26 Feb 2017
8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“You cannot serve both God and mammon.” But this isn’t a commandment Jesus gives us; he’s not saying “You will not serve both God and mammon.” He’s saying, “You are unable—it’s not possible—to serve both God and mammon.”
Imagine walking along a path and you come to a fork in the road. Now, you can straddle both paths for just a little bit, but pretty soon you’re going to have to choose one or the other. If you want to keep moving forward, you have to pick one or the other. “You cannot serve both God and mammon;” it’s not possible. And if we try, we just end up dividing ourselves—in mind and spirit.
And this is something we experience when we really want to follow God but, at the same time, we want keep enjoying what we enjoy, even if it isn’t exactly what God has in mind for us. And there’s a whole laundry list of things we could talk about: gossip, self-pity, addictions, gluttony, pride (and a lot more). We know we shouldn’t do those things, or go down those paths; we know that they go against our Christian values of: charity, neighborliness, self-control, humility, and so on. But we still keep at least a toe on those paths, don’t we.
And so, we can end up like Saint Paul who says, “I can will [and desire] what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” [Rom 7:19]. Paul could be a very divided man within himself. And so can we, if we try to serve both God and mammon.
In the Mass, right after the Our Father, we pray that “we might be safe from all distress.” And it’s the same prayer Jesus has for us in the gospel. He says, in so many words, “Don’t worry about anything; don’t get anxious about this or that. Don’t be overcome by distress.” The word St. Matthew uses here for worry and anxiety is μεριμνᾶτε (merimnátay). It’s an ancient Greek word that means to be “divided into parts,” to be pulled apart.
And so, when we pray that “we might be safe from all distress,” we’re praying that we not be pulled apart . . . by trying to serve both God and mammon. We’re praying that God keep us focused on the heart of the matter; that he keep us focused on who we are and what we’re about as Catholic Christians. We’re praying that God keep us from getting distracted.
And we know that we humans can get distracted. This seems to be what the little reading from Isaiah gets at. God asks, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” And what we’re supposed to say is “Yes.” It happens sometimes; just listen to the news. But Isaiah continues, “Even should she forget, I [God] will never forget you.” We humans get distracted from what’s important and true and good, but God is never distracted.
God is very single-minded in his love of all creation, of which we are a part. Even when we start to worry about this or that, and we turn from God to find reassurance and life in other things—even while we’re doing that, God is still looking at us; God is still focused on what and whom he loves. He just wishes that we would stay focused on him in the same way, and be at peace within ourselves.
We heard it so beautifully in the psalm: “Only in God is my soul at rest; from him comes my salvation. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all.” That’s the voice of someone who doesn’t try to straddle both paths in a fork in the road, but who goes down the one path of simply trusting God. That person, who is not distracted, is not worried about the ups and downs of life, or what tomorrow holds. That person is at peace within him- or herself—and is also the most alive and free.
And that’s the direction we want to go; we want to go down that path of being “not distracted,” but focused on the heart of the matter. Now, ironically, in the church we worry about a lot of things. We worry about death, and life, and the future, and the sins of our past. We get anxious about: money, budgets, worship, politics, fewer and fewer priests, and so on. We worry a lot. But all that worry and anxiety and distress only distracts us from what’s important; namely, God.
Prayer is at the heart of our Christian life, not a revenue and expense report. Love of neighbor is at the heart of our Christian life, not “who said what to whom, and what side of an issue they’re on.” God’s plans are at the heart of our Christian life, and not my own.
You know, when we compare our own church (here in the US) to so many megachurches that are all over the place, a major difference is that at the heart of the megachurch is the desire to encounter God; whereas at the heart of our church life, too often there’s just an ongoing argument over church politics or finances, or whatever. God is in the heart of our church, for sure, but so is a lot of other stuff that shouldn’t be there. We worry a lot. We worry too much. And all that anxiety and distress doesn’t leave much room for God.
Jesus was right when he said, “You cannot serve both God and mammon—you cannot give all your attention to God and all your attention to other things at the same time.” We have to choose. And it’s a choice we make every day, even every hour of the day. It’s a choice to let God be the foundation, and the highpoint, and the peace within our life. But it’s always a choice—to go down the path of worry and anxiety and distress, or the path of simply trusting God and being at peace and free.
You cannot serve both God and mammon. Regardless of the choice we make today, we can always make a better one tomorrow. No need to worry about that.