Money, Mammon, Meaning & the Musings of Robert Frost

Money, Mammon, Meaning & the Musings of Robert Frost August 20, 2015

Christ of the Coin, Van Dyck / Wiki Commons
Christ of the Coin, Van Dyck / Wiki Commons

There is little doubt what Jesus meant when he lectured from the hillside that money is the root of all evil. Wait a second—don’t make any memes based on that quite yet.

Because Jesus’ monetary remark from the Sermon on the Mount was actually about the impossibility of serving two masters, God and money. And while there are indeed a few references in Matthew 6 related to ethical financial living, as well as to sartorial sparrows, very few consider this passage Christ’s London School of Economics Lecture.

In fact, it seems that the Gospel author (or authors) simply found this an appropriate place to anthologize Jesus’ sayings. Be it transcript or convenient collection, what of course matters is how we should interpret the statement.

Interpret, schminterpret! It’s in the Bible, it’s in red letters. Bingo, it’s Divine Law! Case closed: Jesus was a Bernie Sanders socialist.

And for what it’s worth, the Apostle Paul further backs this claim. He of course is the one who exhorted his young Padawan learner, Timothy, that “$ = √evil.”

Now hold on. Paul was a learned man—certainly intelligent enough to know that money was just a stamped piece of metal. An idea. Which is precisely why he never wrote “money is the root of all evil.” Anyone who says that isn’t just misinterpreting Paul—they’re misquoting him.

Most translations render the word φιλαργυρία as “love of money”—as in, “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (NIV). Even if you aren’t a New Testament Greek scholar, it’s easy to see that Paul uses a single word that cannot be put asunder, as it were; maybe a more apt translation would be “money-loving.” (Or perhaps “hedge fund manager.”)

So, for every spiritual socialist staking a claim to the Sermon on the Mount above, there is likely a Brylcreem televangelist ready to justify good old-fashioned, Scrooge McDuck hoarding via I Timothy: “And thus we conclude that money is okay, it’s the looooove of money that gets you into trouble. I just happen to own a Gulfstream G650, brothers and sisters; I don’t love it.”

No matter where you fall on the theology of economics belief spectrum, it’s a good idea to remember that Bible chapter and verse notations, just like currency, are constructs. I find it hard to imagine that the Apostle Paul would appreciate you chopping his personal letters into fish bait for the purpose of hermeneutic trawling. Also, for what it’s worth, the tentmaker missionary would doubtless be upset should you walk away from I Timothy 6 armed with warnings against avarice yet completely forget his command that slaves must fully respect their masters.

In a previous article devoted to the subject of hermeneutics, or interpretation, I showed how Internet memes have pulverized one of Albert Einstein’s most famous quotes beyond all narrative recognition. While many acknowledge that the Nobel laureate possessed a spectacular mind, few consider his words God-breathed. Yet it’s important to observe interpretation and misinterpretation at play in non-biblical texts. It’s akin to studying mating dances in the animal kingdom; it forever impacts one’s understanding of the human equivalent.

So now, from physicist to poet…

Robert Frost is America’s poet, and his poem “The Road Not Taken” is perhaps the most famous in our national literature. This is a bit ironic, of course, as Frost published his first two volumes of poetry in Great Britain. His “American Send-off” did not occur until the August 1915 issue of Atlantic Monthly. This periodical included Edward Garnett’s seminal essay about Frost, “The New American Poet,” as well as his poems “Birches,” “The Sound of Tree”—and, of course, that graduation commencement standard, “The Road Not Taken.”

Every time I hear a public speaker begin to recite “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” I begin to quiver. Invariably, Frost’s magnificent lines are rendered into a schmaltzy self-help mantra, such as: “So, students, as you prepare to enter the real world, just know that it’s okay to choose the path no one else has ever taken—to think outside the box—just like Robert Frost’s nature walker.”

I am convinced Robert Frost would approve of me rushing to the front of an auditorium crammed with proud parents and beaming, be-tasseled graduates to shout, “Have you actually read the poem?! It’s not ‘The Road Less Traveled’—it’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’ And I quote: ‘Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.’ Did you hear that?! The paths were worn…ABOUT—THE—SAME!”

During the three years Frost lived in England from 1912-1915, he often took nature walks with his good friend, Edward Thomas.  Thomas would inevitably pause and sigh near the end of their walks, regretting he had not taken another way, as it were. Frost was artistically moved by his friend’s idiom of exhaled regret; the rest is literary misinterpretation history.

If you want my opinion, the poem demonstrates that a mere sigh can serve as aesthetic inspiration. (And for any pastors seeking an upcoming sermon theme, feel free to tie this to Elijah and the gentle whisper of God in I Kings.)

As with Einstein, no one claims that the words of Robert Frost are divinely inspired—even though I would rather read “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” over Habakkuk any day. But it’s important when discussing biblical interpretation to understand just how commonly even non-sacred text is collectively misinterpreted.

And now, back to money…

Almost as frustrating as the oft-mangling of “The Road Not Taken” is the vignette of Jesus & the Coin as found in all three Synoptic Gospels. I’m not sure any biblical sentence is more brutally botched than, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

I have watched friendships end over the interpretation of this story and have heard “the moral” used in every possible theological manner: to defend and oppose separation of Church and State, to defend andoppose the paying of taxes—even to justify Christian anarchism, or conversely, to justify the creation of a Christian state with its own independent divine dollars.

This story is familiar to most of us: in an effort to pin the tail on the Messianic donkey, the Jewish religious leaders present Jesus with a number of religio-legal paradoxes. The point is not to discover ethical enlightenment, but to entrap Jesus for the purpose of a no-brainer arrest. But Jesus turns the tables each time. In the case of the “should we pay taxes to Rome?” question, Jesus points at the imprint of Caesar’s bust on the metal coin and reminds everyone who manufactured it. And the crowd goes, “Whoa!”

But what is the big picture meaning? Is there even a big picture meaning?

As in the case of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s exhortation to Timothy, the reader needs to examine carefully the context surrounding the statement. Was Jesus setting out to deliver a thesis on taxation and public-sector economics, or was he just demonstrating quick wit? Again: is it a De Facto Red-Letter Divine Mandate, or just a joke—or something in-between?

Here I am reminded of Jacques Derrida’s lesson of Nietzsche’s Umbrella. Within the archive of the great German philosopher, Nietzsche, was discovered a handwritten note, “I have forgotten my umbrella.” The note technically belongs to the “Works of Nietzsche,” but it’s up to readers, based on an investigation of context, to determine the note’s meaning.

There of course is seemingly little, if any, relationship between the Übermensch and the umbrella. And in my opinion, while Jesus’ “Give unto Caesar” remark isn’t as meaningless as a note about a German philosopher forgetting his bumbershoot, it seems unreasonable to build the entirety of one’s political philosophy upon a quick-witted escape from a Pharisee trap.

Okay, fine, so perhaps we shouldn’t cherry-pick meaning from the Bible. Then how should we derive meaning from Scripture?

Personally, I do not believe in the Sola Scriptura doctrine of divine inspiration. I also do not believe the Apostle Paul was referring to his own letter to his prodigy Timothy (II Timothy 3) as “God-breathed.” (Let us also not forget the Gospels still hadn’t been penned when Paul wrote his epistles, so he wasn’t referring to the Gospels, either.) And even if other biblical documents prior to II Timothy were “God-breathed,” such as the Pentateuch, there is nothing to indicate these are Hogwarts spell books.

So even for Sola Scriptura believers, interpretation should take critical effort and should not take place in a vacuum—unless you’re one of those “the Spirit guides me” people, in which case I simply have to ask why couldn’t the Holy Ghost just walk your fingers through the Yellow Pages or a Ouija board?

No matter where one falls on the sacred or profane end of the biblical interpretation spectrum, the answer can be the same: in short, “meaningful meaning” is derived from Scripture by careful study, by considering internal and external contexts, by bouncing reasonable meanings off communities of sincere readers and practitioners.

In the case of developing a “theology of economics,” other parts of the whole worth considering are the Jubilee Year and the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira. Also, it is important to study the varying economies throughout biblical history—here’s a related article I wrote about “the biblical definition of capitalism.” And that’s just a start. In the end, one needs to weigh any and all theories against the Christian mandate of love.

The purpose of this essay is to remind readers, as well as myself, that we live in an age that increasingly demands microwave meaning. But rushing to biblical interpretation judgment almost always leads to disaster. So if you want my opinion, interpret carefully. For the real root of evil isn’t Mammon—it’s Misinterpretation.

PChPT_ArikBjorn_bioArik Bjorn is a writer who lives in South Carolina. His latest books are his debut collection of Progressive Christian fiction, Birds of a Feather, and his essay collection, Why Bad Things Happen To Good Parrots. Arik’s educational background includes archaeology, ancient languages, and biblical studies. He has run the gamut of Christian experience, from Evangelical to Orthodox catechumen to live-in Episcopalian sexton to Roman Catholic. Follow Arik on Twitter @arikbjorn and on Facebook. And check out his website, Viking Word.

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