There was a period of time while I was the Catholic campus minister at USF that it was trendy for students to be seen wearing pajamas in public. The trend seems to have faded away. For a while, however, it was common for students to go to meals, and even attend class, in their pajamas. I’m sure that everyone who saw them hoped that it wasn’t the same pajamas they had worn to bed the night before; to me, that hope provided little consolation.
Pajamas are designed to be worn in places, and at times, where they can’t be seen by people who aren’t related to you. I have always believed that one should be well dressed at all times. After all, God sees you wherever you are. The State of Florida will levy a fine against you for not wearing a seat belt. I would support similar fines for dressing inappropriately or wearing too much cologne. This Sunday’s Gospel might sound as if it conflicts with my expectations of appropriate dress, but I think it actually supports my sense of propriety.
Matthew’s Gospel begins to draw the Sermon on the Mount to a close with a few sayings from Jesus about material possessions. Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25) Jesus was speaking to a crowd of people who lived in a subsistence economy. At the time, the vast majority of the population of Judea were laborers who worked from sunrise to sunset, and earned only enough money to feed their families for the day.
There was no possibility for most people to acquire wealth. The best that could be hoped for was survival. Jesus told them not to worry about the necessities of survival from one day to the next. We can rule out callousness or ignorance as Jesus’ motivation. He was from Nazareth in Galilee, a very small town in a very poor region. Jesus would have grown up in the same economic situation as his audience: merely surviving one day to the next. That leaves us with two possibilities: either Jesus lived in complete denial about the hardships that the majority of people faced, or he was talking about more than was apparent.
I think we can discount the possibility of denial. Jesus seemed to be acutely aware of the disadvantages of being poor. His conflicts with the Jerusalem Pharisees were solely the result of the socio-economic divisions among Jews at the time. The Jerusalem Pharisees had wealth and status. Jesus objected strongly to their sense of entitlement and the elitism they projected onto religious practice. That leaves us with one explanation for why Jesus told people who spent their lives on the verge of starvation that they shouldn’t worry about the necessities of life.
The Gospel introduces these sayings on materialistic concerns by saying, “No one can serve two Lords. He will either hate one and love the other, or be deeply attached to one and detest the other. You are not able to serve both God and material wealth.” (Matthew 6:24) The words “hate” and “love” are used here in the sense that they were used in ancient Judea. To “hate” meant to value something or someone less than another thing or person; to “love” meant to prefer something or someone over another.
Jesus did not intend the emotional content that we perceive in the words “love” and “hate.” Rather, he intended to compare two things of unequal value. He did not intend us to hate material things in the way that we might hate injustice or the idea of dentistry without anesthesia. He intended us to see the unequal value of temporal and eternal things. It would be neither rational nor faithful to hate God’s creation. It would be no less irrational or unfaithful to love creatures more than their Creator.
When Jesus told the crowd not to worry about tomorrow or what they would eat or what they would wear he was asking them to look beyond the surface of their lives. The superficial things in life have value, but it is a contingent value. Jesus said that we should neither ascribe too much nor too little value to created things. The finite value of created things lies mainly in their sacramental character; created goods are faint reflections of the ultimate Good of God who made them.
Jesus urged his disciples to look beyond the surface, the superficial, and toward the eternal. If we see only the material, we are blind to material’s sacramental nature. If we are concerned only with the temporal, we condemn ourselves to certain disappointment because the limited can never fulfill our desire for the infinite. This teaching from Jesus applies to the generalities of our daily lives; it also applies to the specifics of being a Catholic.
Lent begins later this week. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. The penance, prayer and almsgiving that we do during Lent are finite acts. They have limited value, but a sacramental character. They are not intended to focus our attention on ourselves, neither on our strength of will nor lack thereof. Rather, they are intended to make us look beyond ourselves, and toward God’s promise of salvation.
If we see the penance, prayer and almsgiving of Lent as a burden or empty obligation, we fail to see its sacramental character. If we make Lent a demonstration of our own virtue, we make ourselves blind to God’s presence and power. God sees us wherever we are, and makes it possible for us to have a continuous vision of God’s presence in our lives. What do you see? Is your religious practice focused on yourself? Do you see only the “stuff” and “things” around you? Or, do you see material things as sacramental signs that point to a Truth and Beauty and Goodness that is beyond us and, at the same time, accessible through the gifts God gives?