“Nobody can serve two masters. They will either hate the first and love the second, or be devoted to the first and despise the second. You can’t serve both God and money.”1
Do American Christians split allegiance between Jesus and our possessions? If someone from outside saw how we prepare for Christmas, what would their guess be?
Faith is at the center of the Gospel. As N.T. Wright explains in Jesus and the Victory of God, faith in the Bible doesn’t mean mere “belief”, it translates to something closer to allegiance. We aren’t living out faith in Jesus unless we practice allegiance to Jesus, trust him and follow his leadership. We are called to follow exclusively, not splitting our loyalty.
Exclusivity can be frightening. Leviticus 20 suggests drastic penalties for those who trust in other gods. Numbers 25, Judges 2, 1 Kings 16 and Jeremiah 32 describe consequences for those who turned to Baal (though 1 Samuel 7 shares blessings for those who turn away from Baal). In 1 Kings 11 Solomon stumbles when he gives worship to Astarte, Milcom, Chemosh and Molech. The prophets weep when Israel falls under the spell of false gods. We read these passages and have no doubt that including other gods in worship was a failure to show faith, or “allegiance”, in the Lord God Almighty.
That’s all Old Testament though. Why don’t Jesus’s followers have to confront the same stark choice in the New Testament?
In fact, they do. We might miss it because it hits too close to home.
In the story of the Rich Young Ruler,2 Jesus tells the young man that he must choose between God and his wealth. He didn’t tell the young man, “go ahead and keep your wealth so long as you make sure to put God first” or “it’s okay to have wealth around, just don’t trust in it”. He tells the man to get rid of the wealth, give it to the poor, and follow him.
Most pastors aren’t afraid to claim exclusivity for Jesus. “Follow Christ alone”, they preach. They reject other gods when those gods have names. But why can’t they follow in Jesus’s footsteps and tell us to give up that other god when the other god is our money?
Some have said, “But that was a special case, Jesus only said that to one guy.” Yet the wording clarifies that Jesus is creating a principle, not just telling a story. When the rich young ruler walks away, Jesus makes one of his most memorable general statements, stating that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God”. It’s not speaking of just “that one guy”, he is giving a warning to any rich person. Then on a positive note, Jesus says that anyone who gives up their possessions and chooses Christ instead will be blessed with eternal life. Not just the one man, but anyone. And the disciples, most of whom could hardly be called “rich” men, affirm that they have given up their possessions.
If you believed that wealth made it more difficult to enter the Kingdom of God, would you still pursue it? Would you still hold onto it?
The New Testament is not shy to place this choice in front of us. Zaccheus gives up much of his wealth, possibly all of it,3 the moment he chooses to follow Jesus. But in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man,4 the rich man holds onto his wealth and suffers eternal consequences. Jesus tells a different parable of a rich man who builds barns to store his wealth and suffers for it.5 A few verses later Jesus tells his hearers, “sell your possessions and give to the poor.”6 Two chapters later he instructs, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”7 Then there are the “woe to the rich” passages, found not just in Luke 6 but also in James 1 and James 5.8
In 1 Timothy 6 Paul sets up a dichotomy between storing up material things and storing up spiritual blessings.9 In case Timothy thought it was a small matter, Paul emphasizes that people eager for money have wandered from the faith, and that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Matthew 6 states that you either lay up treasures on Earth or treasures in heaven,10 suggesting that to do both simultaneously is impossible. Luke 12 makes a similar point, stating that wherever your treasure is, there your heart will be.11 Luke 16 repeats the point yet again, stating that you cannot serve both God and money.12 In the Parable of the Sower Jesus states that the lure of wealth chokes the word of God and causes it to yield nothing.13
I don’t know of a more consistent and practical message in Jesus’s teachings on faith than this one. Wealth and material possessions are a threat.
Do you want to cling to something that Jesus says is a threat to your faith?
A common counterargument is that “love of money” is the real issue here, not mere ownership of money. But the New Testament doesn’t place much weight on that distinction. It condemns the pursuit of wealth, the possession of wealth, and the love of wealth interchangeably. There is a suggestion that they all go together – you do not end up with wealth unless you have pursued it, and you don’t hold onto wealth unless you love it. If an ancient Israeli was found with idols in his home, he wasn’t told that he could keep them just as long as he stopped loving them. If he didn’t get rid of the idols, the very idea that he had stopped loving them in his heart would have been cast into doubt. Even if there is a distinction between possession and desire, it’s clear that possession by itself is a temptation.
Yet Western Christians (and many non-Western ones) are drowning in wealth and material possessions.
This is not a new problem for the church. St. John Chrysostom, one of the most highly regarded bishops of the 4th century, spoke out against parishioners whose outer actions showed allegiance to possessions.
We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose on earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often belie our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses, and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many pagans refuse to believe what we say. “If their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,” they ask, “why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give away their riches and live in simple huts.” So these pagans conclude that we do not sincerely believe in the religion we profess; and as a result they refuse to take this religion seriously. You may say that the words of Christ on these matters are too hard for you to follow; and that while your spirit is willing, your flesh is weak. My answer is that the judgment of pagans about you is more accurate than your judgment of yourself. When the pagans accuse us of hypocrisy, many of us should plead guilty.14
I know this is a tough word, so I want to make the application simple.
Christmas is a month away. “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” are this week (we have names for days devoted to possession-gathering!!!). How might our Christmas look if we placed love of God at the center of everything we did this year? Not a divided loyalty, not “let’s shoehorn some Jesus stuff in so we have our bases covered.” What would it look like if we dropped the focus on possessions completely, and replaced it with a celebration of our lives and our family in Christ?
I make this call because I see how the world celebrates Christmas. It doesn’t look like the love of Christ to me, it looks like the love of possessions. Unsurprisingly, most of the holiday season thus fails to strike people with the joy of grace in God, causing a lot of stress and anxiety instead.
We may fear that taking the focus away from possessions during Christmas will disappoint our family members, especially our children. Perhaps it would disappoint them even more than taking the focus away from God would. If so, what have we taught them, what of the joy of faith and family and friends have we really shared with them, and how will we fix it later if not now?
It is true that some children who have come to rely on material things will worry that the rest of their peers are celebrating possessions this Christmas, so why can’t they? This can be especially hard for middle-schoolers, who can be quite materialist. But if you believe that the accumulation of possessions is a rival to God, especially on a holiday meant to celebrate the exclusivity of God, then how will you communicate that to your kids? If the rest of their classmates were fixated on some other destructive ideology or false god this year, how would you communicate to them that your family is different for a reason?
What could we do differently this year, if we believed that Christ and not possessions are what brought peace, comfort and joy?
To be continued…
 Matthew 6:24
 Mark 10:17-31.
 Luke 19:1-10. Note that as tax collectors were widely known to make their fortunes through defrauding, Zaccheus is not merely giving away half his wealth to the poor. Reimbursing everyone he has defrauded with four times as much in return, as he has promised to do, may well fully exhaust the other half of his wealth.
 Luke 16:19-31
 Luke 12:13-21
 Luke 12:33
 Luke 14:33
 Luke 6:24, James 1:10-11, James 5:1-6
 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19
 Matthew 6:19-34
 Luke 12:22-34
 Luke 16:9-15
 Matthew 13:22
 St. John Chrysostom as quoted in “On Living Simply”, compiled by Robert Van de Weyer