Imagine two different slave-owners with equal possession over the same slave. They make competing demands upon the slave’s time and service. The slave cannot loyally serve both simultaneously. Yeshua said, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one, and love the other, or else he will hold to one, and despise the other” (Luke 16:13).
In the Hebrew idiom of the Master’s teaching, contrast of love and hate indicates an order of preference—not complete antithesis. In other words, the slave will by way of necessity prefer one master over the other. The slave with divided loyalties cannot serve both masters simultaneously, so he must choose one over the other, even if he truly wishes he could serve both. His preference for one master will eventually evolve into disdain for the other.
A slave with two different owners would be an impossible absurdity. An apocryphal version of the same saying adds two more hypothetical absurdities which may also have originated as additional illustrations in the teaching of the Master:
A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other. (Gospel of Thomas 47)
Who are the two masters in the metaphor? Yeshua explained, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24). Mamon (ממון) is an Aramaic loan word used in rabbinic Hebrew for money, wealth, and possessions. It has the broader connotation of materialism.
Yeshua instructed His disciples to be generous and charitable. He told them to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth, and He encouraged them to possess a good eye rather than a bad eye. He told them, “You cannot love both God and mammon.”
He continued by warning them about preoccupation with their own mundane needs (i.e., food, shelter, clothing). A man preoccupied with acquiring the basics of life divides his time between the service of God and the service of money. He serves two masters, and He is unable to give generously and freely. He is unable to serve God with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his strength because he is driven by his anxieties. He worries from morning to evening and from evening to morning about his needs.
For this reason I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Luke 12:21-22).
Yeshua instructed His disciple to set aside their anxieties about life’s necessities. He told them not to worry over materialism: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span?” (Matthew 6:27). Instead, the disciples of the Master were to confidently rely upon God’s provision.