Meaning of 'no man can serve two masters'

Meaning of 'No Man can Serve Two Masters'

Perhaps the most misunderstood, or, difficult to adapt Bible teaching is when Jesus says that you cannot serve two masters, where one master is God and the other is wealth, or, mammon. This phrase is quite simple in its words, but not as simple in its implication. This Buzzle article throws light on the meaning of 'No man can serve two masters' and helps us understand its true meaning, as Jesus wanted to convey.
Jesus addresses our psychological tendencies!
"No man can serve two masters"―this statement can be viewed by skeptics from a legal, logical, situational, and psychological point of view. Eliminate all other options and stick to your heart, your psyche. For legally it is possible to serve two masters, but psychologically, if put in a situation where we have to choose, our devotion will exceed for one of them. This is what Jesus implied through this statement.

The phrase that we are meditating upon is a part of the "Sermon on the Mount". Interestingly, we also see this phrase in The Parable of the Shrewd Manager. In both instances, it is implied that nothing should be placed before God, be it money, or anything else. For it is human nature that does not allow us to have equal loyalty towards two things that are the complete opposites of each other. While living in this world, we might have mastered the art of diplomacy, however, we must remember that it is a worldly tactic that does not work on God.

No matter how strongly we deny this fact, the truth is that we have become one with this world when it comes to "serving two masters." Before we elaborate on this statement further, it is important for us to understand the actual meaning of this teaching of Jesus, as it was intended to be understood. The Biblical text was originally written in Hebrew, and from there, it has been translated to the numerous Bible versions that exist today. The actual meaning of a lot many words have been lost in translation. The thing is that many words, whether they come from Hebrew or Greek origins, have more than one meanings. Even in the English language, one word can be interpreted in many ways. In reference to this phrase, the following section will help us all restore what was somewhat lost in translation.

The Meaning of 'No Man can Serve Two Masters' Explained

"No servant can serve two masters, for 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 God and money."
― Luke 16:13, English Standard Version

"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."
― Matthew 6:24, King James Version

Both the aforementioned statements are the same, it's just that they have been taken from two different versions of the Bible. If you read these excerpts carefully, the only difference you will find is in the last word. While the English Standard Version states the second master to be 'money', the King James Version replaces the word with 'mammon'. As mentioned earlier, it is not only the difference in words but also their perception that somewhat restricts our comprehension toward this message of Christ. To simplify the process of understanding this verse, we shall divide it into four separate sections, and one by one, meditate upon them.

1. "No man can serve two masters"

No matter what is written in the scripture, "Man" or "Servant", the truth is that we humans are servants. Yes, all of us! If we are not servants of a person, so to say, then we are servants of our ambitions and desires. Each and every man, woman, and child on this planet is devoted to one, maybe more, masters. A man may be a servant of his job, his highly-ambitious mindset to accumulate more wealth and fame. A woman may be a servant to her household chores and social gatherings, while a child is likely to be driven by his/her parents to be a servant of ambition, be enslaved to this race of being better than the others, to be good in both mathematics and art! However, while all of us have, knowingly or unknowingly, willfully agreed to become a part of the servitude, if we are forced to choose one true master over the others, we will always, always, have this one master that will be preferred over the other(s).

The word 'master' is used for someone who has authority over us, whose orders are compulsory for us to follow, and whose works are what we live for. In short, a master is someone we put our faith in, someone whose instructions will guide our life. Think about it, who is that one master that rules your life at the moment? If you had to let go of the many "important" things, people, duties in life, who is the one who will always be your final choice, some you will always stick to and give preference? Remember, your answer should only be one name, because you cannot have two masters!

2. "For either he will hate the one, and love the other"

The next part of the excerpt states that one of the two masters will be hated, and the other would be loved. Practically, it is not necessary, is it? You can have two jobs a day, and both your masters would be okay. You might prefer one over the other, but not necessarily "hate" the other master, right? This is where comes the need to understand the true meaning of the word "hate." While we perceive hate to be an extreme expression of dislike and detest, in the Bible, hate means not to dislike but to "love less." Therefore, the message that comes across is not confusing, but quite practical―if you serve two masters, you will love one more than the other. You may like both, but one you will like more. This is nothing but human nature.

