As part of my daily reading through the Bible and the catechism, specifically the Large Catechism, I was forced to ask myself, “Do I worship money?” Because, you see, after the longer and shorter prefaces, the first thing you read about in Luther’s Large Catechism is the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.”
As Luther begins, “What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart… The purpose of this commandment is to require true faith and trust of the heart, which settles upon the only true God and clings to Him alone… Many a person thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions… Such a person has a god by the name of ‘Mammon’ (i.e., money and possessions; [Matthew 6:24])… This is the most common idol on earth” (LC, Part 1, 2, 4-6).
How do you know if you worship money? That is, how do you know if money is your true god? Well, ask yourself this: “How do I measure success and security?” If your answer is money, then Mammon is your true god, the most common god on earth. Of course, it is often the god of the rich. “This truth reappears,” Luther continues, “when you notice how arrogant, secure, and proud people are because of such possessions, and how despondent they are when the possessions no longer exist or are withdrawn” (LC, Part 1, 10).
Mammon becomes the god of the rich because, when they have much of it and many possessions, they think, “Who needs God?” This worship is especially made clear when they suddenly lose it all—or even a fraction of it—and immediately become despondent, insecure, and even downright fearful.
Yet Mammon can also be the true god of the poor. As Luther writes, “On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God. For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack Mammon. This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave” (LC, Part 1, 8-9). Many who suffer in poverty have wealth as their ideal goal so that, you guessed it, they can be successful and secure. Poor Christians often trust in money as if they never heard of the good God who gives you this day your daily bread.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we obviously need money—even a certain amount of money—in order to survive in the world. You could almost say it’s a “necessary evil.” This is why I have no problem living as a middle class citizen all my life because, when you really look at it, being middle class is making just the right amount of money to survive and live comfortably. Being middle class, you neither have an excessive amount (wealth) nor an insufficient amount (poverty).
I’m also not saying it’s inherently sinful to be wealthy or poor, or that you have or lack God’s favour one way or the other as prosperity gospel heretics would have you falsely believe. I’m merely agreeing with Luther that for both wealthy and poor, Mammon is often their true god.
Yet money can most definitely be the god of the middle class as well since many of us either have a strong desire to become wealthy to be “successful and secure” (love of money) or a fear that we’ll lose money and become poor (fear of money). As Luther briefly explains the 1st Commandment in the Small Catechism, “I will fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Whether rich, poor, or middle class, one can all too easily put their fear, love, and trust in money. Fear of money steers us away from poverty and love of money steers us toward wealth, and in both cases our trust is ultimately in the god of Mammon.
As Luther puts it, “to ‘have a god’ is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts” (LC, Part 1, 10). This is also why Luther heavily critiqued prayer to the saints. “If anyone had a toothache, he fasted and honoured St. Apollonia. If he was afraid of fire, he chose St. Lawrence as his helper. If he dreaded bubonic plague, he made a vow to St. Sebastian or Rochio. There were a countless number of such abominations, where everyone chose his own saint, worshiped him, and called to him for help in distress. Here belong such people as sorcerers and magicians, whose idolatry is most great [Deuteronomy 18:9-12]… For all such people place their heart and trust elsewhere than in the true God. They look to Him for nothing good, nor do they seek good from Him” (LC, Part 1, 11-12). If you truly trusted in God, why would you enlist the help of a dead saint who is asleep in the Lord and, therefore, knows nothing of your existence?
Thus, for Luther, as he pored over the Scriptures, idolatry is much more than the worship of a physical object, like that of a statue or saint. Rather, true idolatry has to do with matters of the heart. “For to ‘have’ God, you can easily see, is not to take hold of Him with our hands or to put Him in a bag <like money> or to lock Him in a chest <like silver vessels>. Instead, to ‘have’ Him means that the heart takes hold of Him and clings to Him. To cling to Him with the heart is nothing else than to trust in Him entirely” (LC, Part 1, 13-15).
So, I ask again, do you worship money? How do you measure success and security? This is why tithing and giving in offerings are so important. It’s a lot more than just ensuring the management of the building, the mission of the church, and the welfare of your pastor(s). Though these things are important, they are not the heart of the matter in our giving. Tithing and giving are fundamentally designed to keep us from putting our trust in money and instead placing our entire trust in God.
Tithing 10% of your income is crazy not simply because that’s a significant portion of your salary. What’s truly crazy about it is that by tithing, or by placing any amount in the offering basket, you are confessing, “God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are my God. I put my complete trust in Him, not Mammon.” In the eyes of the world, this is crazy. “In God We Trust” might be printed on our currency, but this is far from the truth. The “God” on our currency is named Mammon.
In offerings, we especially confess the First Article of the Creed, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”
Money doesn’t do all these things; God the Father does. And how do you thank and praise, serve and obey Him? By placing some money in the basket, trusting that the Lord, not Mammon, gives you all these things necessary of life. Money is merely a tool; it is not the end of all things, for that alone is Christ, the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega.
I don’t want to get into the specific practicalities about how and when you can tithe. That’s something you can decide with your family and talk to your pastor about, especially if you are struggling. And if you truly are struggling financially, it’s okay to ask for help, even from the church. And it is definitely okay to get to the point where you are financially secure. Just remember, that is not the end in itself; it is not the measure of all things.
The point of my thoughts here is not to lay down the hammer of the Law that you need to tithe and put money in the offering basket every single Sunday or else you’re not a real Christian. No, the point is to get you to start thinking about where your heart truly lies and to seriously reflect on the question, “Who is my God?”
As I began with this article, I had to ask myself the same question, and I realised that Mammon was my god during my last year of seminary, which is not surprising. During my seminary training, I couldn’t work full-time. I could hardly even work part-time. (And being a disabled veteran guaranteed I couldn’t work most jobs.) I struggled a lot financially during my last year, especially because I was newly married. Rather than fearing God, I constantly feared I wouldn’t make enough to get through my fourth year. On top of supporting myself, I now had a wife I needed to care for. Even worse, what mostly had me excited about completing my studies was not so much starting my first ministry and caring for God’s flock but finally having a job where I’d finally be financially secure and successful.
Don’t get me wrong, financial security is important, but it is not the heart of the matter. And here’s the amazing thing: God was faithful despite my idolatry. For my entire last year of seminary, I had to constantly ask for financial help from people—from family and the church. As a man, it was extremely humiliating. And by the end of seminary—and I won’t say how—I literally had more than enough to move me and my wife to another state, get her a used car and paying it in full, and purchase new furniture, among other things. My fear, love, and trust in money may have driven me to ask for help and get through seminary, but despite myself, the Lord provided.
So, after reading through the catechism as part of my daily reading, I learnt a hard lesson: Mammon has been my god for quite some time. Fortunately, I have the grace and mercy of the true God before whom I can confess my sin and be forgiven—totally atoned for on the cross. And then I can change my behaviour.
During seminary, I never gave offerings or tithed. My reasoning, of course, was that I’m not on a salary so I literally can’t afford to tithe. This is a poor excuse, of course. So, I wonder how I might’ve spiritually benefited if I did the harder thing by trusting in the Lord completely while tithing, even if it was a really small amount. I still could’ve asked for help the way I did, yet trusting in the Lord rather than the dollars in my bank account.