Divided loyalties

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24 NKJV).

We recently had a small local tournament in a table game called “carom” that is hugely popular in this part of Asia. There were twelve teams, and to ensure an even number we allowed the young son of one of the staff members to participate. Of course the father and son wound up on different teams (they were chosen by random drawing) and, as you would know it, the very first match of the tournament pitted father’s team against son’s.

We all jokingly asked, “Who will Nomita (the wife and mother) root for?” Was there any doubt? Of course she was cheering for her son. But it was definitely a case of divided interests. Both teams involved those dear to her.

In some cases divided loyalties may cause us some personal anxiety but are not a real problem. Any parent with two children participating in different places at the same time has a choice to make that is not very easy. But rarely are those earth-shattering kinds of decisions. We do what we can, understand that this kind of conflict cannot be avoided, and move on.

But there are other cases where our conflicting interests are much more significant. When a husband and wife are both pursuing careers and have opportunities in different locations there is potential for serious conflict. Selfish insistence on the part of both is a sure path to marital problems.

Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mountain, addressed what is probably the most common and important conflict of all – that between our spiritual well-being and our material desires. And he was adamant: you simply “cannot serve two masters.”

That language is important. “Serve” and “master” were terms involving first century slavery and its relationships. They were absolute. The master had power over his slave’s every activity, literally over his life. The slave gave his all into the relationship; the master could not be denied. When it came to serving a master, one could not serve two at the same time. Their demands would inevitably conflict. They could not both be satisfied. And a master would not accept dissatisfaction with his servant’s submission.

It is probably correct to interpret Jesus’ language in reference to an implied condition – “equally.” Certainly a Christian can love God and be faithful while holding some material possessions. When Paul warned that gain is not godliness (1 Timothy 6:5-6), he went on to teach, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). It is not money itself that is the problem but one’s overwhelming desire for it.

A person may serve God successfully without taking a vow of poverty. But he must not make possessions a master. He cannot be enslaved to what he owns, or wants. As Jesus taught elsewhere, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses” (Luke 12:15).

Other texts call covetousness “idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). That goes to the heart of Jesus’ warning. When we make possessions gods in our lives, we have displaced the true, living God from his rightful throne. And he will not accept that. If we love God, we must keep our material desires under control. We must serve him only.

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