The Greek term in the Gospels, ‘mamonas’, occurs both in the Sermon on the Mount and in the Parable of the Unjust Steward [Luke, 16, 9-13]. But what is Mammon?
In Aramaic the word ‘mamona’ had many subtle spiritual connotations, but its root or core was ‘worldly riches’ or ‘material wealth regarded as having an evil influence.’ Though some scholars point out that the equivalent Hebrew term, ‘matmon’ is more spiritually neutral, meaning ‘treasure’, and that therefore figuratively Mammon can be equated simply with ‘money’, it is clear that Christ is using the term not in this neutral way, but in the Aramaic way which implies a spiritual criticism. Given St Paul’s claim that the “love of money is the root of all evil”, so Mammon is not simply money, but the ‘love of money.’ But even that does not do justice to its full meaning. I love pizza, but hopefully I would not pursue the acquisition of pizza as my whole life’s purpose. But Mammon carries precisely this connotation in Aramaic: Mammon is the love of money, material wealth, worldly riches, as the chief significance and overriding aim of living. Nothing is weightier with importance. Nothing is more captivating with attraction. Nothing is more worthy of relentless effort. This is what life is about, this is the end-all and be-all of existing in the world. The lover of money who obtains his desire has cracked it; he is the world’s success story and deserves to be its prince.
Hence, Mammon is not simply the love of money, it is in actuality the worship of money as a ‘god.’ This god replaces any and all other gods. This is the god at whose altar everyone bows down, and offers fidelity, obeisance, service. This god’s temples are in the City of London, and on Wall Street in New York. China is this god’s latest convert; they are raising his temple in Shanghai.
The love of money that in fact is really a worship of money gives a special meaning to the other translation of Mammon as ‘greed’ or ‘avarice.’ A child can be greedy for a second chocolate bar after having eaten one, but Mammon carries a far heavier connotation than our tendency toward material excess, or confusing desire and want with genuine need. The greed or avarice stirred up in Mammon is far more powerful: it is the ‘possessiveness’, the ‘clinging to’, the need to ‘have and hold onto’, that the love of money as a god engenders as its main drive. In the Eastern Christian Desert Tradition, it is this kind of greediness or avariciousness which is the first sin in the Fall of mankind, not pride [pride is the last, and crowning, sin in a sequence of 8 sinful steps].
The description of greed or avarice in the Desert Tradition is complex. It is the root of our inability to trust that God is looking after not just our spiritual well-being, but our material welfare. Therefore, greed or avarice is the first major sign of religious disbelief, of the loss of faith in the Great Mysterious, as Shamanism calls God the Creator. When human beings stopped the nomadic life after the last ice age — it was preserved only by the northern Shamanic peoples — and became settled crop-growing farmers, the hoarding of grain became a substitute for having trust in God providing for our physical, not only our spiritual, needs. With this loss of trust, the material ‘good things’ that feed our need, that make life abundant with goodness, are no longer seen as gifts from God, which we thank God for, and handle in a sacred way as channels of communing and participating with divine energy. The things we grasp onto for our survival become bereft of God, and as such they become ends in themselves: this is the real implication of ‘worldly riches’ or ‘material wealth regarded as having an evil influence.’ When we treasure all these ‘worldly goods’ as the things we need not so much to survive, as to put us in control, to make us comfortable and at ease, and to expand our egoic power, then it is that we turn to them instead of God. They are wrenched away from God, and so they are latched onto by us in order to make us into a tin pot god in our own eyes. Henceforth we rely on only what is tangible, because this is what we can grasp hold of, to protect, secure, make safe, and to enhance, our destiny in the world. Our destiny in the world ceases to be in the hands of, or to have anything to do with, the Mysteriousness of God.
Greed or avarice, then, makes people mean and small, killing their generosity and largeness of heart; it also makes them scheming in mentality, and entails that cunning must become their main intelligence. Sharing among everyone becomes impossible; each of us becomes a self-enclosed and self-promoting ‘individualist’, grabbing onto all he can get, because possessing more and more is the ‘whole object of the exercise.’ The basis for the brotherhood of humanity, the community of all persons, is fatally injured and undermined. Rivalry for ‘limited resources’ puts everyone at everyone else’s throat. ‘Private property’ is theft: each seizes what he can gain, and keep, no matter the selfish unjustness towards others that is involved in this; and then he calls what he has stolen away from the ‘common good’, the ‘common interest’, his very own, and he justifies any violence to defend and preserve it. This is why in some translations of Luke 16,9 and Luke 16,11, for example Spanish, Mammon is rendered as ‘dishonest wealth.’ Mammon is a way of seeking and obtaining material gain that shoves aside any ethical laws or morals concerned with justice; those who seek Mammon in the world are Biblically not only thieves, but also gangsters. Such ‘unjust’ people are willing to depart from and destroy the respect for justice that holds all people together and prevents their ‘trading’ among themselves from becoming a cause of division and factional hatred. The doing of ‘business’ that is governed by Mammon is Biblically ‘unrighteous.’ A human being cannot ‘thirst and hunger after righteousness’ and serve Mammon. Thus, not only covetousness but also injustice are always operative in Mammon.
