Until that repentance occurs, as Walther notes in this sermon, preaching God’s word to a heart possessed by greed is futile.
Also striking in the sermon are the similarities of attitudes toward money today to those in Walther’s day. Walther excels in this sermon at unmasking greed as it hides behind any number of disguises. We may very well disagree with some of Walther’s critiques, particularly of charging interest, but still appreciate his approach that cuts sharply to reveal greed where it lies hidden in the heart of man. Indeed, we may note new disguises for greed. There may be some, untouched by the current economic slowdown, who still use the slow economic environment as an excuse to be lazy in giving. Walther’s sermon gives us a method to assess such claims—to unmask the greed that lies behind them.
Today, as in Walther’s day, there is great need to preach against greed. This sermon is offered as one example of a Lutheran sermon against greed.
Pentecost 20, 2012
God grant to all of you full grace and peace through the knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
In Him, our faithful Savior, dearly beloved!
When we read the history of the Jewish people as it is recorded in the diving writings of the Old Testament, we cannot but be amazed at how inclined to idolatry they were. As soon as one idol is disposed of by a prophet, another one is immediately set up in its place. As soon as the poor people have been saved from the burdensome slavery of Egypt through the greatest, unheard-of deeds and miracles of the true God—passed through the Red Sea with dry feet, drank from the rock, fed miraculously with manna from heaven—as soon as God has revealed himself on Mount Sinai in awe-inspiring majesty, with thunder, lightning, and trumpet-blast and called to them: “Hear, O Israel! I am the Lord, your God, who has called you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an image or any likeness, neither of what is above in heaven, nor of what is below on earth, nor of what is in the water under the earth. Do not worship and do not serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, who visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” As soon as this has happened, the idolatrous people have arranged a service worshipping idols like the Egyptians. They have Aaron cast a golden calf and, drunk with happiness, proclaim: “These are your gods, Israel, who led you out of Egypt.” They celebrate a great festival, offer burnt offerings and thank offerings, and thus, eating, drinking, and playing, ascribe divine honor to the dead image.
When the world of today reads this, it blesses itself in its heart and says: Praise God, that we are now more enlightened than the ignorant Jewish people. A foolish worship can no longer occur among the educated peoples of the old and new world. Idols have fallen and will not rise again. The world has stepped forward. The light of the all-present truth has eliminated the darkness of heathendom. Now we worship God in spirit and in truth. Oh, how good it would be if this were true! How good, if at least the world living under the light of the gospel had renounced all idolatry and given itself truly to the worship of the only true God! To be sure, the world of today has progressed so that it will not easily fall down before the golden image of an animal and say: “Behold, these are our gods!” However, we would be greatly mistaken if we thought that now, instead of the old, gross idolatry, the worship of the true God in spirit and in truth had arisen and had become universal in the so-called Christian world.
Rather, I assert that at no time has more idolatry prevailed than in our day, and certainly also in our new, so-called Christian fatherland. There is one particular idol that is worshipped by young and old, by great and lowly, by rich and by poor. No special temples are erected to this idol. Its temple is the whole world, its priests all children of this world, and its altars their hearts. This god reigns all-powerful in every place. Its praise sounds forth day and night from the tongues of millions and its altar fire, blazing up to the throne of this great god, is never extinguished.
Dearly beloved, do you not know this god? Have you never bent the knees of your heart before it? Have you never kindled the incense of your love to it? I fear that none of us remain completely clean of this idolatry, indeed, that perhaps many of us have devoted ourselves completely to its service. Should I tell you the name of this idol? It is money, it is wealth, it is good days, it is vanity. In a word, it is “mammon.” Indeed, dearly beloved, this is the god before whom all now bow. This is the god who now has countless worshippers, the god who reigns over all and whom all serve with all their heart, with all their soul, with all their power and with all their mind. The true God must everywhere step aside and make way for this god. “Money rules the world,” as the proverb says, and so must agree everyone who even glances at the life and character of the world.
Christ warns us against this idolatry in today’s gospel. Let us now hear this warning.
No one can serve two lords. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Therefore I say to you: Do not worry about your life, what you will eat and drink; nor about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky: they do not sow, they do not harvest, they do not gather into barns. And your heavenly Father still feeds them. Are you not much more than they? Who among you may add a cubit to his life, though he worry about it? And why do you worry about clothing? Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow. They do not work, they do not spin. I tell you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed as one of them. If then God clothes the grass of the field that is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, should he not do that much more for you, O you of little faith? Therefore you should not worry and say “what will we eat?” or “what will we drink”? or “what will we wear”? The heathen seek all these things. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all of this. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will come to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. It is sufficient that each day has its own trouble.
