Thursday, April 26, 2012

Mammon


Have you ever read a book or an article with the attitude of the Pharisee in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men…” The book may have a pointed moral, but you look away, consciously refusing to see that it applies to you. Or maybe you are so blind that you do not even realize that the book is aimed at you. You recognize the truth of what the book says, and you can even think of people who could stand to learn a lesson from it, but you do not include yourself among them.

I must admit, this happened to me recently as I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann, his adaptation of the medieval English play Everyman. Hofmannsthal’s version follows the original fairly closely, but one key change he made was to insert two scenes emphasizing the role of money in Jedermann’s life. In the first half of the play, Jedermann, a wealthy man, is met on the street by a poor man as he is being taken away to prison for failure to repay a debt to Jedermann. The debtor’s wife pleads with Jedermann to release her husband, and then berates him when he refuses to do so. Jedermann responds that the man who invented money was “wise and great” and has made every man “equal to a little god.” Jedermann is clearly the master in his relationship with the debtor, and it is his money that makes him the master.

Later in the play, though, after Death has summoned him, Jedermann is trying to muster companions for his journey to death when he is visited by the figure of Mammon. Jedermann sees him and says: “You’re mine, my property, my thing,” but Mammon replies, “Your own? Ha, don’t make me laugh.” (Bist mein, mein Eigentum, mein Sach. / Dein eigen, ha, daß ich nit lach.) Mammon then proceeds to belittle Jedermann for thinking he can take him with after death. Indeed, according to Hofmannsthal’s stage directions, Mammon towers over his putative owner. Jedermann objects, though, that he had Mammon at his command during his life. But Mammon knows better: “Yet I ruled in your soul.”

The moral could not be any more pointed. But I do not generally think of myself as wealthy, and Jedermann is depicted as a rich man. How, then, could this apply to me? As an American I like to think that I am just a regular middle-class guy. The real consideration, though, is not whether I am wealthy--I certainly am when compared to the vast majority of men in history. Rather, the key question is: How concerned am I with money? Do I let money define me and shape my life?

All this should sound trite and obvious to any Christian, but it bears repeating in the American culture because money flatters us in two important ways. First, money flatters us by feeding our envy. As long as we can point to a neighbor who has more money than we do, we forgive ourselves for thinking too much about money. Here in America we like to think of ourselves as part of the middle class; we know we have money, but there is someone richer. Poll after poll shows that few Americans describe themselves as either rich or poor, and that is why campaign speeches focus on the economic plight of the middle class. We imagine ourselves as leading modest lives, but we also always come to the conclusion that we are entitled to at least as much money as the next guy. Because of our envy we define our social standing in monetary terms. Mammon, no matter what, finds a way to gain power over our souls.

Second, money flatters us by making us think we are free. Money can represent so many things to so many people, or even to the same person on any given day. As Hofmannsthal stated elsewhere, though, money becomes an end in itself, even though it is really just a means to an end. Money is supposed to give us freedom to do what we want; we think we are free because we have more money and so we can buy more things with our money. And of course, as Americans we want to be a beacon of freedom in the world. Yet, when we tell ourselves that our wealth makes us free, we discover what Jedermann learned: Mammon is the real master.
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