Consequently, Mammon becomes that specific kind of selfishness in which I am wholly given over to the seeking of my advantage at your disadvantage, and I can see no objection to that; if my gain costs your loss, tough titty said the kitty. It is how things are. It cannot be otherwise. The individual, or some select group, feels no conscience that the cost of their ‘advance’ is the deprivation of some other individual, or some non-select group. Have a nice day, get out of my way. If to succeed myself others must be made losers, well, that does not matter at all. It is their problem. I am motoring ahead with number one, and let them do likewise; if they cannot motor ahead, well that is bad luck, but it should never be allowed to stop those who can get on. We are in a meritocracy, right? Think of it like this: if my gain is your loss, if my advantage costs your disadvantage, if my liberty to rise to the top of the heap entails your oppression at the bottom of the pile, then regard that as like ‘collateral damage.’ When getting the job done in a war — and worldly success and worldly satisfaction requires we engage in war on so many levels [think of those old samurai manuals adapted to guide business strategy] — there are bound to be quite a lot of innocent civilians blown away. But we have factored that into the calculation. It is regrettable, sure, but for the sake of a greater gain in the end we have to tolerate some losses among the non-combatants.
Greed or acquisition seeks worldly advantage, and thus not only doesn’t care ‘who gets hurt in the process’, but is a kind of [unconsciously motivated] drive that lives by seeking advantage, and evading disadvantage, in every part of life. It has to have, it cannot let go; it has to succeed, it cannot fail; it has to get the best, it cannot endure the worst. Ending up in loss is a sign that the greedy and acquisitive drive has been too weak, has not done its job, has not fought its way to the top. Thus to be in material deprivation is a sign of being ‘a bad person’, or being part of a humanly ‘backward culture.’ In Protestantism, which flung Christianity’s doors wide open to Mammon, material wretchedness was a sign of divine disfavour. Now that Mammon has erased any lingering surrender of all of human existence to God, the disfavour is conveyed by the god of money. But the net effect is the same; the wretched are looked down on, occasionally patronised with a few crumbs from the master’s table, but basically dismissed. They are not producing anything so they do not deserve to be consuming anything.
What greed and acquisitiveness cuts to pieces is the wider network in which not only all humans but all living and material things are interdependent, completely connected. Thus damage to one is damage to all. John Donne: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”
All this is summed up in the spiritual meaning of Mammon: ‘wealth as an object of love and false worship.’ It is for this reason that Mammon is personified in Luke 16,11 and Luke 16,13 [Mathew, 6,24 repeats the latter] as a ‘false god.’ Mammon is ‘material wealth worshiped as a god’; worship of this god is the world’s leading religion, and the chief prophet of this religion is America. But it was the English who first welcomed and established Mammon. The writer De Plessy — who came after Spenser [whose ‘Faerie Queen’ depicts Mammon as overseeing a cave of worldly wealth] and Milton [whose ‘Paradise Lost’ describes Mammon as a fallen angel who values earthly treasure above all things and hence treasures the earth in the wrong way] — was not in error when he called Mammon “Hell’s ambassador to England.” The widespread conviction that the Devil is a suave English gentleman, dressed like he is on the way to the opera, who talks smoothly and is a ‘plausible fellow’, but is lethal behind the charm, is rooted in reality. It was indeed England that first provided the moral justification, and philosophical rationalization, for embracing Mammon as ‘perfectly alright’ and indeed ‘quite a decent chap.’
Though all of Europe embraced capitalism after the Middle Ages, England led the charge. It was therefore the evil spirit Mammon whom the English took to the New World, and who came ashore with the Pilgrim Fathers; they came to America to create a new nation where Mammon would have free reign, and therefore America pushed Mammon much farther than England had done. To this day, England looks on its child America with both utter fascination and captivation, and some lingering moral horror and disdain. The English started the move to Mammon in human affairs, but some of the 2000 years of Christianity in the British Isles has slightly restrained them, and made them a little ashamed. They cannot be so open in Mammon as the Americans, whose buccaneering pursuit of Mammon has unashamedly been the main pirate on the high seas for some while; but this flirting with Mammon, embracing it but trying to remain ‘nice’ at the same time, is typical English hypocrisy. The Americans, by contrast, make no apologies. After all, they built Mammon into their Constitution; ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’, with its premise and rationale ‘private property’, is Mammon’s very own ‘mission statement’ for corrupting the entire world. As a young man in my early twenties I had a ‘culture dream’ of America as a glittering tower for the few built over a vast pit of misery for the many. Mammon is the Tower over the Pit; the Pit is the cost of the Tower: the human cost the Tower won’t pay because of the worldly gain that matters to it. The day is coming when the Tower will fall, in order that the Pit can give up its dead.