“You cannot serve God and mammon.” These words are the theme which Christ speaks on extensively in the entire gospel just read. “Mammon” is an Aramaic word and means the same as wealth, money, and chiefly temporal goods. Christ depicts this “mammon” as a god whom man cannot serve alongside the true God, but only in his place. Christ shows in the following what this worship consists of, but also how corrupting and damnable it is. Let me therefore now speak to you:
About the corrupting and damnable worship of money;
in this I will show you:
- that mammon truly is the god of and world which it serves, and
- that this worship brings ruin her and damnation there.
I. What is a man’s god? A man’s god is that which he holds to be the greatest and highest thing in the world, in heaven and on earth; what he loves as the highest good above all; the loss of which he fears more than anything, and what he trusts above all; in which he seeks his highest joy; from which he expects preservation in his entire life, protection in every danger, deliverance from every need, in short, from what he expects his true salvation. Whoever holds something in this way, whoever believes that about a being or about a thing and is wholeheartedly devoted to this being or this thing, that thing is this man’s god, in whom he actually believes and whom he serves.
If this is true (and it cannot be denied), then it is also undeniable that the world’s real god is not the true God, not that invisible being who made heaven and earth. Rather, the real god of the world is nothing other than “mammon,” in whom it believes and whom it serves. Yes, mammon is the all-powerful god for which the hearts of men in every land beat, and to whom the most sincere adoration is offered in every kingdom. This god mammon has its faithful servants in every class without exception. The richest, who do not want to serve anyone, are nevertheless the most zealous servants of mammon. Emperors, kings, and princes, who want to be subject to no one, are nevertheless obedient subjects of this high monarch. Most of those who are called to be messengers of the heavenly king nevertheless stand secretly in the pay of mammon. The world views the poor man who is without mammon as abandoned and cast off by God. On the other hand, wealth catches the attention of the world and makes its possessor an honorable man in the eyes of the world. In city and country, in every house, in the palace and in the hut, in every shop, in every factory, in every market, and in every street and alley this god has its altars and its priests sacrificing to it.
Ask yourself, what do most men seek and love above all? It is not mammon? Does not an increase of temporal goods delight the hearts of most men more than anything else? Do not most find in gold and silver, in a growing, profitable business, in beautiful houses and expansive estates their greatest enjoyment and comfort in this world? Why does one get up so early in the morning and burn the midnight oil? What is the source of that restless feeling and drive through city and country? What is the gain of all this speaking and speculating and chasing and running? At what does everyone snatch so eagerly, as if it could avail to win a heaven? It is vexatious mammon. One sacrifices everything else to it, even what is most dear to him. Only to acquire mammon one sacrifices health, works and worries himself sick. Only to win mammon one denies himself a thousand friends, denies himself rest and ease, sacrifices friendship, oftentimes honor and his good name, virtue and a good conscience, yes, even life, and goes down to an early grave as a martyr for mammon.
Further, what does one fear more than the loss of this god’s favor? Do not nearly all men consider themselves completely unhappy when they have lost it? Do not many fall into deathly sorrow over this? Are not most sighs breathed out over the loss of mammon, or over the mere danger of losing it? Do not most feel as though a piece of their heart would be torn out if they should give even a small gift to a poor man or give even a small offering for charitable or churchly use? Indeed, have not countless ones in complete despair taken their life because they saw themselves completely robbed of the comfort and help of mammon?
And in whom, finally, does the world trust? Does it not believe that it is at peace if only it possesses great mammon? Does it not regard it as the key to its happiness? Does it not ever increasingly strive for it, in order that it may finally be without worry for the future? Is it not the highest wish of most, to hunt down so much capital that they can finally lay their hands in their lap, live only from their money, that is, from the interest, so that they retain their money in a wonderful way, indeed, that the money even increases, while they continue to do nothing but live on it?
Yes? Is not mammon the god of the world, for the world loves, fears, and trusts it above all? Does the world not serve mammon zealously day and night with body and soul? Does it not sacrifice everything for mammon? Undoubtedly this is true.
Still, dearly beloved, the worship of mammon, or stinginess and greed, does not always appear in this easily recognizable form. It is not always so crass. Thousands serve mammon as their god and no one suspects it. Stinginess and the worship of mammon appear as a knave in many disguises and under many false names throughout the world and nowhere want to be known by their true name. Here it puts on the dress of thrift and hatred of waste. Here it calls itself diligence, faithfulness in earthly things and faithfulness in fulfilling one’s earthly calling. Here it answers, if one asks its name, that it is nothing other than care for one’s own, or the innocent pursuit of a good livelihood. Yes, the secret worshipper of mammon declares, mammon does not adhere to his heart at all, his heart is disgusted by stinginess. Even though nearly all men serve mammon wholeheartedly, nearly everyone is ashamed to admit that this is his god. Indeed, most seek to be so persuaded that in no way could they boast of their faithfulness in its service.
