These last four Sundays before Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which was all about the “kingdom of God” and what it takes to be a committed citizen of that kingdom. When it comes to citizen ship in the kingdom of God, Jesus is quite exclusive: “No one can serve two masters.” No surprise there! 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.
Now obviously Jesus understood we all need material things – just to live, let alone to live well. In Jesus’ society, as in most societies for most of history, mot people were poor and most of their energy just went to making a living. Jesus and his disciples themselves depended on the generosity of others. And any number of Jesus’ parables praise hard-working people, whom Jesus proposes as a model for our religious life as well.
At the same time, we all know how corrupting wealth – particularly the preoccupation with wealth can be. The growing divide between the rich and everyone else, that is tearing apart the fragile fabric of our own society certainly illustrates this.
Of course, this problem and concern about it have been with us for a long time. In a 4th-century homily, appropriately entitled On Avarice, Saint Basil the Great challenged 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.
We hear similar language from Pope Francis, when he warns against a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Pope Francis continues: The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move 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, if we are not careful, can 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 – to put our preoccupation with wealth and other such things back in some perspective. We do this all the time – or at least try to, if we are reasonably sane and focused – in our ordinary activities, distinguishing what is of ultimate importance, what is of long-term value, from what is a short-term sideshow. Jesus wants us to do the same (and even more so) with what is 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, March 2, 2014.