What does it mean that you cannot serve two masters in Matthew 6:24?
Right in the middle of Jesus' key teaching on how we should live, the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5—7), Jesus says, "No one 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" (Matthew 6:24). Jesus is highlighting (1) the importance of our relationship with God, and (2) that money and earthly things can be an obstacle to our serving God.
First, a practical note. The idea that you cannot serve two masters is another way of saying that we cannot follow two different leaders. Imagine a servant who has two different masters, or a follower with two different leaders. At times the servant may be able to meet the requests of both masters. But inevitably the desires of one master will conflict with those of the other. What, then, is the servant to do? To which master is the servant most loyal? Which master's request takes priority? Practically speaking, you cannot serve two masters. So what does that mean for our relationship with God?
It is important that we understand that we were made by God and for God (Genesis 1:26–27; Colossians 1:16–17). God is our maker (Psalm 95:6; Isaiah 54:5), our Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:26; 23:9), and He is who we must obey (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14; Matthew 28:20; Luke 11:28). We are told that we should not allow anything in this life to become more important to us than He is: "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). "And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (1 John 5:20–21).
We were made by God, for God. He is our rightful master. Having a relationship with Jesus based on God's grace and received through faith (Ephesians 2:8–9) is the only way we can serve God alone and live life as we are fully meant to live it (John 3:16–18; 10:10; Matthew 4:19) by walking with God and not with anything else (Galatians 5:16). When we choose to follow something or someone other than God, our thinking and hearts will become divided. If we prioritize anything, good or bad, such as careers, bank accounts, reputations, relationships, alcohol, lust, etc., over God, we will become slaves to them (Romans 6:16) and it will be difficult to obey, serve, and love God as we are commanded to (Matthew 22:34–40; John 15:1–17). Because we cannot do this on our own (Ephesians 2:1–9), Jesus has set us free from slavery so we can follow Him (Galatians 5:1). We get to choose God because God first chose us: "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
So now, for those who are "in Christ," belonging to God, we can, by the work of the Holy Spirit, choose to follow God over all other would-be masters (Philippians 2:12–13; Romans 6:15–23). Because of who God is, this is in our best interest. When we are "slaves to Christ" we actually experience true life whereas being a slave to anything else ultimately leads only to death (Romans 6:23; John 15:10–11).
Jesus calls us to follow Him and to leave other would-be masters behind. Jesus called Peter, James, and John, all fishermen, from their vocations (Mark 1:16–18) just as He did with Matthew, the tax-collector (Matthew 9:9). Jesus called a rich man to give up his double-minded pursuits by selling everything he owned and then come follow Him. The man chose not to follow Him and "went away sad" (NIV) presumably because he learned that he could not serve two masters—money and Jesus (Matthew 19:16–22). Other people who met Jesus wanted to listen to Him teach and to witness and experience His miracles, but they weren't committed to follow and obey only Him (John 6:25–71). They could not serve two masters.
As a point of clarification, this is not to say that we should not have jobs or relationships or manage our finances well. It is to say that what drives our behavior, the motivation and purpose for our lives, is God. Rather than live based on the demands of the things the world values, we live based on God's values (Colossians 3:1–17). To love God, we must forsake false worldly values and sometimes even good things in the world that pull us away from God, no matter the cost (Matthew 10:34–39).
The author of Ecclesiastes uses the phrase "under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:3; 2:11) to describe the things here on earth that we think will satisfy us, giving us meaning or purpose. Of all the things on earth, the love of money seems to have the greatest ability, for most people, to create fear and doubt, and offer a false promise of security. It seems that we believe that if we have money, then we have options. And if we have options, then we might not need God after all. This is not true! Jesus knows this and cautions us against being double-minded, having two masters.
Jesus cautioned, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:19–21). Our hearts cannot be with God and at the same time consumed with amassing material wealth or earthly success. If the world is our master, then God is not. If God is our master, then we are not driven by the cares of the world. Only God satisfies us: "As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness" (Psalm 17:15).
We cannot serve two masters because, as Jesus pointed out, we end up hating one and loving the other. At times one will be more important than the other and when anything is more important to us than God, we put ourselves at odds with God. God says that He is a jealous God (Exodus 34:14) and that He does not share His glory with anyone (Isaiah 42:8), and He says that we belong to Him (Jeremiah 32:38; Ezekiel 11:20; 1 Peter 2:9–10). God is not jealous for His own good, He needs nothing (Psalm 50:9–11). Rather He is jealous for our good: "But this command I gave them: 'Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you'" (Jeremiah 7:23). Jesus said, "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:10–11).
When we choose to serve any master other than God, especially the idea that we can live our lives without God if we have enough money, we deprive ourselves of what we were created to be. We are meant to be God's children through Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:26; 1 John 3:1; John 1:12) made to do great things (Ephesians 2:10)! And no amount of money causes us to be more than or greater than we already are in God. Our allegiance is to God, not to wealth. A servant with a divided heart is no servant at all. There is room for only one master, and the only one with the right to our allegiance is God.
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