Dethroning Mammon

A sermon preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams

30 July 2017


Recently, we have been studying Archbishop Welby’s book Dethroning Mammon. Most of our homegroups have been discussing it and we started a pop-up group for the same purpose. The following is my own precis of the book to remind you either what you have looked at, or what you have missed! I will go through the six chapters one by one.

What we see we value

Welby says the power of money over our lives and our thinking is extraordinary. It causes us to value it over and above anything else in our lives. It totally captures our attention in both large and small ways. And the more interconnected the world becomes, the more power is held over individuals and nations by economics, money and flows of finance. Mammon – the name given by Jesus to this force – gains strength from our subservience to it. Economics, he argues, has become an end in itself – not a tool in the service of human flourishing.

The following quote I used in a recent mag intro: Wealth buys privacy, large rooms, high walls and big gardens. It buys leisure, opportunities to spend time as one chooses and other people to do the chores. It buys company, friends, opportunity and education. But it does not buy God.

Here Welby suggests that in our society we value visible wealth and people who are confident. We defer to those who are clever and ‘successful’. At the same time we airbrush out those in sickness, despair, depression and need and we tend to value then less. However, Christians shouldn’t see the world through the same lenses as the rest of society because we are people whose vision has been challenged and corrected. It is notable that Welby chose Jean Vanier to write the foreword to the book. Vanier is the founder of the L’ Arche Communities which he describes as the antithesis of Mammon. There are 150 such communities in the world and they are where men and women with and without intellectual disabilities live together. It’s a place where those with no value in society become the centre of the community because they believe every person is uniquely gifted and beyond compare. These are communities that have learned to see the world through the eyes of Christ – not Mammon because Mammon distorts our vision.

He asks the question: What might it look like for God to correct your vision?

What we measure controls us

We have seen that what we see we value. Here Welby shows that we often give greater importance to what we can measure. And if it is not measured it tends not to be managed. People may keep tight control of the measurable aspects of their lives such as household budgets, salary even use of time, yet the same people may be entirely unaware of the state of their relationships, the condition of their marriage or the happiness of their children. Someone paid for a task is often more highly valued than someone who is not because the volunteer economy is not measured.

The problem with materialism – this ‘prioritising of the tangible’ – is not that it exists, but that it dominates and overrides our caring about other things of greater value.

We allow our view of the world to be defined by what we measure and most of the measuring is in the hands of Mammon. This means we don’t identify the things that make for peace, but work on the calculation of risk and return rather than abundance and generosity.

The right view only comes when we seek all that we need only and exclusively from Jesus – these are the moments of resolution that open our lives and our world to new possibilities, that set free the hope of humanity to be fully what it was created to be

What we have we hold

This is my favourite chapter and, gets to the very heart of this subject – in fact it gets to the very heart of everything. Mammon says ‘what you have you hold on to’. And scarcity compels us to hold even tighter to what we have. But this is a lie of Mammon and should be replaced with the truth of God which is about extravagance and abundance: things that should define us as Christians… and as a church.

Welby takes us to the upper room and  shows us the story of the woman pouring the very expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet.

She took what she had and gave it away in the most extravagant manner – it cost a year’s wages – what is your yearly income and when was the last time you were inclined to give away that much money?

Welby argues that it is a lie of Mammon that what we have is ours to hold on to – which is challenging stuff! No wonder he says ‘Jesus does not ask for an improvement in attitude, but for an entirely new world-view, based around his grace and sufficient love.’ A worldview exemplified by Mary. It’s a story of ridiculous extravagance which challenges Mammon to the core – but it is in fact the highest calling to which we are called – it is worship. And worship challenges head-on the deceiving and distorting work of Mammon.

Jesus’ claim to be worshipped overrides other claims. Worship is the way in which we say that the centre of the whole cosmos is not ourselves, or our society, or anyone else, but God. Worship does not so much undermine the deceptions of Mammon as obliterate them.

I intend to return to this story in September.

What we receive we treat as ours

What I receive belongs to me – doesn’t it? To treat as mine what I receive is viewed as the natural and correct order of things in modern western society. Not to hold on to what we receive – even to accept that it is not ours to use – goes against all our instincts. Marx and Communism tried an alternative method but this, says Welby, failed to take into account the totalitarian bureaucracies it creates and, more importantly, the basic sinfulness of human nature. Only the Holy Spirit of God can so change us that we are ready to see that what we have is a trust, something to be held for the benefit of others.

