A “hard saying” that “goes against the grain” of many people is found in Matthew 6:24. Jesus said: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon is the New Testament expression for “wealth,” or “treasure.” Yet for millions, the only worthwhile goal in life is to become wealthy. They are obsessed with the desire to become rich. Jesus gave a choice. We either place God first in our lives, or we serve the material things of this world. It’s one or the other. Those who place materialism first simply cannot give their whole-hearted attention to God and His Way of Life. One involved in the mad pursuit of physical things cannot fully obey God! It’s that simple.
Jesus did not mince any words. He said without equivocation, “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” In brief, He said it is impossible to serve both. What does the Bible say about this elsewhere? The Apostle Paul wrote: “Let your [conduct] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have . . . ” (Heb. 13:5). What is covetousness? It is inordinate desire, that is, an excessive or unrestrained drive to control or possess that which is forbidden or harmful to you. The Bible command is found in Exodus 20:17: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.” To do such things is unlawful in the sight of God. It brings harm to you or to others, and is, therefore forbidden.
In the quest for wealth, others are often trampled upon, or taken advantage of, or cheated. And what does it do to the character of the offender? This is the reason Paul emphasized this principle. The problem today is that many people are not satisfied with what they have. They want more and more. Modern-day advertising keeps the public hyped-up to buy, buy, and buy. The end result is that they live beyond their means. One who refuses to be caught in this trap is wise indeed. Those who are caught up in it will never realize Jesus’ promise in Matthew 6:33. After describing the physical amenities that men so often desire, He said: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Jesus often spoke of coveting. “And he said unto them, Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” (Luke 12:15). He illustrated this by a parable.
. . . The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (Luke 12:16-20).
This man had no interest in sharing with others, or helping those in need. He was completely self-centered. He did not get the opportunity to enjoy his wealth. Most important of all, he was not rich toward God. For Christ added: “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (v. 21). The rich man thought only about the present and was totally unaware of the future. He was shortsighted, unmindful of a promised life for all eternity in the Kingdom of God. Indeed, “Where there is no vision, the people perish . . . ” (Prov. 29:18).
Jesus is not talking about the necessities of life. Food, clothing, and shelter are regarded as the essentials. Jesus is referring to the excessive desire to enrich oneself-far above what is necessary for a comfortable living. The book of Proverbs gives us a guideline to follow. “Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die: Remove far from me vanity and lies: give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the LORD? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain” (Prov. 30:7-9). The fact is: Either extreme-poverty or wealth-is as bad as the other. Probably middle class or upper middle class would be an appropriate standard in the sight of God. The financial hindrance for many today is excessive taxation and inflation. Both dilute the ability to save or to set aside a bequest for one’s children or grandchildren.
Jesus made a shocking statement about wealth in Mark 10:23-24. Let us see what led up to His remark.
And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me (Mark 10:17-21).
What was the man’s response? “And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (v. 22). Then Jesus said:
. . . How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God! And the disciples were astonished at his words. But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (vv. 23-25).
The disciples were astounded at this. Mark relates: “And they were astonished out of measure, saying among themselves, Who then can be saved? And Jesus looking upon them saith, With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible” (vv. 26-27).
Jesus made it plain that wealth can be a genuine hindrance for anyone who wishes to gain eternal life. Those who are rich generally trust in their riches, and have little need for God. Not so the man who regularly prays for his daily bread (Matt. 6:11). Which of these two do you suppose would have a closer relationship with God? How many rich men really direct their lives toward God and seek Him daily? The answer: Few. No wonder Jesus said: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24).
A “hard saying” that is difficult to understand is the parable of the householder found in Matthew 20:1-16. It relates how a householder hired laborers for his vineyard.
For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive (vv. 1-7).
They all agreed for a set wage. When the workday was complete, the time came to settle with the laborers.
So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny (vv. 8-10).
Those who had worked all day felt their payment was unfair, and complained. “And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day” (vv. 11-12). The householder disagreed. “But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good?” (vv. 13-15).
Then Jesus related the significance of the parable: “So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen” (v. 16). What did He mean by this remark?
The key is found at the beginning of the parable. Notice: “For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder . . . ” (v. 1). So, the parable is really about the “kingdom of heaven” or the Kingdom of God. These two phrases mean the same thing. Jesus, in reality is talking about salvation, not about specific rewards or offices that one might hold in the Kingdom of God. When it comes to salvation, it is irrelevant when one is called to the knowledge of the Truth. What is relevant is what the man does with himself during the time period he is given to serve God. And this is regardless of the length involved. It may be long, as of the laborers who were hired early in the day, or it may be short, as of those hired in the eleventh hour. The reward-salvation-is the same regardless of the time in life one is called. This is why Jesus said: “So the last shall be first, and the first last . . . ” (v. 16).
But, why did Jesus then say, “. . . for many be called, but few chosen”? It is easy to profess to obey God, but to really do what is required is another matter. Take for example, the father and his two sons.
But what think ye? A certain man had two sons; and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not: but afterward he repented, and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir: and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you (Matt. 21:28-31).
In the above example, Jesus addressed the chief priests and elders. They professed to obey God, but really did not. Certainly, in this example, the last-the publicans and harlots-would be first, and the religious leaders-the scribes and elders-would be last. In the end, the Jewish leaders and the nation rejected Christ. Yet, the Gentiles readily accepted Him. Paul wrote: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom.1:16). Only a small minority of the Jewish people accepted Christ, and to this very day the Jewish nation, as a whole, is still awaiting the Messiah. They had the opportunity for salvation at the time of Christ’s first coming, but rejected it.
As a result of Paul’s work, many Gentiles accepted Christ. They were not given the opportunity for salvation until ten years after the time of Christ. Peter first introduced the gospel to them (Acts 10). Will they be in the Kingdom of God before the professing Jews of Jesus’ and the Apostles’ day? Yes, indeed. The “last shall be first, and the first last.” This is why Paul told the Romans: “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in” (Rom. 11:25). Many were called during the time of Christ but rejected the Truth. Only a few responded and were chosen to salvation. Those chosen were the ones who accepted the Truth and lived it, not the ones who simply heard it, or professed it. This is why Jesus said, “. . . for many be called, but few chosen” (Matt. 20:16).