In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus uses the metaphor of slavery to urge his followers to give their full and complete loyalty to God. Occasionally in antiquity we read of two people owning one slave. For example, in Acts 16:16 we read about a female slave owned by ‘masters’, who gain significant profit from her oracular powers. Often when such a situation happens, however, tension develops as the slave struggles to satisfy the diverse expectations of the different owners. Neither master receives satisfaction and the slave ends up bearing the brunt of their anger.
In Matthew 6:24 Jesus contrasts wealth (‘mammon’) and God as two primary ‘masters’ that control human lives. In this statement he does not define what these choices mean. However, in verses 19-21 Jesus warns his followers that if they concentrate their efforts on creating earthly treasure, then they will be disappointed because such treasures are subject to decay and theft. If they put their efforts into heavenly treasure, these will last because they are beyond the reach of decay and theft. So, the implications of verse 24 are that being the slave of ‘mammon’ results in destruction, but being the slave of God generates life with eternal treasure.
What Jesus affirms is that a person has to choose his or her master. Serving two at the same time is not an option. If she tries to serve two, she ends up hating and despising one, and loving and clinging to (antechomai) the other. So in the end a de facto choice is made, but the slave acts hypocritically, pretending to serve both loyally.
The verb that Matthew uses (6:24) in parallel with ‘love’ (agapao) is the verb antechomai. In the active voice it means to hold one’s ground, or hold out against / endure. For example, Philo in his essay On the Life of Moses says that when Moses descended from Sinai, his face was so radiant that the Israelites could not endure (antechein) to look at him because of his "dazzling brightness." There are no examples of the active form in the New Testament. Only forms of the middle voice occur with several different nuances. This is also the case for its occurrences in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament).
Paul uses the middle form twice in his letters. In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 he urges the Christians at Thessalonika to "help (antechesthe) the weak." He exhorts the church community to "hold fast to" the weak, with the idea of supporting or assisting them. By attaching oneself to them, you provide support and encouragement, rather than neglecting or abandoning them. He employs this term again in Titus 1:9. A person who is a spiritual leader in the church must be one who "has a firm grasp of (antechomenon) the word that is trustworthy." Again we see the idea of clinging to or holding fast to something, but perhaps in this context with the sense of having a concern for the word. A parallel use occurs in Jeremiah 2:8 where the prophet criticizes those "who hold fast (antechomenoi) to the law", because, despite their role and expertise, they do not know the Lord. Paul requires spiritual leaders to have demonstrated a concerned loyalty for the teaching of the Gospel.
The only other place where this verb occurs in the New Testament is in Matthew 6:24 and the parallel statement in Luke 16:13. The form of the verb is the same in both contexts. The verb in the middle form usually has an impersonal object. In the Greek Old Testament, for example, people are devoted to the law (Isaiah 56:2; Jeremiah 2:8), the covenant (Isaiah 56:4,6), God’s ordinances (Jeremiah 51:10), idolatrous things (Jeremiah 8:2), or wisdom (Proverbs 3:18). However, there are two contexts where the object that a person holds fast to is God Himself. The prophet Zephaniah (1:6) notes those who "do not cleave (antechomenous) to the Lord" and warns them that God will "cut off from this place" such people. A more positive example occurs in Isaiah 57:13 where God promises that "those who cleave (antechomenoi) to me shall possess the land." Pindar, the fifth century B.C. Greek poet uses this verb to describe devotion to the god Hercules, almost with the sense of worship.
When we compare these various usages with Jesus’ comment in Matthew 6:24, we notice some similarities with contexts in the Greek Old Testament where the verb has a personal object (i.e. the Lord). First, Jesus has a personal object with the verb. Second, there is the idea of cleaving to someone with the connotation of being religiously devoted. While some people would adopt ‘mammon’ as an appropriate god, Jesus would reject that out of hand as idolatry. The only real divine option human beings have is God, Who desires to be our heavenly Father. However, as God revealed to Moses in the Ten Commandments, God will not tolerate any competitors. He is in that essential sense ‘jealous’. If we love Him and ‘cleave’ to Him, then we will receive His approval and will have treasure in heaven. Conversely, we must treat other claimants to divinity with contempt and render no loyalty to them at all.
Jesus urges his followers to devote themselves fully to God, the Lord of heaven and earth. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount he regards those who do as wise. Those who do select an alternative deity demonstrate foolishness, risking everything on a false and failing foundation.
- Are there areas in your life where you have divided loyalties? Do you claim to serve God, but have a religious side show going on where you also serve another deity – self, prestige, or power?
- Today may be the right time to come before the One True God and confess any treason in your heart, seek forgiveness, and ask for His help to cleave wholly to Him.
- If your loyalty to God is firm and singular, then rejoice in the promise of His care and provision.
- 1. Philo, Moses II, 70
- 2. William Mounce, Pastoral Epistles. Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), 391, links this usage with the verb prosechein used by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:4 to describe those who are devoted to myths and endless genealogies.
- 3. This group is linked with priests, shepherds and prophets.