“two lords.” Matthew 6:24 has three difficult phrases, and to properly understand the verse we must understand its vocabulary and customs. Jesus told us plainly about what would happen if a person tried to serve two masters. One was that the person would love one master, and thus serve that one well, and “hate” the other, and thus not serve that one as well. It helps us make sense of the verse when we realize that in the Eastern mindset and vocabulary, “hate,” does not always mean “hate” as we generally use it today, in the sense of extreme hostility or intense dislike. Especially when used in contrast to “love,” in the biblical culture (both Hebrew and Greco-Roman) the word “hate” often means “love less.”
The second difficult phrase in the verse, in typical Eastern fashion of teaching, is an amplification and clarification of the first phrase. Jesus made sure we understood what he meant by saying that a person trying to serve two masters would “hold to the one, and despise the other.” As in the first phrase about love and hate, we must understand the biblical vocabulary to understand this phrase. The first phrase, translated “hold to” in the KJV, is cleared up for us in most modern versions, which read, “be devoted to” (HCSB; ESV; NET; NIV). However, the use of “despise” in both the KJV and many modern versions, is less clear and needs to be properly understood.
It is surprising that many modern versions continue to use the word “despise,” even though it gives most readers the wrong impression. The Greek word translated “despise” is kataphroneō (#2706 καταφρονέω), and it has a range of meaning that encompasses looking down on someone or something with contempt or aversion; considering something not important and thus disregarding it; and not caring about, or ignoring, someone or something. In defense of the modern version’s use of “despise,” it is true that one of the primary meanings of the English word “despise” is to look down on with contempt or to regard as worthless (this is even the first definition in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary). However, the much more well-known use of “despise” is one of its other definitions: an intense dislike and even loathing.
Jesus was not saying a person would be devoted to one master while intensely disliking or loathing the other master. Jesus was making the simple statement that if a person had two masters, he would often be devoted to one and end up ignoring the other.
There are other uses of the Greek word kataphroneō that are translated “despise” in many versions, which can give us the wrong impression of what the verse is saying. One is when Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Let no one despise you for your youth” (1 Tim. 4:12 ESV). No one would hate someone who was young; the better way to understand the verse is just like Matthew 6:24 about the two masters; Paul told Timothy not to let anyone ignore him just because he was young. Similarly, in many versions Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus endured being crucified, “despising the shame.” It was indeed a shameful thing to be crucified, but Jesus did not “hate” it, he ignored it. In doing that he set a wonderful example for us to follow. Many times we will find that if we are to be a true follower of Jesus, we will have to ignore the shame and mistreatment we endure. [For more on the large semantic range of “hate” and its use in the Bible, see commentary on Prov. 1:22, “hate”].
“Wealth.” The Greek is mammōnas (#3126 μαμμωνᾶς). “Mammon” is an Aramaic term for wealth, property, or anything of value. “Mammon” was the Syrian god of riches. Thus, the idea is that you cannot serve both God and the idol of Wealth. In Luke 16:9, “mammon” is not compared to serving God, so simply “wealth” is a better translation there. Furthermore, “Wealth” is a better translation than “money.” There are Greek words that specifically mean “money,” and that would have been used in the verse if Jesus had meant only “money.” In contrast, “Mammon” refers to total “wealth,” including money, property, and possessions, any or all of which some people serve instead of God.
It should catch our attention that the Greek text does not say “wealth,” but rather retains the Aramaic term that is transliterated in the KJV as “Mammon.” The Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible has the right idea when it translates “Mammon” with a capital “M.” Jesus was speaking of “Mammon” as if it was a god. It was much easier to personify “Wealth” in the Greco-Roman world than it is today because the Greeks and Romans often personified concepts as gods and goddesses. For example, Abundantia was the divine personification of abundance and prosperity, Aequitas (Equity) was the divine personification of fairness, Bonus Eventus was the divine personification of “Good Outcome,” and Mors was the personification of death (the Greek personification of death was Thanatos). Thus, to a person living at the time of Christ, it was clear that Jesus was making a kind of play on words, and saying in a very graphic and clever way, “You cannot serve God and the ‘god of Possessions’” (wealth, things, stuff). In Acts 28:4, “Justice” is personified.