Sin, says Welby, holds on to things, making ‘it’s mine’ out of a gift. He compares the power of money to the ring in Lord of the Rings. The power it gave to each of its recipients became the dominant factor bringing freedom only when they dispose of it. Money is often ‘My Precious’ and those possessing it will often turn against their friends to hold on to it.

“The wealth of the world is given by God for the benefit of every person in the world. To amass an unfair proportion is thus to deprive others.” I wonder how you react to that? what is an unfair proportion? Welby argues that to see what we own as being for others is to experience true freedom. Do you agree?

He points us towards Jesus in the upper room washing the disciple’s feet. The most powerful being in the universe kneels down to wash dirty feet and this is the radical reversal at the heart of Christianity. Jesus showed us that power in this world is not really what you think. It’s not money or status or beauty. True power lies in washing feet and taking up the role of a servant. Imagine if we really believed that. Imaging a world in which the church actually lived according to the person it claims to follow. Challenging stuff.

What we give we gain

Here Welby offers an image of true generosity – generosity that is not dependent on getting any reward. He recalls the story of Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus – two men who come to pilate after Jesus has died to anoint his body and bury him. Of all the economically valueless things, a dead body must come top of that list. There was absolutely nothing they could gain by their actions. Jesus was dead, there were no followers to thank them – most had gone away. Jesus had plenty of admirers, but now he was dead they realised they had been deceived. And to be seen to identify too closely with this man who had just been condemned both by the Jews and the Romans was extremely dangerous. This is an irrational, generous and loving act to Jesus with no conceivable advantage. Rather, the opposite – they would use up a family tomb on a stranger, they would handle a dead body which would make them unclean for the coming Passover celebrations and they would have been socially excluded by associating with this outcast. BUT – in God’s economy this was of immense value, because their gifts reflect the very nature of God who gives by grace without expecting a return. There is no sign of Mammon here. In this act, Joseph shows that what he owns is not for his benefit but for the common good and for the benefit of others.

Welby points to the international aid budget as an example of this generosity on a large scale providing examples of the enormous benefit aid makes to the lives of people who are unlikely ever to be able to thank us or repay us.

Paul in 2 Corinthians 8 holds out the church at Philippi as a model for giving – giving lovingly and generously and out of poverty. He contrasts this with the slowness of the Corinthian church to give – despite their wealth. The ultimate model of abundance is God:  who lavished the gift of Jesus Christ on the earth and brought salvation to us. Which means that to the extent we demonstrate abundance and grace, we demonstrate discipleship – both as individuals and as churches. Simply, this way of living is rooted in the very nature of God. It doesn’t seek to accumulate but, like Joseph of Arimathea, spends generously and at personal risk because it is rooted in the love of God.

Welby says such thinking goes against all the world says is right. He suggests we begin to challenge the power of Mammon at a personal level by the habit of weekly or monthly giving, starting with the church to enable it to carry out its vision. This should be at the top of our list of what we do. How different would our world look if we thought of giving as an obligation, like our taxes, rather than a luxury extra?

What we master brings us joy

Finally and, very briefly, Welby argues that money is a good thing and is seen as a positive thing in scripture. However, for most of us, whether we have a little or a lot, it has become a worry, a problem or a diversion from deeper matters. Ultimately money – or Mammon – is on the throne of our lives and is the dominant system which controls the world. Simply, we are slaves to Mammon. Most attempts to challenge its hegemony has ended in failure.

Mammon’s mastery is only challenged when we put someone else on the throne. To do that we need first to listen – listen to this book, listen to the words of Scripture, listen to what the Spirit of God is saying – and learn to see through the eyes of Christ. Second, we need to act (or repent). This means reviewing our giving and spending, ask what we want wealth for – for safety, for security, for power, to give us value? Repentance probably means answering those questions in a different way to how we may have answered them in the past. Finally, we enthrone Christ. We give him the throne of our lives and allow the extravagant love and generosity and grace to flow through our lives and into the lives of others. With Christ on the throne we have the means to transform the world in ways we have not dreamed of.