Let the servants of mammon conceal themselves, even behind virtues as though it were generosity; Christ removes their mask in our Gospel and brings them into the light. Namely, Christ says that whoever does not commit himself in true love and childlike faith to the rule and care of the Heavenly Father, but worries anxiously about tomorrow, about his body and his life; who, worrying anxiously, says and asks: “What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” yes, “who does not seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” this man is no Christian. According to his faith and his heart’s condition he is still a heathen. In short, his god is still mammon.
Is that not a hard, terrifying judgment? How many it now shows to be greedy, covetous, money-loving, worldly-minded servants of mammon, who do not realize it. See, only he is not a servant of mammon whose heart does not cling to money and worldly goods; who, if God blesses him with these, sees them only as an opportunity to do good for others; who regards himself only as an instrument for divine goodness, as the caretaker of God’s charity, and who finds his own joy only in the joy of his neighbor. Further, only he is not a servant of mammon who thinks that it is God’s command that you work. Because God wills it and it is pleasing to him you work, but not out of worry about your food and clothing, which you expect not because of your work and toil, but from your Heavenly Father. Finally, only he is not a servant of mammon who regards temporal things as merely a minor matter in this world, the world which admittedly wants to worry; but who “seeks first,” that is, most zealously, most dearly, most enduringly, most seriously, “the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” that is, the grace of God, after the salvation of his soul, in a word, to be saved.
However, all those who say that they do not wish to become rich, but seek only so much that they would be assured of a carefree living; indeed, they all think that they are certainly not servants of mammon. But by this attitude they confess that they only want so much that they need not trust God alone, as the birds in the trees who must daily wait and see where God has scattered their food for them. No, a sum with which they would expect to get by according to their rough calculations is more certain for them than God’s care. Therefore this sum is—their god! Another one says: I am content with what I have and therefore thinks that surely he is free from the accusation of greed. But look! The little that he has is his comfort, therefore—his god! Another one certainly cares for the kingdom of God, he prays, he goes to church and to communion, he considers himself a Christian, he separates himself from the godless world and so forth. But a greater care, which lies daily on his heart, is how he will get by, or how he will improve his business and become richer. What is such a man’s god? As pious and Christian as he may appear, his god is still mammon. To be sure, many others rejoice over God’s word and grace and are saddened to lose the one or the other; but if he gains something similar from temporal goods, if his joy is even greater, or if his sadness is greater when he loses his temporal good, so great that he cannot be comforted—also such a man is (however he may posture) a secret worshipper of the god mammon. Not the heavenly father and his spiritual goods, but temporal good really possesses his heart. Many others do not seek wealth because they know that this seeking would be in vain. He who wants to become rich is angered at this. He does not appear to depend on worldly things, but when his heart laughs at the thought that he might become rich: behold, mammon is also his god. Many a one indeed gives, however, not as much, but as little as he can give with honor. He can, from love of money, let a supplicant go without the alms requested from him. He can turn away hardhearted from the one who is in need and wants to borrow from him. With a smiling face he can pocket the appointed interest from a debtor who can only expound to him with sighs. He can strike a burdensome deal, or cancel the wages of the poor. Such a man is a servant of mammon. Money is his idol, to which he has pledged his soul. The love of the true God, though he may have it on his tongue, does not live in his heart.
Nevertheless, who may seek out greed and the worship of mammon in all its hideouts, to which it often retreats in the heart to elude the eye of men and to avoid being seen for what it is? By nature we are all servants of mammon. Man must have a god. Once he has lost the true God in his heart, the world with its goods has taken his place. Who has been freed again from greed, if not by a special work of grace by the Holy Spirit? Otherwise man is undoubtedly still ruled by it. Alas! Many a heart is purified from this idolatry through true repentance, yet how common it is that mammon first finds again an open temple in that heart. Countless Christians have endured everything—trouble, shame, poverty—but mammon has finally betrayed them, for there is almost no other vice with which a man can appear always as a good Christian as when he serves mammon in his heart and seeks his rest, his joy, his comfort, his hope—in a word, his god—in temporal good.
II. Now that we have heard how common the worship of mammon is, let us hear the second part, how corrupting and damnable it is.
The holy apostle expresses briefly how corrupting is it with the words: “Greed is a root of all kinds of evil.” See what a vile thing greed or the worship of mammon must be. Could anything more vile be said of it than that it is a root of all evils? No evil is too great, there is no abundance of evil too large; the worship of mammon produces them all! From it grows self-love, indifference to neighbors, hatred, envy, apathy towards Christ, his word and his grace, yes, enmity against God, despising of heavenly bounties, robbery, murder, hardening against the work of the Holy Spirit and the like. Christ in our gospel names only the chief evil from this list when he says: “No one can serve two lords. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will cling to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” It is here stipulated: where the love of money and property permeate the heart, the love of God is pushed out. Wherever an altar for mammon is erected, there the heart becomes a temple of idols, there the true God must yield at once.
