Reflections on the readings for Sunday, March 2 (Isaiah 49:14-15; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34)
By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
The Gospel message for this Sunday seems to put us preachers in a difficult situation.
Living in a capitalistic, money driven society as we do; absorbing the message of Hollywood’s movie Wall Street from a few years back where it was proclaimed that “Greed is good;” encouraged to envy ‘Wall Street elite’ who earn astronomical salaries for producing wealth and not a cure for cancer, Alzheimer disease, or a useful object; watching TV shows that feature the lives of those who live a ‘champagne and caviar’ lifestyle; it would seem unwise for a preacher to attack the system we all live under or the heroes and champions that are held up for us to emulate and imitate.
Then, on the other hand, not to take seriously what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel; nor to try to understand what Jesus is really teaching us; nor to challenge the conventional wisdom of present day attitudes towards mammon, wealth, and money that are floating around out there today; is to do an injustice to Jesus and what he really is attempting to say and teach in today’s Gospel. Unfortunately, as a preacher I must answer to a ‘higher authority’ just like the Hebrew National Sausage Company must. So, who can help us unlock the message of Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel?
Well I think I have found this somebody. This somebody is President Ronald Reagan’s European sweetheart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One day she made this comment: “It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.” Hum! Is this British wisdom, I ask?
Jesus, as we all know, was a working man; a non-unionized tradesman, a carpenter. At the same time he was a pious Jew who knew his Torah. Jesus was familiar with its first book, the book of Genesis (3: 17-
19, 23) and was aware of what was written there:
Cursed be the ground because of you!
In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life.
Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you,
As you eat of the plants of the field,
By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat…
The Lord God therefore banished him from the Garden of Eden,
To till the ground from which he had been taken.
Work, labor, toil, and the daily grind: as Jesus well knew, they were and always would be the means by which a living was made. They were the means by which life was sustained and wealth created and accumulated. Jesus was not insensitive to the basic needs of people. Jesus was aware of what the Book of Sirach (29:21) said:
Life’s prime needs are water, bread, and clothing,
A house, too, for decent privacy.
Jesus accepted the simple reality that work kept people in his day and age alive and the family intact. Living in a subsistence culture as he did where what you made, grew, fished, or weaved was what you survived on was a world so different from our modern, abundant, industrial, high carbon use, consumerist, capitalistic driven world.
When Jesus taught his followers to pray, and gave them the words “give us this day our daily bread’’ these words best expressed what most people could hope for. Daily survival was an everyday issue. Life was hard and harsh for Jesus and his people, as it was for all the ancients. They worked to survive each day in the hope that tomorrow they would also keep body and soul together.
We are mistaken if we think that Jesus is giving us a ‘spiritual criticism’ on the present economic system we now live under. There is no way that Jesus could ever have imagined an industrialized, money driven, consumer society like ours. Also, Jesus is not pitting the one-per-centers against the 99-per-centers as is happening in the political-economic debates of our times.
Needless to say, these debates that we are having now are important and we have to take them seriously in these trying economic times and deal with the unjust economic issues that are festering around us. A world where only some 65 individuals have control of the same amount of wealth that something like three billion people have control over cannot be a just and content world.
No! Jesus is calling our attention to two Greek words in today’s Gospel that we need to focus on. One of the words whose English translation is not all that precise. The two words are servant (doulos) and master (kurios).
Rather than “servant” the translation of the Greek word doulos should be “slave.” Indeed, it’s an ugly word that 600,000 Americans died for to end. Yet, in Jesus’ world slavery was alive and well and was an accepted reality in the ancient world.
A slave was not considered a person but a possession, a living tool with no rights. A slave had no private time and was at the beck and call of the master. I invite you to see the recent movie Twelve Years as a Slave. This movie will show you what the reality of a slave was like during Jesus’ times. The master possessed him, could beat him, expel him and even kill him. Every moment of his or her existence was at the service of the master.
The reality and the spiritual teaching that Jesus is leading his listeners to, as well as us today, is the fact that every master makes its slaves.
Fr. John Shea, a popular Catholic theologian and author writes this about the dual relationship between master and slave: “What dominates our consciousness and dictates our actions is what we ultimately value and is that with which we identify ourselves. It masters us. We attend to it so completely that when other concerns seek our attention, we push them away.” In other words, if we seek money, mammon, or wealth as the base of our security we do not have time or interest in the security that God provides.
Most Catholics would find it strange if I told them we own nothing. We don’t even own all the money in our bank accounts, the houses we live in, the clothes on our backs, the food on our tables, nor the cars in our garages. Why can I say this? For the simple reason that everything belong to God. The Psalms make this quite clear to anyone who reads and prays them. As Psalm 24: 1 reminds us:
The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds,
The world and those who live there. (see: Pss 50:12;89:12).
So the question is; why would we serve, or become a slave to, that which we only have temporary use of and can never give us eternal life? All this recent political gibberish that we have heard about being ‘self-made’ and ‘this is mine and no one has any claim on it’ is just that, gibberish. No matter what comes our way through hard work, good education, inheritance is in our possession only temporarily: from the surplus money stashed away in the Cayman Islands to the lint and coins in my jeans pocket. One day I will surrender it all and answer to God for how I used what God temporarily entrusted to me.
St. Cyprian (300 A.D.), an early Father of the Church, told his congregation: “The property of the wealthy holds them in chains…which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but it slaves.”
In the end Jesus is not telling us in today’s Gospel that money is evil. Neither is Jesus criticizing capitalism or the present financial system we live under. Our system is what it is, for good or for bad. That is just the way our world operates today and we need to fix what needs to be fixed.
In the end, money, mammon, and wealth are only tools we need to use in order to live, supply our daily bread, secure as best we can our uncertain futures and hopefully live a decent life and aid those who are in need. As Henrik Ibsen wrote:
Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintance, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness, days of joy, but not peace and happiness.
Jesus is not talking about what is in your and my billfold or what we have squirreled away in some IRA. Jesus is talking about our attitude of heart, how we look upon wealth and everything that has come our way by luck and even hard work. Mammon might be what we need to survive in this life but in the end I agree with what Winston Churchill once said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Let us give our all to God who is our Lord and Master. If it’s slavery you seek, become a slave to Him who said:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Mt.12: 28)