Matthew 6:24-34: Service to Wealth

You cannot serve both God and money

Image by skambalu via Flickr

[Reflections on the Gospel Lectionary Reading for Feb 27, 2011]

In the context of prosperity in America, Jesus’ words, “You cannot serve God and wealth” sound as if he is challenging our rich neighbor but not us. Despite America’s wealth, we don’t consider ourselves to be wealthy individuals. Wealth begins somewhere north of our net worth and income.

Jesus continues, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Suddenly his words no longer seem targeted at the super-rich. He appears to be talking to everyday folk. Uh-oh, I think he might talking to me. He is equating serving wealth to such mundane tasks as worrying about where our next meal will come from. He isn’t talking about luxuries; he’s talking about necessities.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that Jesus wouldn’t consider the American passion for conspicuous consumption to be an example of serving wealth. But, that’s an obvious example–one that is so easy, that we can easily deflect the warning as one that doesn’t apply to our lives.

Jesus expands the notion of what it means to serve wealth to include our obsession with financial security–even for necessities. We live in a security obsessed culture. Media bombards us with tales of danger, and we become stressed about our own security. We feed our feelings of insecurity by storing up wealth as some sort of fortress against potential future danger. Jesus challenges us to let all of that go.  He says, “do not worry about your life.” He stresses the power of God to provide for us.

This isn’t just some sort of fluffy, feel-good message. Jesus is not singing a chorus of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This is a radical challenge to our habit of justifying all sorts of selfish behavior in the name of security and self-defense. We save for our retirement in order to mollify our fears around security. We purchase many forms of insurance, just in case.  In order to do that, we must secure a “good” job that pays well. Meanwhile, we adopt a lifestyle fitting our income, and this in turn raises the stakes for our retirement. We want to be able to maintain this nice lifestyle beyond retirement. This nice lifestyle demands going into debt to buy automobiles and homes. In order to secure such a high-paying job, we must heavily invest in education. This usually involves more debt. In order to ensure success in school, we must work in early childhood to master certain concepts and skills. In other words, we spend an entire lifetime investing in self-centered endeavors that have nothing to do with serving God. We cannot serve both God and wealth.

Our service to wealth in the name of security spills over into our society. To make our lifestyle more affordable, and thus more secure, we are willing to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of others. We clamor after bargains made at the expense of exploited workers. We vote according to our pocketbook.  Our political friendships are determined by economic advantage rather than the Godly principle of  love. Our obsession about security convinces us to go to war against our enemies rather than to love our enemies.

Jesus tells us to strive first for the kingdom of God. We try to strive for that second, but we never get around to it. Jesus promises that God will take care of our security, but we’d rather do it ourselves. Our faith in insufficient to rely on God for such an important thing as our own welfare.

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Comments

  • Jim Wheeler  On February 25, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    JH,

    You have picked a topic here about which I have thought much. Although I mean no disrespect, I disagree with your analysis. I understand you are preaching the party line, but I see no evidence that you have considered the lesson critically. You are merely distributing rote doctrine.

    I believe that American society is INSUFFICIENTLY concerned about security, not overly concerned. If they were as obsessed about it as you say they wouldn’t be living paycheck to paycheck and running huge credit-card balances. They would have instead saved 6 months to a year’s worth of take-home pay just in case of emergencies, such as losing their jobs. They would be making substantial down-payments in buying a house instead of seeking the minimum and opting for adjustable mortgages instead of fixed rates.

    Christ’s admonition not to worry about our daily needs has frankly always seemed all wrong to me. Where for example do you think our food comes from? It comes from an agriculture industry made up of hard-working farmers and managers who invested and planned for the future. If everyone acted the way Christ recommended there would be a lot of empty bellies around. In fact, I would say starvation.

    Maybe there is some hidden meaning in His words, but if so, I don’t see it. Jesus is a wise man for sure, so I can only surmise that part of the context for this lesson got lost along the way to the printer.

    I can’t apologize for rocking your boat here. If you are going to submit your material to a blogging community you must surely expect to encounter come critical analysis.

    Jim

    • jwhester  On February 26, 2011 at 1:25 pm

      Jim,

      I welcome posts that challenge my conclusions and assumptions. That is how we learn!

      You are right that America’s abysmal saving rate argues against my thesis that America is obsessed with security. But I believe that phenomenon is a reflection of the degree to which our culture is materialistic and heavily influenced by marketing. We live paycheck to paycheck because we find comfort in “things” rather than “money” sitting in the bank. We “outsource” our security concerns by paying big bucks for all sorts of insurance, super-power military capabilities, police and fire services, pensions and social security. So even though I recognize that your point challenges mine, I think there are mitigating facts that allow my thesis to stand (at least as a viable possibility).

      From a worldly perspective, your analysis that Christ’s admonition would lead to starvation on an epic scale seems quite reasonable. The challenge that Christ poses for those of us who claim to believe in an all-powerful and loving God is for us to have enough faith in God to turn our lives and livelihood over to God. The point isn’t for some earthly gain (enhanced security by God’s power), but rather it is so that we can properly focus our lives on being instruments of God’s good plan on earth.

  • Jim Wheeler  On February 26, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    Aha, John,

    You are now taking a U-turn from your original post and saying we should not take Christ’s words literally but interpret them. You say it is a matter of “focus” or “priority”. This puts an altogether different spin on the message. But, the message is still fuzzy. What does it mean to “turn our lives over to God”? Does it mean to follow your religious impulses as they occur to you, in prayer or otherwise? To drift through the world doing good as the opportunities present? Does it mean that you can indulge in risky behavior, trusting God to intervene because your belief is strong? Or does it mean to work your tail off, planning, saving and investing carefully for the future? And if it means the latter, how does that fulfill Christ’s spare words?

    Like so many passages of the Bible, this one is very subject to interpretation. My own interpretation would be this: In the priorities of life, material gain should be subordinate to the spiritual because we are all going to die. Money is important to the extent that it represents security for us and those we love, including our community, but in the end it is relationships with others that trump all else, including finances. That is the context that I think is missing from the passage.

    If you behave like a lilly in the field you are going to end up fodder. IMHO.

    Jim

    • jwhester  On February 26, 2011 at 3:40 pm

      Before I try to reply, let me first understand where you see a U-Turn. I don’t understand your contrast between taking literally and interpreting. Taking literally is in fact a manner of interpretation, so I don’t see them in some sort of dialectic. I think you are suggesting that I have changed in the way I am interpreting this passage. Can you explain where this change is?

  • Jim Wheeler  On February 26, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    As I read it your original post urges us to literally eschew materialism for a spiritual life. You said, for example:

    “Our service to wealth in the name of security spills over into our society. To make our lifestyle more affordable, and thus more secure, we are willing to turn a blind eye to the exploitation of others. We clamor after bargains made at the expense of exploited workers.”

    But then you admit that I have a point in that a purely spiritual life might lead to starvation. You appear to recognize that we might indeed have to seriously worry about material things in order to do good to our family and neighbors.

    Which is right, Christ’s admonition to completely eschew the material aspects of life, or pursue materialism anyway, but with a spiritual motivation?

    Jim

  • jwhester  On February 26, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    I interpret Christ’s words to be literal rather than figurative. My admission that according to a worldly perspective, his advice seems foolish does not mean I think his advice is actually foolish. The difference is that the world does not acknowledge forces outside the material realm. I believe that God does influence our lives, and I believe that God takes care of us just as Jesus says about the birds of the air. So Christ’s words could lead to starvation if one assumes that there are no powers outside our world to intervene.

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