Located most prominently in the Gospel of Matthew, this is perhaps one of Jesus’s most famous sayings. I am skeptical of many verses in the Gospel of Matthew, but consider the basic message contained in this expression to be vital. Many analyses and interpretations of this verse can be found in books and online, ranging from every possible perspective including straightforward discussion to detailed linguistic/etymological deconstructions.
Hence, my goal here will not be to provide a detailed and comprehensive overview of this verse, but rather to set down a few simple ideas presenting my own personal intuitive understanding of what serving two masters implies. None of what I offer in the following should be considered definitive in any sense of the world. These are my intuitions based on my own personal experiences and should be taken as such.
To me, two masters comes down to a matter of thinking. The verse challenges the limits of imagination. For example, serving a master implies anything but freedom and agency, yet serving the proper master is the epitome of freedom and agency itself.
To begin with, it is worth noting that this gospel verse has become a common idiom. As such, it has been mixed in with other vernacular idioms used in common speech. As a result, the sanctity of the original verse has been either severely distorted or entirely removed. Though likely ignorant of or indifferent to its source, most modern atheistic/materialistic people do use the phrase and can dimly acknowledge the wisdom contained in the warning against simultaneously serving two masters. However, when God is removed from the expression, the idiom is reduced to the mere level of divided loyalties, conflicting pursuits, and contradictory responsibilities.
Serving two masters means something entirely different to atheists/materialists. For positivistic, materialistic, reductionist types, the division between two masters never amounts to conflicting loyalties between God and mammon, but manifest more as a conflict between mammon and mammon or one of its various guises such as hedonism and mammon or sloth and mammon. As a result, what the non-religious perceive as a conflict between two masters is really more of an internal conflict between two aspects of the same single master – materialism. To their credit, people who serve mammon have at least made a decision, and they are unlikely to experience the same sorts of torments as those who attempt to serve both God and mammon simultaneously.
Christians, on the other hand, should be able to draw a clear distinction between the two masters Jesus mentions and also sense and understand why only one can truly exist as a master. At the most elementary level, I see this distinction as the difference between the spiritual and the material; and the metaphysical and the physical; as well the difference between subject and object; freedom and slavery.
Human beings are hybrid blends of the spiritual and the material. As such, we have metaphysical as well as physical needs. Voluntarily choosing to serve spiritual needs above material needs is not a matter of blindly nullifying, denying, or obstructing physical needs, but rather a matter of aligning our physical needs with our metaphysical needs by giving the spiritual precedence over the material. In this sense, the spiritual guides and controls the physical.
Ranking the spiritual over the material does not imply the material is unimportant, trivial, or unnecessary. Nor does it mean the material is inherently evil, mundane, or profane. Serving the spiritual rather than the material does not negate the material of its significance and necessity in this life.
Instead, serving the spiritual provides the proper framework through which one engages with and interacts with the material world by rendering the material to the position of something that serves the individual and God in this life rather than something the individual and God must serve in this life.
In this life is crucial here because our lives in this world mark the boundaries of the material world, whereas our lives outside this world know no such boundaries. The old saying, "You can't take it with you" takes on a significant level of profundity here because it reveals where your real focus should lie.
As I mentioned earlier, most modern people focus exclusively on physical needs because they are utterly oblivious to, willfully ignorant of, or purposefully opposed to their inherent metaphysical needs. Whatever the reason, mammon is the only master most modern people serve.
Modern Christians are sometimes no better than their secular/materialist counterparts. Many modern Christians claim to serve God, but in practice serve mammon. This stems from a lack of purpose or errant motivations, but I also feel many Christians consciously attempt to serve both mammon and God. I believe this happens because they misinterpret the wisdom Jesus reveals in the two masters saying and comprehend God in the same manner in which they comprehend mammon – as an external object.
Seen this way, God becomes a remote and ruthless ruler existing only to punish sin and prevent pleasure. Serving such a God becomes untenable and is tantamount to slavery. When confronted by such a God, it is little wonder Christians attempt to serve mammon as well.
Conversely, some Christians believe the two masters verse reveals the material world to be evil/fallen. If the material world is fallen/evil, then a Christian must shun and detest the material world by embracing God through some extreme form of asceticism. I am not averse to the notion of asceticism and believe it can be a valuable tool in spiritual growth, but I do not think the ultimate goal of Christianity is universal worldly asceticism. If our true purpose in this world amounted to nothing more denying or hating the world, we would not have come into the world at all.
The way I see it, our purpose in this world should provide the foundation for the wisdom contained in the two masters verse. True spiritual purpose emanates only from the Divine Self. The Divine Self is God within. Serving God does not entail perpetually bowing before altars and perpetual penance. Serving God entails serving your Divine Self. It is a matter of immanence as much as it is a matter of transcendence. Serving your Divine Self implies working with and being useful for in order to achieve, participate, and create.
Serving your Divine Self amounts to aligning yourself to God’s will in an effort to allow your purpose to manifest in the world. Seen in this light, God and the Divine Self exist in the realm of subjects (Beings) while mammon exists only in the realm of objects (things).
When you serve God, you create a situation where objects exist to serve subjects. For example, you use your physical body (this is not mammon in the strict sense of the word, but I interpret mammon to mean the material) to serve your Divine Self – to help it learn and experience, achieve its purpose, and, enter into a collaborative creative state with God. I would classify this as positive motivation.
When you serve mammon, you create a situation where subjects exist to serve objects. For example, you use your physical body solely to acquire money or seek pleasure without giving any thought to or willfully ignoring the purpose of your Divine Self. The Divine Self is obstructed, its purpose distorted, and collaborative creation with God becomes increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. I would classify this as negative motivation.
The same principle applies to money – literal mammon. If you serve God, you use money to serve your Divine Self and its true purpose. If you serve mammon, you use money to serve only your material self and distorted purpose. If you attempt to serve both God and mammon, you will create confusion and discord as subject and object compete and clash for dominance.
The principle of gain can also be applied here.
When you serve mammon, you rank material gains over spiritual ones and sacrifice the spiritual in favor of the material. The subject becomes enslaved to the object. Slavery ensues.
When you serve God, you use mammon to achieve spiritual gains. Depending on your purpose and circumstances, this may involve accumulating or sacrificing mammon. Either way, it never involves ranking material gains over spiritual ones. The object serves the subject. Freedom is maintained.
When you attempt to reconcile God and mammon by making them both masters, you create conditions for spiritual confusion and torment by laying the foundations for alienation and loathing. The Divine Self's impulse toward freedom is impeded by the dull force of object slavery. Those who attempt to serve two masters become acutely aware of the freedom they have surrendered and the slavery they must endure. To survive, they learn to hold to one and despise the other. It is a hellish state.
Unlike Jesus, who served God unfailingly throughout his entire life, we are flawed beings. As such, it is nearly impossible for us to be perfectly aligned with God (the Divine Self) all the time. We will make mistakes and attempt to serve two masters, or perhaps even abandon God to serve mammon exclusively from time to time. During these transgressions, it is our duty to repent, remember our true purpose, reset our motivations, and return to serving the one and only true master.
This is easier said than done, but done it must be. Through repentance, we can recover from these dips and plunges, learn what we need to learn from experience, and resume an upward trajectory.