No matter how many outward works of worship the servant of mammon performs, his heart does not take part. And where the heart which clings to mammon is turned away from God, his whole worship of God is a miserable illusion, an abomination to God. No matter how faithful a servant of mammon shows himself to be, he hates God in the depths of his heart. He hoped that he could be saved without God’s grace, so he was not the least bit concerned about God’s grace. If he could abide eternally in the world in earthly joy he would gladly remain forever far from God, gladly forsake his heaven and be content with the world. In vain God’s sharp law or sweet gospel is preached to a servant of mammon. Worry, wealth, and the bliss of this life choke out the heavenly seed. The word of God is written in his heart as letters in sand. The next gust of wind quickly blows it all away again and it is seen no more. One who loves temporal property sometimes is indeed troubled in his heart, for he would like once to possess, beyond earthly goods, heavenly goods. But no sooner do his thoughts turn back to temporal things, and they wash over him like waves of the sea and once more extinguish the glowing spark of faith. Often a servant of mammon comes to the firm resolve to be a true Christian and to follow Christ even to death. But when he finally hears: “Sell all that you have and give to the poor,” namely, when he hears that he must tear his heart free from everything temporal, that he must posses this merely to do good with it, then he goes away sad like that young man. This gate is too tight for him, this way too narrow, this requirement too difficult.
But what is his lot? Already here it is heartache, grief, worry, discontent, unhappiness. Always he thinks: If only you had this or that, then you would be happy. But the more he gets, the greater his desires become, just as thirst grows continually worse as one drinks more salt water. Death is a dreadful messenger for a servant of mammon. Either he is terrified to lose the world and its good, or he is still not certain how he stands with God. He suspects that Christ will not acknowledge him as one of his own. He suspects that he has forgotten and frivolously lost the heavenly in favor of the earthly.
Oh, already for many a man in the hour of death his money and property—much of it obtained unjustly, or still anxiously accumulated, and for its wearying acquisition he had set aside seeking the kingdom of God—oh, for many a dying servant of mammon his property has come crashing down on him like a mountain! Then, with the ship of his life about to founder, he would have gladly thrown all his treasures, his gold and silver, his houses, his estates into the sea, if only he could be saved by this. Oh, many a man has woken up from his dream in the hour of his death and finally departed with a doleful cry, without hope and without comfort.
But despair in the hour of death is only a harbinger of what awaits a servant of mammon in eternity. Here he has not sought his joy in God, but in base mammon. God will therefore say to him there: Depart! Be saved now by your dead idols. God’s anger and eternal condemnation will be the interest which those will receive there, who here used their temporal property only for themselves, who delighted only their eyes in it and would not let it abound for the poor and for the spread of the kingdom of God. In vain then the servants of mammon will excuse themselves and say: What evil have we done that we should be condemned? God will answer them: All right, if you have done nothing evil, where is the good that you should have done? Not only the tree which bears bad fruit, but also the tree which bears no good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I had blessed you with temporal things, but where is the interest from the talent loaned to you? The undried tears of the poor accuse you to me. The rust on the gold and silver in your chests, the sighs of the oppressed and swindled, indeed, your life entirely devoted to seeking temporal things testifies against you, that you accumulated treasures for yourself, that you loved yourself, and that you have not served me, but mammon. Therefore depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared from the devil and all his angels.
Oh, let everyone be terrified by this abominable worship of mammon! Time spent serving it is dismal, and horrible is its final pay. Here it robs man of rest and peace in his heart, there of God, his soul, and salvation. Let everyone look in his heart and ask: Whom do you serve? If you serve God not with your whole heart, you do not serve him at all, and certainly then mammon is your god, for “no one can serve two lords.” Consider that a man can drown even in a small brook. He need not fall into the sea to find death. In the same way the service of mammon may not be so obvious in you as it is in another, yet still your heart may cling to it secretly, in order to steal God, soul, and salvation away from you.
Oh, seek God with all his grace. Taste and see how gracious he is. Give him room in your soul, and mammon will quickly be pushed off of its throne in you and you will sing out continually:
Depart, O world, with your idols,
Depart with your silver and gold;
I have God with his treasures,
I am already saved through Christ’s blood.
There, moreover, I will be fully pure
And ever, evermore be saved. Amen.
Translated from Carl Ferd. Wilh. Walther, Amerikanisch-Lutherische Evangelien Postille: Predigten über die evangelischen Pericopen der Sonntage und Hauptfeste des Kirchenjahrs (St. Louis: Druckerei und Stereotypie der Synode von Missouri, Ohio, u. a. St., 1871), 295–301.