Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” was all about the “Kingdom of God” and what it takes to be a committed citizen of that kingdom – in other words a disciple. Nowadays we have the peculiar modern anomaly of dual citizenship. For most of history, however, people instinctively understood citizenship as one’s highest earthly loyalty, something which by definition precludes dual allegiance. Likewise, when it comes to citizenship in the kingdom of God, Jesus is equally exclusivist: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other” [Matthew 6:24]. No surprise there! Nor should we be surprised when Jesus singles out material wealth as the great alternative that can most effectively undermine our commitment to God. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus asserted, without qualification or nuance.
Now obviously Jesus understood that we all need material things – just to live, let alone to live well. Jesus lived in a world of scarce resources. In pre-capitalist societies, most people are poor and have to focus most of their energies on just making a living. Jesus himself depended on the generosity of others. Luke’s Gospel specifically mentions a number of wealthy women who provided for him and his disciples out of their resources [Luke 8:3]. And any number of Jesus’ parables praise hard-working people, whose industriousness Jesus proposes as a model for his disciples to adopt in their religious life as well.
At the same time, we all know well how corrupting wealth – particularly the preoccupation with wealth - can be, both personally and socially. The class tensions that increasingly seem to be tearing at the fragile fabric of our own American society certainly serve to remind us of that. Nor is there anything new or novel about that. As Adam Smith observed back in the 18th century: “This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition … is … the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
Jesus’ words of warning were not addressed abstractly or theoretically. They were addressed to individuals directly and personally.
But notice: Jesus didn’t tell his disciples not to work, not to be personally productive, economically and otherwise. What he said was “do not worry.”
We all know what worrying can do to a person, how it can completely capture and immobilize a person. In extreme form, worry becomes obsessive, a compulsive disorder that practically paralyzes a person, totally distorting one’s perspective, the proper perspective that comes from being able to set proper priorities in one’s life and keep one’s priorities in order. (A peculiarly religious variation of this is what we call scrupulosity, an obsessive worry that everything one does is a sin, a total distortion of what our relationship with God is supposed to be about, leaving one feeling as forsaken as Zion in today’s first reading [Isaiah 49:14]).
Jesus challenges us to focus on what is important – to keep our concerns about material things in some sort of perspective. We do this all the time – or at least try to, if we are reasonably sane and focused – in our ordinary, day-to-day decisions – distinguishing what we can and cannot control, what’s of real importance from what is a sideshow, what’s of long-term value from what is short-term. Jesus wants us to do the same with what is most important – to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
“The miser,” Isaac Hecker wrote in 1843, “is an outward example of what the Christian should cheerfully do from the spirit of God living within. What does not the miser do for his God Mammon? … Do for the establishment of Christ’s kingdom upon Earth what he does for money.”
Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN,
February 27, 2011.