These past few Sundays prior to Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which is all about the “kingdom of God” and what it takes to be a committed citizen of that kingdom. Citizenship has always been a somewhat exclusive concept. And, when it comes to citizenship in the kingdom of God, Jesus is quite exclusive indeed: “No one can serve two masters.” Nor should we be surprised when Jesus singles out material wealth as the alternative attraction that can undermine our commitment to God’s kingdom. “You cannot serve God and mammon,” Jesus asserted, without much qualification or nuance [Matthew 6:24-34].
Now obviously Jesus understood that we all need material things – just to live, let alone to live well. In Jesus’ society, as in most societies for most of history, most people were poor and most of their energy was devoted to just making a living. And Jesus and his disciples themselves depended on the generosity of others.
At the same time, we all know how corrupting wealth – particularly the preoccupation with wealth - can be. In our own country, in our own time, we can observe firsthand how the increasing redistribution of wealth in an upward direction and the growing divide between the rich and powerful, on the one hand, and everyone else, on the other, seems to be tearing apart the fragile fabric of our civil society.
Of course, this problem has been with us for a long time. Ancient philosophers warned against material excess that went beyond their understanding of the nature of the human person, and they gave moral priority to directing resources to the common good rather than to individual enrichment. The Jewish Law revealed in the Old Testament attempted to prevent the accumulation of wealth and associated such accumulation with disobedience of God’s command to identify with the poor. In a 4th-century homily, appropriately entitled On Avarice, Saint Basil the Great confronted his hearers with these words: The bread that you possess belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you store in boxes belong to the naked. The shoes rotting by you belong to the bare-foot. The money that you hide belongs to anyone in need.
Basil’s challenging words – and Jesus’ own original words of warning – were not abstract or theoretical. They were – and are – addressed to all of us who aspire to be disciples, addressed directly and personally to all who would be citizens of the kingdom of God.
At the dawn of the modern economic era, Adam Smith famously warned that the widespread 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.
We have heard similar language from Pope Francis, who early in his pontificate warned against a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. …The culture of prosperity deadens us. [EG 54].
Lent, which begins this Wednesday, has traditionally been a time to refocus on what matters most by re-calibrating our attitude toward so many of the things that deaden us, things that, if we are not careful, can quickly come to dominate and define us. Just to recall the three familiar Lenten practices, traditionally proposed and emphasized by the Church – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – already says so much about what Lent is all about.
Lent challenges us to focus on what is important – in contrast to our common preoccupation with wealth and other such short-term sideshows. With Jesus, Lent challenges us to refocus on what is in fact most important – to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 26, 2017.