by The. Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund | November 19, 2020There’s a poem I like called Paradise Lost. It tells the story of how Satan and his rebellious angels were expelled from heaven, and how Satan decides to get back at God by tempting Adam and Eve. The author takes a lot of liberties with the biblical narratives to accomplish all this, re-imagining some things and adding others.
One of my favorite scenes is the “solemn council…at Pandemonium,” which is the capital of hell, where Satan and all his fallen angel buddies debate how they’re going to get back at God. The solemn council is grand and dramatic and farcical. I mean, this is God we’re talking about: omnipotent, all-knowing, unassailable. All their ideas are pretty dumb, despite the soaring rhetoric, and the whole bureaucratic process of the debate is a sham anyway: we all know that Satan is just going to tell the demons what’s going to happen.
Still, the speeches are worth the read. Some demons advocate for invading heaven with open war, but others say that would be silly. Why not sit tight and see if God relents a little? Or why not just try to make the best of hell?
This last is the approach taken by a fallen angel named Mammon. In the poem, Mammon is the personification of money, or rather the personification of the obsession with money. You may remember that name Mammon from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You cannot serve two masters….You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). Wealth there is mamona and in some translations is rendered with the name Mammon.
If Mammon is obsession with wealth, it’s no surprise that Mammon’s speech at Pandemonium uses financial language to make his case. Mammon says trying to reinvade heaven would be stupid, and asking God to take them back would be humiliating, even if it worked. If God gave them grace and took them back, Mammon says, it would come at the cost of having to make “servile offerings” to God:
Eternity so spent, in worship paid
To whom we hate.
Notice those verbs? Mammon doesn’t want to spend Eternity paying worship to God. Such offerings would make him servile. He says it’d be better to say in hell and make the best of it, to search for gems and gold and use all of that to build up their own imitation of heaven. Mammon wants to
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves.
It’s all a bit absurd. After all, Mammon is saying they should rely on their own resources (as though God didn’t create gems and gold) and make the best of it where they are, which, again, is literally hell.
Mammon’s speech is as delusional as all the rest at the solemn council of Pandemonium. These fallen angels are nursing bruised egos, and they’re puffed up with imagined power and excellence. They plot an impossible feat, after all: to avenge themselves…on God?
Yet when I listen to Mammon’s speech, I have to admit I hear something of myself in it. I try to “live to myself” all the time. I use financial words for non-financial things on a daily basis. I pay attention, spend effort, save time, occasionally waste an afternoon. These economic metaphors determine so much of how we shape and understand the world. Time, talent, energy, attention—it’s all commodity to be spent, paid, saved.
No wonder Jesus is talking about money when he warns us against serving two masters. Of all the idols out there, Mammon is sneakiest and most powerful precisely because money is so liquid: it flows into the million little gaps between us and the world.
Here is what I mean: we all know in our minds that God is the real source of shelter, food, friendship, and the pursuit of good things like learning or music or cooking pies for your friends. But nowadays, money is also involved in all of that—mortgage payments, rent, transportation, the grocery bill, going to get coffee with your friends. To learn requires having the right tools; to play an instrument requires owning one or having access to it; to cook you need to buy groceries. All of these likely require a tank of gas in the car.
Money flows into the gaps between us and our enjoyment of creaturely goods. Of all the idols out there, then, Mammon comes closest to touching all the same things God touches: shelter, food, time with friends, good work, creative pursuits. Even our way of speaking reflect Mammon’s influence.
Because Mammon touches so much, over time we come to function as though Mammon is the source of everything he touches, and this functional belief is the source of money’s power. That word function is important. None of us believes consciously that Mammon is the source of all these good things, but our stated beliefs and our functional beliefs are not the same. Functionally, we do often live as though it is money that keeps us existentially afloat. We cry out to it in times of distress. We carry its symbols with us everywhere. Our calendar is built around its feasts and fasts.
This is why the Christian disciplines of giving are so important. We human beings are such that we act our way into really believing things, not the other way around. This is part of what is going on when St. James says, “Faith without works is dead” (2:17). If I say, or even know, that God is the source of all that is good, my heart’s only satisfaction, and yet all the decisions I make in a given month are ones that demonstrate that money is my first concern, well, then regardless of what I say, functionally I am at least in part a disciple of Mammon.
I want to be clear: I’m talking primarily to those of us who actually have some money. (If you’re not sure if that’s you or not, then that’s you.) Folks living with real material insecurity have very real struggles, but not necessarily the spiritual one I’m talking about. If, for example, you’re praying to God for monetary relief to keep your lights on, then clearly your functional belief is that God saves, not money. In this scenario, money is what it should be: a means to an end, subjugated to God with everything else.
It’s a bit paradoxical: those of us who have a measure of financial security are sometimes the ones most tempted to let Mammon take God’s place in our heart’s hierarchy of goods. When we’re used to having money, we’re also used to relying on it. We’re used to money as a stable force that never abandons. We’re used to operating with an eye not towards sufficiency, but to what more we could have or experience. Or, if we have survived a season of acute financial distress but are stable now, perhaps we are organizing our lives so as to keep Mammon happy, i.e. to prevent money from abandoning us again.
It’s subtle, and I feel kind of icky just thinking about it. (“Icky” is the technical theological term.) We spend energy and attention making sure Mammon’s liquidity continues to flow, extending Mammon’s reach.
The good news is that this very liquid quality that makes Mammon so tempting is also the quality that makes the practices of giving so transformative. When we offer to God of our first fruits, we are offering to God of that liquidity that touches so many aspects of our lives. When we offer to God from our financial resources, we are therefore also offering (back) to God the goodness of those gifts He has given us: food, shelter, relationships, and the like.
The liquidity of money works both ways. Remember: Mammon used to be an angel; he just fell. What is an idol for many can, by the redeeming power of God, become an agent of holiness.
Our poet plays with this. This is the first description we get of Mammon in Paradise Lost:
Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell
From heaven: for even in heaven his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent; admiring more
The riches of heaven’s pavement, trodden gold,
Than aught divine or holy else, enjoy’d
In vision beatific….
Do you see the joke? In heaven, the streets are paved with gold, so Mammon’s fall begins with his walking around heaven bent over, staring at the ground. He’s in heaven—literally heaven!—and he goes about bent at the waist, staring at the golden street. He is in heaven to befriend God and enjoy God forever, but his vision is distracted, lowered unnaturally to the glittery pavers. What is a street but something that fills the gap between us and where we want to go?
When our functional belief is that the giver of all good gifts in the universe is not God, but money, we are like an angel pacing and muttering in little anxious circles, so bent over that our noses almost scrape the street.
When we write our tithe checks every month, or when at the first of the year we set up an automatic withdrawal, God is grabbing us by the shoulders and standing us up straight. God is appealing to our better angels, saying, “Hey, eyes on Me, remember? There’s work to do and a whole world to enjoy. No sense wandering around the Kingdom without taking in the sights! Keep your head up. Look around a little!”
This straight talk is life-giving. The gold paving stones of heaven are a means to an end, just one way of getting where we need to go. For God to come along and stand us up straight is for God to remind us that money is a tool, a thing, a largely abstract but still inanimate object that should do what we tell it to do, not the reverse. Demystifying money, talking about it honestly, and giving generously of it all help to keep money in its proper place. What we want is for our habits of generosity to require no more thought than walking down the sidewalk. For them to become ordinary and undramatic, like brushing our teeth or saying thank you. This kind of stewardship is how Mammon is restored to the upright and more angelic posture God intends.