[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.