The Role of Mammon

The readings for Sunday, February 26, 2017, 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 completes the series of six Sunday readings taken from the Sermon on the Mountain for this year. The Gospel for the Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time is also taken from the Sermon on the Mountain, but the 9th, 10th, and 11th Sundays in Ordinary Time are omitted this year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Lent. In this final selection Matthew addresses his Christian Community about wealth and anxiety about the necessities of life — food, drink, clothing. First, wealth and the possibility of money becoming our god. Matthew writes, “No one can serve two masters, because he will hate the one and love the other or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” Who are the two masters? “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”

What is Mammon? In late Hebrew Mammon is a frequently used word for wealth, property, money. The Dead Sea Scrolls use the word in this sense. The word Mammon is derived from a Hebrew verb meaning “to trust, to be secure, to be faithful.” The Hebrew word Amen is derived from the same verb. Mammon therefore can mean something in which we put our trust, our security.  Job 31:24-24 brands as evil putting one’s trust in gold or great wealth. Psalm 62:10, “If riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”

Matthew seems to present Christians with a choice that leaves no wiggle room. But do God and wealth really have to exclude each other? The Gospel of Luke has more catechetical instruction on wealth and its use than Matthew does. So a good answer to the question is Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief of the Roman Internal Revenue Service based in the colony of Judea. As he comes closer to the end of his Gospel, he seems to ask himself, “Have I been too extreme in the matter of Christians and wealth?” His answer is the story of Zacchaeus. Because this man shared his wealth with the poor and reimbursed quadruple anyone he may have defrauded, the Lucan Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house….” Wealth is good if its abundance is shared with God in this sense.
The mention of Mammon or wealth leads to a question about the need for money to furnish the necessities of life. Therefore Matthew speaks to this question next, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” St. Paul seems to agree, as he writes to the Philippians, “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” Matthew notes that heathens, not Christians, are the ones who are anxious about such things. He assures his flock that the heavenly Father knows that these things are needed, “but seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be yours as well,” food, drink, clothing.

Matthew points to wild birds. They do not sow seeds like humans do. They do not reap grain like humans do. They do not gather into barns, “and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” No doubt tradition remembered that Jesus, with a playful smile added to these thoughts.  “Aren’t you of greater value than the birds?” Meaning: So don’t worry!

Is this an invitation to return to nature, live off the land like birds and wild animals, eating wild fruits, nuts, berries, drinking from creeks and rivers, walking about as naked as Adam and Eve until God invented fig leaf aprons? There is a proper order of things, as Matthew himself adds, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well.” We actually pray to seek God’s kingdom first, as we daily repeat these words in the Our Father, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it (already) is in heaven.” How is the kingdom of God made present on earth?  By seeking God’s righteousness. What does Matthew mean by this noun? One answer is found in Matthew 25:37. At the last judgment scene, the righteous are puzzled about their being rewarded with eternal life, “ for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, etc.” The Judge, King, Son, Shepherd grants this revelation, “When you did this to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” That is how God’s kingdom and righteousness are made present on earth as they already are in heaven.