A Prudent Interpretation
The readings for Sunday,March 2, 2014, Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 49:14-15; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; and Matthew 6:24-34.
This gospel reading is the sixth and final selection from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. This section concerns wealth, money, possessions. The headline is in the conclusion: “You cannot serve God and mammon,” (a Semitic word for money or wealth). Matthew sees wealth as possible enslavement. Money can become master to the extent that a Christian no longer serves God first. Matthew is always prompted by his knowledge of the Old Testament. The principle, “You cannot serve God and mammon,” is a commentary on a basic profession of faith for every pious Jew or Christian, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with all your strength,” Deut. 6:5.
There is no need for an absolute division between God and mammon. Such an absolute division made more sense when Christians expected the imminent end of time and the imminent return of Jesus. A prudent interpretation of Matthew’s principle is that mammon can also be a positive thing in serving God. It becomes evil when one is totally devoted to it while excluding God and the demands of justice and charity toward those in need. The rest of today’s gospel reading is a commentary on “You cannot serve God and mammon.” This is why Matthew begins with, “Therefore….”
He advises Christians not to be anxious about life, food, drink, clothing. They should be more like birds who do not work in fields nor spin wool, but God nevertheless feeds them. Human beings, he says, are of even greater value than birds. The conclusion is implied. If God takes care of the lesser creatures like birds, then God will surely take care of those creatures at the summit of creation, human beings. Does this sound like a program for “Hippiedom”? Our diet is not the same as that of birds. Besides that, observation of birds demonstrates that they work very hard to provide food for themselves and their fledglings. Anxiety is never absent from their tension-filled lives.
Matthew gives another example of what he considers carefree living — in the matter of clothing ourselves. He points out how the lilies of the field grow without work or spinning wool for clothes, yet they are more beautiful than Solomon in all his royal robes (foppery?). If God clothes the lilies with such glorious clothing, flowers that last only one day and are gone tomorrow, then God will surely clothe the creatures at the summit of creation, for whose enjoyment all other beauty of nature was created. Those who cannot accept these concepts are accused of being “men of little faith.” We know however that even plants work in their own way for nutrition. In their own way they work to protect themselves by evolving protective devices to preserve their lives. The context from which Matthew drew these sayings attributed to Jesus is a lost gospel scholars call “Gospel Q.” The “Q” is a symbol for the German word Quelle which means “source.” Parts of this unknown author’s collection of sayings were chosen by Matthew and Luke for insertion into their gospels. It is clear from studying these sayings extracted from Matthew and Luke that the author of “Q” often chose the more severe approach to a Christian way of life.
A major principle for interpretation of Scripture is the use of common sense. About this whole section on “carefree” living we could say that it does not disparage efforts to acquire the necessities of life. Anyone with common sense knows that we will not be fed by some special arrangement like the ninth century prophet Elijah to whom ravens delivered meat and bread twice a day. God not only indirectly provides the necessities of life, but also provides human beings with talent, ability, strength, intelligence, creativity, and a prudent sense of responsibility to provide for themselves and those unable to provide for themselves. True, God does feed and clothe us, but our hands are the only hands God has. St. Augustine (died 430) taught, “Pray as if all depended on God. Then work as if all depended on you.”
The closing advice Matthew gives is as valid today as it was in the first century when he composed his gospel. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.” We may understand this as advice to avoid undue anxiety or worry. When we enjoy the inner peace that comes from putting God first, efforts to make a living become more joyful with less anxiety.