For Judaism, and for Christ in the Gospels, to worship money as a god is to worship an ‘idol.’ Mammon is at the root of the pursuit of a false god who is an idol, and in early Jewish practice the term ‘demon’ was used to speak of any ‘idolatry of a false god’ engaged in by human beings. Only later, and especially in Christianity, did Mammon become fully identified as a demonic spirit, an evil spirit. Nicholas de Lyra, commenting on the passage in Luke, says: ‘Mammon is the name of a demon’ [“Mammon est nomen demonis.”]
In this demonic guise, Mammon was referred to as Satan’s ‘second in command’, but this should not be taken literally; what it implies is something more subtle. Mammon is the love of money as a false god, an idol; and this is a love of something evil that is destructive to each as a person and destructive to all as a community. This love of something we think of as highly prized but which is in reality very evil is the root of all other evil; this love is the first step into greater and deeper evil: the doorway into the kingdom of the Evil One. Once Mammon is well rooted in human soil, then come Satan and Lucifer, to build on that foundation. This is why St Paul refers to the love of money as the root of all other evil. Mammon is the ‘in’ that more profound evil uses to get into us. This is the real point of the ‘second in command’ metaphor.
This is the rationale behind the Biblical trinity of evil: ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ The ‘world’ refers to the worldliness engendered by Mammon, the ‘flesh’ refers to the false attachment to this worldliness which makes us spiritually blind and weak, and the ‘devil’ refers to the more potent evil that sneaks into us through that blindness and weakness.
And this is why Mammon’s phony worldly riches are in conflict with the genuine spiritual riches latent and hidden in the soul; the real cave where treasure is buried is the soul. The soul brings treasures into the world, but the false treasures of the world blot these out. We cannot have both. The heart must choose which wife he cherishes, the earth as consort of the devil and gateway to hell, or the earth as the daughter, wife, mother, of God. Which wife does the heart ‘husband’? In the Old Testament the former is Lilith, and the Woman in the House of Death, and Dame Folly. The latter is the Shekinah, Sophia, Mary. Israel as a nation is identified with the former, not the latter, by the prophetic voice which describes Israel as ‘whoring’ after ‘foreign’ or ‘alien’ gods, rather than remaining faithful to the only real God, the true and faithful husband of Israel as wavering wife.
The strict judgementalism which William Blake describes as ‘Satanic’ can walk hand in hand with Mammon; we see this today in ‘conservative’ religion. Those who kow tow to God’s tyrannical authority will be financially rewarded with worldly wealth, those who defy God’s tyrannical authority will be financially punished by worldly poverty.
But Mammon makes a more natural conjunction, especially in ‘high capitalism’, with the devil the Old Testament named as Lucifer. Capitalism, as it grows and expands, seems to walk hand in hand, and work hand in glove, with the Luciferian spirit of self-glorification, self-development, self-shining, that invariably creates a vast gap between ‘winners and losers.’ Even the way Mammon is marketed, through glamorous people in glamorous settings with glamorous products, has the sheen of Lucifer all over it. Lucifer is no harsh moralist; he believes in one law for the charismatic, and a different law for the ordinary. Thus the shining ‘stars’ constituted by the winners obey a higher law of self-expansion, while the dull clods of clay constituted by the losers need rules and regulations to keep them docile and in line, like herding sheep.
Consequently, the Luciferian spirit is contemptuous of law: it is for those small enough to need it. The big don’t need it, and follow their own law, which is the law of being true only to Self, and being true to the ‘inner necessity’ of becoming ever more that Self. Spiritual narcissism and spiritual fascism are Luciferian. Material wealth allows Lucifer ‘to do his own thing’, uninterfered with and unrestricted by other people; Luciferian spirituality always attracts and manages to secure immense monetary riches to itself. But to look at it the other way round, it is the Luciferian spirit in the rich that makes them feel they are above ‘the law of the herd’, and can ‘get away with murder’, in the pursuit of ‘doing what they will.’ The notorious moral laxity and moral corruption of the old upper class rich comes from this alliance of Lucifer and Mammon. Social conscience among the rich is still rare; and even where it exists, it is often only for show, and a way of the winners patronising the losers: dazzle a bit of stardust on the poor dears’ heads, but of course never live with them, never share with them, and as for making any real sacrifice for their sake, don’t be absurd, darling!