Ye cannot serve God and Mammon (St. Matthew vi: 24)
Our Gospel lesson appointed for today comes to us from the Sermon on the Mount. And like all the lections of Trinity tide, it helps us to understand our sanctification or our habituation to virtue. Today’s lesson is hard to confront or face because it involves our relationship with two necessities of life, food and clothing. And our anxiety and worry over these essentials are not made any easier by Our Lord’s abrupt dismissal of their acquisition and retention. He appears far more concerned with the spiritual food and raiment that will nourish and clothe us in the life of the Spirit. He warns us: you cannot serve God and mammon. (St. Matthew vi. 24) Simply put: we are not to pursue simultaneously both God and earthly ends. And while He does not, to be sure, deny the importance of the one, He does insist that its provision will be assured by the pursuit of the other.
Perhaps we can better understand all of this if we recall the chief reason for Christ’s Incarnation. He has come into time and space to bring us back into union with our Heavenly Father. The weakness of the human condition is such that we fallen creatures tend to worship more than one god at any given time. We are spiritually schizophrenic. The frailty of man without [God] cannot but fall, we read in our Collect. And indeed it is precisely man’s habitual tendency, on the best of days, to fall into the competing demands of God and Mammon that Christ comes to challenge and overcome today. Christ comes first and foremost to feed and clothe us with God’s holiness and righteousness so that we might be saved. What He longs to procure for us is the means that ensure our spiritual health and salvation. As Romano Guardini puts it, From the abundance otherwise reserved for Heaven, Jesus brings Divine reality to earth. He is the stream of living water from the eternal source of the Father’s love to a thirsting world. From ‘above’ he establishes the new existence that is impossible to establish from below, existence which, seen only from the natural and earthly level, must seem subversive and incoherent. (The Lord, p. 82)Christ comes to reveal that what should matter most to man is his eternal destiny. That destiny cannot be obtained without the spiritual food and drink that make a man hale and hearty for salvation. But God’s spiritual food and drink are never force-fed on man. If a man desires to find God’s intended end and perfection for him, he must seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. (Col. iii. 1) So Christ longs to help us to understand that our priority must be to hunger and thirst for the means that lead to our salvation. He insists on bringing us back first to the origin and source of all true living and being, true knowing and seeing, true loving and willing. From the Father alone flows that water which quenches man’s true inner spiritual thirst. From the Father alone can be grown and harvested that desire and passion which long to eat and drink of spiritual manna coming down to us from above in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Four hundred years before the coming of Christ Aristotle taught his students that all men by nature desire to know (980 a21), and that man naturally seeks happiness. (1097b)Man sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches in order to move towards a knowledge that secures his earthly appetites. But sense perception and rational mastery of securing the means to their satisfaction do not placate or appease man entirely. They are made to satisfy and then to disappoint. Man is made to desire more. Beyond the satisfaction of the body is the desire of the soul to know and understand. Through knowledge a man comes to discover the transcendent Good of God. Then through will or desire he seeks to apply what he knows to his life. Aristotle quotes Hesiod when he writes:
Far best is he who knows all things himself;
Good, he that hearkens when men counsel right;
But he who neither knows, nor lays to heart
Another’s wisdom, is a useless wight. (1095 b10)
A wight is a living being. Christians believe that in God alone Another’s Wisdom is found that will satisfy man’s inward and spiritual hunger and thirst for knowledge and happiness. Christians believe that this Wisdom must be made flesh in Jesus Christ and offered to man as the only spiritual food capable of saving him from becoming a useless wight. Of course, God’s way in Jesus Christ is entirely practical. In Him we are called to see that this world is no end in itself, but a created good that must used only in so far as it advances our ultimate reconciliation with God. The things of this world are but gifted signs that should stir the mind and heart back to the author and giver of all these good things.
Jesus urges us on to the effort of seeking the Supreme Good of God by reminding us, in an Aristotelian way, that God is the Mover and Definer of all things. He is the Transcendent Good that we should seek to know and love. Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Stop, he urges, if you are indeed consumed with this world. Look at nature, look at the flowers, the animals, and the fowl of the air. All of nature is held in my Father’s caring hand. Nature is providentially ordered by Him. He feeds it, sustains, colors, beatifies, informs, and defines it. Each unique nature is defined by my Father’s Wisdom and enlivened by His ceaseless loving care. None of these creatures is anxious about anything. The birds neither sow nor reap and my Father feeds them. The lilies neither toil nor spin, and Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed by my Father like one of these. (St. Matthew vi. 26-29) Jesus brings before us the created things of this world, and shows that they hang entirely upon the Father’s Wisdom and Love for their being and beauty. He shows us that God orders all of nature providentially. Without His Wisdom they have no meaning; without His love they have no being. He reminds us that the birds of the air are anxious over nothing and are fed. Similarly, the lilies of the field emit utter beauty without the slightest effort or toil. God provides for them, and would do the same for us, if only we would have faith in Him. See and believe, Christ urges us today. Faith in God begins with openness to what confronts you. See and believe that God is at work in His world. Christ tells us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all other things shall be added to you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Faith in Christ means following Him, through nature and then beyond it, up and into the transcendent truth and love that enliven and inform all things.
Yet why do we find this so difficult to do? Are we enslaved to the means of securing only limited and impermanent kinds of happiness? Have our hearts and souls been dulled by habituation to creaturely comforts and earthly joys? Have we been rendered lazy and slothful because we have forgotten whence we come and whither we are made to go? In other words, are we consumed and possessed by Mammon? Mammon is, as Father Crouse reminds us, a false God, and the service of Mammon is idolatry. And it is the essence of idolatry to trust the things of the world as though they were a final and ultimate significance. Idolatry is the worship of worldly things, and it is a subtle, but constant, ever-present danger to the spiritual lives of all of us. (Parochial Sermons: RC)If we wish to find our way out of the worship of Mammon, and away from the anxiety that fusses over its retention and repetition, we must tend first to our spiritual lives and eternal destiny. We must see and understand that created things, Mammon, are made only to feed and clothe our bodies.
So, Jesus asks us today if we are serving Mammon and not God. He wonders if we pursuing chiefly the Mammon of creaturely comfort and earthly ease, and if so, why? Is not life more than meat, and the body made for more than raiment? (St. Matthew vi. 25) He wonders too if the Mammon of ambition and worldly success have got the better of us, so that we are toiling and spinning desperately to be remembered well, toasted at public dinners and to be spoken of with conventional absurdity (Barchester Towers: Ch. liii.) by earthly divines, and thus negligent about what God’s Good Providence has in store for us? Perhaps we do this because we have never been thanked, loved, and adored enough. So we toil and spin in ever-anxious hope for the exaggerated and superficial praise of men, longing for the affirmation of ourselves over and against the needful service of God. Needless to say, Mammon has the ability to make a mess out of us all. So we twist, contort, and pervert a perfectly natural desire for transcendent truth into that longing and sighing for what never can please and only ever disappoints. Because Mammon has possessed us, we postpone, neglect, or reject outright our pursuit of God’s Supreme Goodness.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that when we come to realize that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, two of the Cardinal Virtues are needed to put us back on the right spiritual road. The first is prudence. Prudence is wisdom concerning human affairs or right reason with respect to action. (S.T.:ii.ii.47) It rules according to the good of human nature and pursues bodily needs only in so far as they aid and assist the soul’s perfection. Prudence thus makes use of the other important Cardinal Virtue –temperance, to tame, order, and govern appetite so that it does not fall prey to the worship of Mammon. Temperance is actualized through chastity, sobriety, and abstinence. (Idem, 141) If a man is temperate, prudence conditions the soul to contemplate the Supreme Good and to obtain the Divine help that keeps him from all things hurtful, and then infuses him with all things profitable to his salvation.
This morning let us stop sowing, reaping, toiling, and spinning over earthly gods and their fleeting promises. Nature herself silently urges us to imitate her necessary and rewarding dependence upon God. Look into your souls, she pleas, and from the ground of your hearts, see that the same hand that lovingly cares for me, will do the same for you. Only have faith, and hear His voice, hope in His providence, and feed on His love. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things and more shall be added unto you.’ Amen.