Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah, in our first reading, writes of how God will never forget us. In a phrase that means a great deal to many, he states: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without the tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Matthew describes a scene where Jesus teaches his disciples to trust in God and not serve two masters (simply because we cannot). He further instructs them not to worry about food or drink, or what we wear. God feeds the birds of the sky and are “not you more important than them?” Do not be anxious about your clothes because God makes even the wild flowers beautiful. “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.”
OK, I do this from time to time, but I groan inward when I see this Gospel. It’s not that I disagree with Jesus’ words, but in how they’ve been interpreted. I’m guessing many of you can join me in hearing, yet again, from priests that we shouldn’t worry so much. After all, God will take care of us.
This from a man who lives in a rectory that guarantees lifetime employment, a comfortable retirement, and the recognition that part of my weekly donation pays for his cook and housekeeper. He will never struggle with the fear of a job loss, a spouse that may walk away from us, or countless things that may happen to the children we have sworn to give our lives to protect.
Ok, maybe I’m being a little harsh, but worry is a part of our lives that simply isn’t going away. So much of our world is beyond our control and bad thing happen to good people. In Genesis God gave us dominion, but not mastery, over the world: responsibility but not power. And part of this responsibility demands that we prepare for an uncertain future. What will happen to my crop if it doesn’t rain? Maybe I should purchase crop insurance. Is this pain in my chest something serious, or can I pass it off as indigestion? [This one is clear: seek medical help immediately!]. My daughter is going on her first date. How do I know I can trust this polite young man? Do I turn on the tracker of her cell phone?
And let’s be clear about the birds of the sky. They may not be aware their life is precarious, but they certainly know to fear hawks. And while they don’t know it, one day they will be injured, or slowed by age, and their life will end violently.
And clothing? I may be the only person in the world who wakes up the day after the Academy Awards without caring who looked how on the runway. But the reality is that we can’t go around naked, and how we dress makes (for good or for ill) an impression on those around us. I have a dress code for work simply because nobody will take me seriously if I show up for work in jeans and a t shirt.
So let’s dig a little deeper in these readings. What does it truly mean to serve only one master? I think in big ways and small we all serve multiple masters. But I don’t think the “mammon” Jesus talks about are necessarily bad things. I don’t think most of us worship greed or exclusion; anyone that does will probably not be reading this.
Instead I think we get in trouble because we want to avoid bad things happening, or we want to belong, or we want to be liked.
Let me give an example that I think speaks to all of these. Last year we learned that employees of Wells Fargo Bank set up multiple accounts for customers without their consent in the hopes that these customers wouldn’t notice. Wells Fargo profited from fees on these accounts. The orders for this deceit came from the top, and a frightening number of middle managers cooperated with this and hoped it wouldn’t be found. Why did they do this?
Many of them claimed, rightly so, that if they didn’t do this they would lose their job and they were right. A small number objected and were fired. Others called the ethics hotline suffered the same fate. Not only that, they were blackballed from ever working in the financial industry. Most Wells Fargo employees didn’t want this to happen to them, and they went along with this conspiracy to defraud their customers.
Others didn’t want stand out of the crowd. Though I don’t remember being told this, adults often tell children (who disagree with them): “So you’re right and everyone else is wrong?” Very few, children or adults, have the courage to stand up to this and say: “Yes.” Our fear of ridicule or exclusion is powerful, and in the case of these Wells Fargo employees, it was powerful enough to lead them to unethical behavior.
Finally, we all want to be liked. None of us likes being the one who “spoils it for everyone.” Being a part of a group, where everyone works for the same thing, makes us feel safe. How many times have we been on the fence about something only to told: “Come on. It will be fine. It’s just this one time”?
And so let us recognize those few whose worry about being fired, about standing out, and being disliked did not overpower their courage. I like to think that years, perhaps decades from now they will look back on this experience as one of their finest hours. They will almost certainly not be as wealthy as they hoped, and they likely would have changed directions in their careers. But hopefully they could look at their children and grandchildren and know that when it counted, they did the right thing.
Additionally, they could look on today’s readings with some satisfaction. They could recognize that they served only one master. Mammon, for them, was a small dot in the rear view mirror. The jobs, status, and friends they lost may still cause them some pain but not enough to make them regret their decision.
And maybe, most of all, they recognized that Isaiah’s promise that God will never abandon us is true. As people, the love between a mother and child gives us the closest relationship of pure love. I’ve spoken with countless new parents who profess absolute love for the new life they created as well as the fear that one day their love will be put to the test.
The courage these new parents showed depended on Jesus’ belief. As disciples we believe that God will not abandon us, not only when life is going well, but also when life is going badly. Only when we think we need God most of all, God will not be absent. But that may take incredible courage on our part. I pray that none of us are placed in that situation, but I also pray that if it does, we will look to Isaiah and Matthew for the strength that we need.