Green Room

Sunday reflection: Matthew 6:24–34

posted at 10:01 am on March 2, 2014 by

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular Green Room feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. For previous entries, click here.

Today’s gospel reading is Matthew 6:24–34:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“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 God and mammon.

“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? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

Yesterday, my wife mutinied over the never-ending loads of laundry we do in this house. Especially during the winter, when we layer up for the cold, we seem to fill the laundry basket more often for two people in a house than an entire family might in a week. But the mutiny was about more than just the amount of laundry — she also gets tired of trying to fight for space to put the clean laundry away. My closet rack is so full that it’s almost impossible at times to get more shirts hung up on it. It’s not that I buy a lot of clothes, but that I refuse to get rid of old shirts and pants, even when they might help others.

I read this passage yesterday after surrendering a bit and moving some older clothes to the basement, either for donation or discarding (some of them I’d only allow myself to wear). Why do I keep old stained shirts that shouldn’t be seen in polite company, or even around the house? Why do I keep t-shirts so long that the sleeves nearly fall off? Why, as Jesus puts it here, am I so concerned about clothes that I hoard them beyond all need?

It could be that I’m just too lazy to clean a closet, and my wife will probably endorse that diagnosis. On the other hand, it could be the impulse to hoard — to worry so much about the future that we surround ourselves with material goods in order to stop worrying about it. People do this with food, clothing, money, and jewelry, buying and storing far more than they need or could use in a month or more.

In short, we don’t put our trust in God, but in mammon – the material wealth that we think brings security. And we do that because, far too often, we become so distracted with the future that we neglect the present.

The Old Testament reading today from Isaiah 49:14-15 reassures us of God’s love. “Can a mother forget her infant,” the prophet asks, “be without tenderness for the child of her womb?” But “even should she forget,” Isaiah tells Israel, God “will never forget you.” And yet we do not put our trust in that love.

Does this mean we should only have one change of clothes and bare cupboards in our homes? Of course not. There is nothing wrong with having enough clothing and a store of food for our families. The problems begin when we begin to fret over not having so much that we don’t need to fret — of looking in a full closet and saying, “I haven’t got a thing to wear,” because we’re worried about what people might think about what we do have. Or of looking in a full fridge and complaining that there’s nothing to eat. As my example shows, that anxiety over the future and the need to fill closets full of clothing to serve one person eventually creates its own problems. We run out of space to store all of our possessions, and then what? We look to acquire more space rather than reduce our own anxieties and rely on God, and then to fill that space with more material possessions, and so on.

“Tomorrow will take care of itself,” Jesus says, and perhaps that’s even more counter-intuitive now than it was in the disciples’ day. We spend our whole lives looking far beyond the present — can I get into the right school? Will this job move me up into a higher social circle? Living “in the now” has a vaguely counter-cultural ring to it these days, and it might have at that time, too. Yet it is absolutely necessary in order to let go of those anxieties, turn our trust and love to God, and extend our hands to our less-fortunate neighbors. It’s the only way to put material possessions in their proper perspective as tools for us to live our lives, rather than traps and idols we end up serving instead of God.

The adage “You cannot serve God and mammon” is usually interpreted as a warning against excessive avarice, but notice that Jesus doesn’t address greed or the wealthy once in this teaching. This is a trap into which all can fall, and usually do. Jesus exhorts his disciples to avoid anxiety rather than greed, which itself isn’t a sin but leads to sinfulness in the manner Jesus describes. At some point, the focus on the potential evils of the future drives us to hoard and jealously guard material goods. We become less concerned about loving and trusting God, and the acquisition and retention of material goods displaces God at the center of our hearts — the heart being the intersection of the will and the intellect, the place of decision-making. As that happens, we become more and more sinful, turning our backs on our neighbors and placing ourselves above God.

Once again, we have here a message of formation of the heart rather than an emphasis on adherence to the letter of the law, as Jesus does throughout the Beatitudes. By removing anxiety about the future, Jesus teaches, we will form our hearts in gladness and joy of God’s love — and the law will be written ever more strongly in our hearts. It’s a call to simplicity, and a great lesson as the season of Lent approaches.

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Comment pages: 1 2

HonestLib on March 3, 2014 at 5:51 PM

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Yes. Many who have taken a vow of poverty have allowed pride in that to rise up inside them.

davidk on March 3, 2014 at 6:17 PM

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I am NOT proud of my poverty … I’m just “holier than thou”, and know it.

listens2glenn on March 3, 2014 at 11:50 PM

By removing anxiety about the future, Jesus teaches, we will form our hearts in gladness and joy of God’s love — and the law will be written ever more strongly in our hearts.

It’s important to realize that we’re talking about fear.

We’ve started here:

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 God and mammon.

–and it would be reasonable to think the conversation will be about greed, a lust for material things. The context seems to support that guess, though a couple of things Jesus is saying seem enigmatic or out of place when presupposing the conversation is about greed. From Matthew 6, quoting the NIV:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

But what follows our beginning is not so much admonishment about over-valuing nearly worthless dirt — not so much admonishment about selfishness and related things — as it is encouragement that God will provide everything a person needs. The body of the passage, with fear emphasized:

“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? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

The Bible teaches, again and again, that two incompatible ways of life are in play, one being, perhaps, “the world,” and the other “The Kingdom of God.” The people who are living within the Kingdom of God look to God for provision, and receive it — according to the Bible. The people living within the world look to themselves or to other people. And the people of God are aspiring to enter into or remain within the Kingdom.

The conversation, again and again, is something like this:

Us: “What do I have to do to be free from this fear, to walk in peace of mind and not worry about what the world’s doing? In short, what do I have to do to be finally free from the world?”

Him: “Believe me.”

A person cannot worship both money and God; yet the worship of money might not be a matter of selfishness or pleasure seeking. Not for most, or not for many — not for the people Jesus was talking to. For them, spending a life on the accumulation of wealth might be a matter of fear. And also a snare — since they are trying to live according to a different code, one where perfect love has cast out fear, one where they believe God completely and laugh at doubt. They aspire to the Kingdom, which requires faith, believing God; and the fear they are feeling is indicative of still walking around “the world.”

Does this work? “You cannot walk in both faith and fear.”

Not sure.

But the passage, even in context, stops being so enigmatic, stops seeming to be about two different things — admonishment not to be greedy or selfish on the one hand, encouragement that God provides on the other — when it’s seen as a choice of paths, the wrong one of which is marked by a feeling of helplessness and fear. Even the opening, which seemed to be pretty clearly about greed, reads a little differently:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

–And this might start to make sense, seem less out of place:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

And now we’re back home.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

*passes hat*

–But I didn’t type any of this because I’m still on vaycay. And if I’m completely wrong, break it to me easy. I’m fragile.

Axe on March 4, 2014 at 5:35 AM

–But I didn’t type any of this because I’m still on vaycay. And if I’m completely wrong, break it to me easy. I’m fragile.

Axe on March 4, 2014 at 5:35 AM

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Plagiarist ! . . . . . You are sooo judged . . .

listens2glenn on March 5, 2014 at 12:00 AM

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