Despite popular parlance, consumerism is not a problem of how much one consumes. No, it is a problem of why one consumes: that is, in a consumerist society like ours, we buy things to tell others, and ourselves, who we are.

Despite popular parlance, consumerism is not a problem of how much one consumes. No, it is a problem of why one consumes: that is, in a consumerist society like ours, we buy things to tell others, and ourselves, who we are.

This sounds shocking, but it’s a truth we all instinctively recognize. We all know what soccer moms and NASCAR dads are, what makes a yuppie different from a punk rocker, and we know it because we know what each group likes to buy. Differences in purchasing habits create the constellation of our social universe in modern America. But though our purchasing habits may vary, we share a habit of purchasing.

In a buy-to-be culture, money has to change hands. Whatever we decide to be in a consumerist society, our being it is dependent upon having the necessary funds. If who we are is up for sale, then one cannot be if one cannot shop! And one cannot shop unless one has access to wealth.

Wealth is the secret beneficiary behind every transaction, the god overseeing consumerist society who is satisfied by the offering of our financial resources toward our own self-creation. I refer here not to abstract ideas–like poverty, riches, and so on–nor to actual money, but to a real spiritual agent at work in the world. When we buy something to satisfy consumerist impulses, we pay for the item–but more significantly, we pay homage to the force of wealth that is at work.

Each consumerist purchase is a prayer offered up to wealth, whether intended or not. When we believe ourselves to be made new by that which we buy, we say, in effect: “You, O Wealth, you are the one who creates me. You shape me. You make me who I am. You establish me on the earth. You lift me up in the world, and set my place amongst the esteem of others.”

And this is serious business, because it flies in the face of one of the New Testament’s most striking teachings.

The parallel that Jesus establishes in Luke is remarkable for the starkness of the choice he presents. There is simply no avoiding its either/or nature: “No servant can serve two masters. 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 both God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

Now, the English translation of mammon is “wealth” or “money,” and this is the direction that most popular translations tend to go. The problem with doing so is that mammon is an Aramaic word, while the rest of Luke’s gospel is written in sophisticated Greek.

When Luke wrote down the teachings of Christ, he translated Jesus’ words from their original Aramaic into the common Greek that was the lingua franca of the Roman Empire. So, when Luke leaves one of Jesus’ words in Aramaic, it means that Christ is saying something essentially untranslatable. This is the case, for example, with amen, which was Hebrew for “truly,” but which was used so specifically that Greek speakers adopted it to close prayers.

If Jesus simply meant “money/cash/assets/riches” when he said mammon, there are a number of Greek words that Luke could have used, but he didn’t. Luke kept the Aramaic mammon. The connotation when Jesus talks about mammon, therefore, is that of a proper noun. It is not a generic concept that can be translated between different languages; no, Mammon is the name of a force in opposition to God.

Notice the contrast between this and the way Jesus talks about human government. He doesn’t say in the gospels that you can’t serve both God and Caesar. No, he says the opposite: we are supposed to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s–in fact, the money that is due to Caesar–and we are to give God what is God’s.

This isn’t to say that governments can’t become idols for humans. The 20th century is filled with horrific examples of this. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Following Jesus doesn’t entail declaring war against human government and the social order it brings.

But the same does not appear to be true with Mammon. Mammon and God are mutually exclusive masters. For Jesus to isolate Mammon like this, and to such a degree, gives Mammon the force of a veritable super-idol. If Mammon and God cannot be served simultaneously, then Mammon must be an idol above all other things that can become idolatrous for us.

For, while it would be true to say we cannot serve both God and an idol, an idol is not an independent entity. “Idol” describes something defined by our improper devotion to it. A statue is a statue; only when people start worshipping it does it become an idol. Its idol-ness comes from its devotees, rather than anything inherent to it. Like all objects, it can become an alternative to God. But Mammon–it is, itself, necessarily idolatrous.

Tyler Wigg Stevenson is a Baptist preacher and a writer. A former aide to both the Rev. Dr. John Stott and the late U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston, he now heads Faithful Security, an organization working to catalyze the moral willpower of American religious groups toward nuclear disarmament. The above is excerpted and adapted with permission from Brand Jesus: Christianity in a Consumerist Age (Seabury Press, 2007).

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