Opening the Word: Serve only one master

The most succinct commentary on today’s Gospel can be found just a few verses earlier in Matthew 6: “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Mt 6:21). In fact, that verse is part of a notable transition in the Sermon on the Mount, from a focus on man’s relationship with God, which reaches an apex in Christ’s teaching about prayer (Mt 6:5-15), to a focus on man’s relationship with the world. This, in turn, is followed in Matthew 7 by teachings about our relationships with other people, summarized in many ways by the Golden Rule (7:12).

However, these passages are not neatly categorized or segmented; for our relationships with God, the world and other people are deeply interconnected, even if they can be distinguished from one another. How we understand ourselves and God will direct how we understand the world, and the meaning of our lives will shape how we act toward family, friends and others. The foundation is our relationship with God, and upon that is built our metaphysics and morality, which in turn mold our public lives, including our approach to politics. Alas, we are often told the complete opposite: politics first, which guide our actions and perspectives, with our beliefs about God shut up in the privacy of home and church.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen summarized this dynamic many years ago. “Those who deny the immortality of the soul almost always substitute for it the immortality of the means of subsistence,” he wrote. Those who live as if this world is all that exists and matters are the followers of mammon. We must keep in mind that mammon is not money, per se, but the personification of riches — the idolization of things. Mammon is the god of having, acquiring and hoarding. Jesus did not teach that money or material things are bad, but that they must, in every way, be kept in their rightful place and used for their proper ends.

Otherwise, even without our knowledge, we end up serving something other than God. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, in his brilliant commentary, “Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word” (Ignatius Press, $31.95), explains that we often ignore or dismiss a fundamental truth about human nature, noting that today’s Gospel “establishes a most important principle of religious anthropology: every person, by nature, is a servant. Every person will serve, whether or not he chooses to do so.”

Fallen, weak and needy, we are often tempted to believe God has little or no concern for us. We say, “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.” But God’s love, as the prophet Isaiah stated, is like that of a mother; God will not forsake, nor will he forget, even if we freely choose to forsake and forget him. When we turn away from God, even in the most subtle ways, we become anxious, grasping and worried. Our trust is eroded, and we can try to fill the void with misplaced trust in our own abilities, or something equally problematic.

Those who trust in God and rest in his goodness display something quite contrary to the ways of the world: a spirit of servanthood. “Thus should one regard us,” wrote the apostle Paul, “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” There is only one true master and king, and he has opened the way to real and everlasting life. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he says, “and all these things will be given you besides.”

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.