The most common item of mail that the parish office receives is junk mail from vendors and service providers. The second most common is religious junk mail. A piece of religious junk mail caught my attention this past week. It was an advertisement for a seminar for priests. It caught my attention because it was addressed to priests who are dissatisfied with the current state of American culture.
I can understand how someone, priest or otherwise, could be dissatisfied with American culture. Our culture embraces quite a lot of conflicting values. We Americans are equally attracted to spirituality and to selfishness. We are fascinated with foreign countries, but distrustful of foreign people. We want the best of everything, but we don’t want to pay for it. Organized religion, when given any consideration at all, is viewed with suspicion, and national politics is more a cause of division than of national unity.
Today’s Gospel reading appears to indicate that disaffection with the world is equivalent to serving God. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.”(*) (Matthew 6:24) There is certainly precedent in Christian history for an attitude of dualism (valuing spiritual things while denigrating the material world). I remain unconvinced, however, that such an attitude is faithful to Jesus’ teaching.
It is a widely accepted notion that in order to lead a life of faith one must judge harshly, and reject, the values of secular society. This seemed to be the premise of the seminar advertised in the piece of religious junk mail I received. However, this premise makes no more sense than its secular counterpart that in order to live a full life in this world one must judge harshly, and reject, the values of organized religion (or government or any other social institution). These two extreme positions are, in fact, identical choices: both are a validation of self and personal opinion, and a rejection of other people.
Jesus was stating a simple and obvious truth when he said, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon (created things).” (Matthew 6:24) There is room in our lives for only one object of highest devotion; other objects of devotion must take a lower place of priority: one can serve either God or some created thing. This does not constitute harsh judgment on, or rejection of, the created world. It is merely common sense: our concerns have value in relation to one another, and only one concern can have the highest value.
Not only is it unnecessary to reject contemporary society as irredeemable, it is an act of faithlessness. Our knowledge of God is mediated through created things. The Sacraments are perhaps the clearest examples of this, but they are not the only examples. In the Eucharist, created things convey the presence of the Crucified Lord. The bread and wine we offer at Mass remain unchanged physically but are essentially transformed into an encounter with the Crucified and Risen Jesus. Our Eucharistic encounter with the Lord takes place because of our faith, but it relies on the physical elements of shared bread and wine. All of our knowledge of God occurs in precisely this way. Our faith is fed through encounters with God that take place in this created universe; the apophatic statement of this fact is equally true: no knowledge of God comes to us in the absence of knowledge of the world.
To reject our contemporary society is to reject the possibility of encountering God. In a like manner, deep dissatisfaction with the created world limits severely our capacity to perceive God’s presence. What are we to do, then, about the elements of our culture that are obstacles to faith? How are we to respond to the effects of sin in the world? Jesus said to seek God’s Reign as our highest commitment, and everything else will fall into its proper place. (Matthew 6:33)
The sad truth about human nature is that we spend a great deal of time and energy running away from the reality of our own existence. Religious zealots who reject the world as hopelessly sinful are running away from the weaker aspects of their own nature. Shallow materialists who reject religion as too esoteric are running away from the voice of their soul that calls out for inner transformation. The Gospel doesn’t invite us to find a balance between competing impulses in our lives. Rather, the Gospel reveals the natural structure of human life. No created thing can satisfy our need for ultimate value; only a life in service to God and neighbor can fulfill all our heart’s desires.
Is it really possible to follow this Gospel teaching? Is it really possible to value God’s will as our ultimate concern and, at the same time, value created things in appropriate ways? The Catholic Faith shows us how to do so. All created things function in a sacramental way. The life of Jesus, our lives, the lives of the people around us and all of creation are mediations that convey God’s presence to us. It is possible to encounter God in anyone and anything, as long as we see them sacramentally – as created signs that point to the eternal. Anything less than this is a denigration of God and of God’s creation.
If we view the universe and our society as a jumbled chaos of competing priorities, we see only ephemeral truth. If we see all of creation as a sacrament of God’s presence, we see eternal truth. To love created things conditionally, and to love God unconditionally, is both the fulfillment of our nature and the guarantee of peace of mind. Jesus said, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be given you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
A note on the Scriptures:
There is disagreement among scholars as to the origin and meaning of the word “mammon.” Some think that the word is a variant of the Hebrew word meaning “treasure.” Others say that it is a derivative of the Hebrew word meaning “faithfulness.” Both etymologies lead to the same interpretation of Jesus’ saying. The saying can be translated as either “You cannot serve both God and stored-up wealth” or “you cannot serve God and another object of trust.” The first translation contrasts the value of faith in God with the value of faith in material possessions. The second translation contrasts faith in God with idolatry. In both cases the saying presents a juxtaposition between the eternal and the temporal.
I favor the second translation based on the similarities between the word “mammon” and the Hebrew word “amunah,” “faithfulness” (the origin of the word “Amen”). The rejection of idolatry is a central aspect of Hebrew religion and a central concern of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus judged the most insidious form of idolatry to be idolatry performed under the guise of authentic religion. (Matthew 15:1-20) Here, he may be warning against the idolatry of wealth that leads to failing to give God the worship that one owes to God, and failing to give to neighbor the mercy that one owes to neighbor.
This saying is one of many collated together in the Sermon of the Mount. In that context, and in the wider context of Jesus’ ministry, it is another iteration of instruction to his disciples about the necessity of being single-hearted in devotion to the One, True God. (Matthew 19:21)