Most of us may, at certain situations, find it difficult to make choices among the things that are dear to us. However, if we have to choose one, we are forced to weigh the pros and cons of both the "masters" and eventually choose one, and that one is mostly the choice that is more useful, beneficial, or rewarding than the other. So, invariably, a choice separates the master you love more from the master you "hate" or, so to say, love less.

3. "Or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other"

If we read this sentence at one go, what comes to our understanding is the fact that of the two masters, we will be loyal to one, and because of that we would look down upon the other. The words, "hold on to" denote a sense of dependency and trust, a clingy behavior where the existence of the servant (us) depends upon the beloved master. On the other hand, the word "despise" denotes the act to look down upon someone/something, which in this case, has been used for the other master. Here, we notice the contradiction of feelings that man tends to have between two choices. While he gets dependent on one, towards the other he attains a sense of supremacy, thereby, looking down upon, or despising the less loved master.

This sentence also conveys the conflicts that arise with choices. When we serve more than two masters, cater to more than one ambition, desire for more than one form of happiness, we subconsciously (or even consciously), tend to compare. As a result of this comparison, we develop a sense of favoritism towards one, and eventually, the other one becomes something that is despised, or, even neglected, but we do it because we have to. We'll take a simple example to clarify this. Most of us fail to choose Church work over office work. We gladly go to our office parties or friends' gathering, but make excuses for Church meetings. We all would agree that there have been times when we went to the church only because we had to, not because we wanted to. We will somehow make it to work, if need be, at 8 in the morning on a Sunday, but Church, we may choose to skip. Not only this, if we all introspect on our daily lives, we have already chosen the other master over our true master, who is none other than God!

4. "Ye cannot serve God and mammon"

Yes, if we are willing to be the children of God, and if we are willing to serve God, then we cannot serve mammon, or, as the English Standard Version says, money! Before we explain this point further, it is essential to understand the meaning of the word 'mammon'. Mammon is a Syriac word used to denote wealth, possessions, and riches. Mammon was the name of a Pagan god whose idol was worshiped for his power over material riches. Note that the two masters―God and Mammon―are absolute opposites of each other, for the works of one interferes/contradicts/goes against the works of the other.

Another word that we must focus upon is "serve." In the given context, to serve actually denotes to be a slave. While the term may sound quite harsh, but upon careful realization and analysis, it is true that we become a slave to the one we "serve." Take note of the feelings associated of man with the master he loves―loyalty, dependency, love, service! Our service towards our master is driven by a need, and because our service fulfills that need, we have become slaves of the preferred master.

In Conclusion ...

When we connect the dots of these four separate statements mentioned above, we can clearly see what we have been conveniently pretending not to understand all this while! This verse speaks of greed, the greed that emerges from within our hearts, the greed that neglects the heavenly treasures for the worldly treasures. This passage shows the characteristics of us humans, mammon, and God. We are easily tempted and confused by greed, greed that arises when we see the comforts that come along with material wealth and possessions. As Christians, we are very well aware of the fact that these earthly treasures as perishable, they can be easily taken/stolen from us. However, the treasures that God has laid up for us in heaven is something that cannot be taken away and is non-perishable.

As of mammon, or money, we must remember that whatever the earth promises to give to us is a mirage, for we think we've gotten enough, but in truth, we have ended up giving a lot in the bargain. And God, the love of God towards us is divine. Our God is merciful, forgiving, and kind, but He is also protective and possessive of His children. Given the nature of us humans, He has already warned us through Christ, our Savior, the nature of material wealth. And if, in spite of the warnings, we fail the trust He has put on us, then we surely have divided our faith, which is unacceptable to Him.

Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?" A question that we must ask ourselves today, "Who are we serving? Are we willing to take up our cross and follow Him?" We might be church-going people, we may be aware of the commandments, but, are we serving only one master? The more masters we have, the more time we are likely to spend in serving those masters. Speaking of wealth, the more we accumulate, the more we work towards managing it, thereby loving wealth more than God. The time has come when we must mend our ways, and choose the one and only master of our lives―God! Amen.
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