You cannot serve two masters

By Bill Carroll

Over the past five years, I’ve presided at a dozen funerals. More often than not, perhaps because of the name of the parish I serve, families choose the Good Shepherd reading for the Gospel. But, even when they don’t, we tend to use the twenty-third Psalm. Like other Christians, we draw strength from the Lord our shepherd as we make that final journey across the Jordan. As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Jesus guides, feeds, and protects us. We are reassured by the Psalmist’s vision of still waters and green pastures–and the divine abundance that makes our cups overflow. Many of us know these words by heart. What a powerful prayer they become in times of anxiety, grief, or fear.

In the forty ninth chapter of Isaiah, the prophet presents a similar vision of God shepherding Israel. To a people in exile, God offers sure and certain hope of return. But it’s more than that: God promises Israel they will be a sign of God’s own faithfulness—that they will be given as a covenant to the people. Nevertheless, the heart of this prophecy concerns the shepherding of sheep. Speaking to a people who have suffered violence, captivity, and extreme want, God promises that

on all the bare heights shall be your pasture;

you shall not hunger or thirst,

neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike you down,

for he who has pity on you will lead you,

and by springs of water will guide you.

In the Book of Revelation, the risen Christ makes similar promises to us. When God makes all things new, the slain Lamb will become a Shepherd and guide us “to the springs of the water of life.”

It’s against this backdrop that we must hear the Gospel about the lilies of the field. When Jesus asks us not to worry about our life…when he asks us not to be anxious about what we should eat or drink or wear, he is not embracing a naive optimism. He’s nothing like the prosperity preachers who invoke his name, certain that God will provide for the faithful as a reward for righteousness.

If the Bible is clear about anything, it’s that God’s People are seldom more righteous than their neighbors. God’s People have never lived up fully to our calling. Indeed, in times of calamity, the prophets are prone to interpret exile and defeat as signs of judgment, which begins with the household of God. Even in better times, whatever holiness we possess is the gift and work of God. God didn’t choose Israel because they deserved it, but because they were poor and oppressed in the land of Egypt. God took wandering, landless tribes of Hebrew slaves by the hand and made of them a great nation.

When Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the air or consider the lilies of the field, he is inviting us to adopt the perspective of faith, which means radical trust in God and God’s coming Kingdom. Jesus is inviting us, in other words, to shed our defenses, to rely more fully on God and each other, and to become once more the creatures we were made to be.

That brings us to the difficult saying in the Gospel. “No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Too often, I think, we read our own resentments into this Gospel. We make it sound like it’s a sin to have money or be concerned about it.

The poor have no such illusions. They know better. So too do those working families who have taken to the streets in Madison and Columbus. These teachers, cops, and firefighters are members of the vanishing American middle class, fighting to keep from being pushed into poverty. Polls show that most Americans, whether or not they happen to like unions or agree with everything they do, do support their right to exist.

Many church traditions would agree that people have a natural right to assemble and organize to promote their interests. Pope John Paul II, for example, in words that came out of his experience in Poland, wrote that unions “are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions.”

The Episcopal Church has a similar teaching, though not all our members would agree. Meeting in Columbus in 2006, the General Convention reaffirmed the “right to organize and form unions as a means to securing adequate wages, benefits, and safety conditions for ALL workers” and encouraged “all levels of the church to be informed about, and act accordingly, when rights of workers to associate is being jeopardized.” Voluntary poverty may be a powerful witness some of us undertake in a world rife with injustice and excess, but the poverty that most of us work so hard to avoid is contrary to the will of God.

What Jesus condemns is not wealth per se, but rather the injustice that lies at the root of so many fortunes. He also condemns the attitude that serves wealth as our master, rather than using it to meet human needs. This attitude springs from our denial of death. We want to have so much that death cannot touch us or those we love. We want to accumulate enough, so that our children will never want for anything and our achievements will live on beyond the grave. After a while, the pursuit becomes an all consuming passion, perhaps destroying even those good things that led us to want money in the first place.

The birds and the lilies have no guarantees. They all will die, and some will die before their time. But they are beautiful. And, by and large, they enjoy being themselves. Animals may know sorrow, but it is a natural sorrow—an intrinsic part of what it means to be God’s creatures. Animals love and praise their Maker by their very being. Humans alone know the sorrows of injustice and broken fellowship with God. We alone choose to be less than what God made us to be.

When we truly serve God (and we do it best by serving our neighbor), we can enter into that self-forgetfulness that characterizes children at play, before the violence, lust, and greed of adulthood set in and limit our imaginations. And in that harmonious alignment of our will with God’s will, we can experience a deep and lasting peace. We can come to place our trust in God’s coming Kingdom.

This is a profound mercy, and it comes as a gift or not at all. According to Jesus, it will not be given to those who choose any master besides God. Indeed, the service of mammon–wealth personified as a kind of god–against which Jesus warns us so sternly today, has hardened many a heart and blinded many a would be follower of Christ to the just claims of our neighbor.

So seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and do not worry about the rest.

The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.

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