The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20C)
18 September 2016
Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Amos 8:4-7 (8-12)
1 Timothy 2:1-8
In the days when Jesus first told his followers that they “cannot serve God and mammon,” there was an expectation that the end times were at hand, or would at least begin within a generation. Indeed, the story of the dishonest steward that precedes the pronouncement takes place within its own eschatological framework. The steward knew that his time was up, that the master was going to call him to account for his dealings and he didn’t have much time to put things right. The steward thought and acted fast to, in some measure, make up for his actions and was, in fact, commended and rewarded by his master.
There is a sense of urgency about the story: everything was about to come crashing down and something had to be done. In this context, the idea of turning away from the world, giving up worldly pursuits, and radically reorienting our lives towards God makes sense. Facing the imminent advent of the culmination of all things, the pronouncement, “you can not serve God and mammon,” can easily be heard as a call to give up earthly pursuits.
By the time Luke told this story in his two volume book about Jesus and the Jesus movement after Pentecost, that, as I have reminded us could be found at booksellers around the Mediterranean, it no longer looked like the end time was so near. Perhaps there would be more time, people were beginning to realise. It started to make more and more sense for these new Christians to figure out how we can live in the world and indeed, The Fourth Gospel’s idea of “being in the world, but not of the world,” is one such response to this changed situation. The Church began to grow and establish itself within the fabric of society, and, while we can certainly critique our institution for allying itself too closely with the powers of this world, generally this was an important and positive step.
In this environment, it became more and more important for the church to seriously reject any notion of body-spirit dualism, in which the former was corrupt and the latter pure, a concept also rejected by both the Jews and Jesus himself. In this way, we began to hear Jesus’ admonition, “you can not serve God and mammon” in a more nuanced way. In this morning’s lesson from Amos, the prophet calls to account those merchants who worry about keeping the sabbath and yet “deal deceitfully with false balances, ... buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat?” Going through the religious motions and not integrating the meaning of those practices into our dealings with others is putting our trust in the wrong place. Likewise, in today's Gospel story of the dishonest steward, Jesus asks, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” Jesus is posing the question whether we can trust the so-called spiritual works or pronouncements of those who are not faithful in their secular dealings.
If we are not acting lovingly and fairly in the day-to-day business of our lives, how can we possibly trust what someone says when they make claims about the spiritual life? Our actions in the here and now speak louder than what we simply say about God and religion. Our actions in the here and now reveal our true relationship with God, which is nothing less than our faith itself. If we just talk about turning to God and fail to act lovingly in our lives, then we are on the wrong path.
Rather than set up the false dualism that suggests that earthly things have no value and that only the spiritual matters, we ought to ask about the relationship between the divine—God, Love—and what happens in the here and now. We ought to ask ourselves whether it is possible that in and through the earthly occasions of our lives we come into closer connection with each other, with the divine, with love itself? When we recognise that the world, the here and now, is the plane on which we act out our lives as the Body of Christ—his arms and legs, hands and feet, mouth, eyes, ears, and all the rest—we are able to practice the ministry of love that is the real work of God. It is then that we realise that all the occasions of the world are profoundly important and lead us to back Love. What we do here matters, and it matters a great deal. How we handle our daily lives, how we handle mammon, makes a difference. We are called to handle mammon, not serve it.
To say that we can not “serve both God and mammon” is not asking us to make that dualistic decision to turn away from our physical realities—a reality I believe we seek to escape at our peril—and look only to the heavens. It is asking us to value love, relationship, the divine intervention into time and space in the Incarnation over the matter itself.
Andrew C. Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 17 September 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume