American Christians are prone to the heresy of the prosperity gospel. This teaching proposes that the more we trust in God, the more prosperous we will become.
Jesus teaches something radically different on this last Sunday in Ordinary Time before we enter the season of Lent. The Gospel isn’t about an economy of exchange, whereby we trust in God and then receive wealth in return; instead, it is about cultivating a nonpossessiveness relative to all the gifts that we have received.
Jesus begins by reminding the crowd assembled at the Sermon on the Mount that they cannot serve both God and mammon. Mammon refers to property, money and wealth in Greek. But more so, it means that property or wealth we put our trust in.
Mammon, for a contemporary reader, could be our tendency to work ourselves to death because we place all trust in our own ingenuity. It could be a country’s desire to place its security above a common life of virtue it seeks to cultivate among its citizenship.
You cannot love mammon, because then you don’t put your whole trust in God.
This radical trust in God is precisely the faith called for in the Old Testament. This is not a blind trust whereby we make the leap of faith without any knowledge of how God will protect us. It is that deep trust in the God who has chosen to enter into relationship with us: “I will never forget you” (Is 49:15).
The God who created man and woman, who called Abraham into covenant, who wooed Israel back toward love of God and neighbor, who was born in a stable, who healed the sick and preached the Good News says to us even now, “I will never forget you.”
This radical trust in God, which requires in us a nonpossessiveness, is what Jesus emphasizes in his preaching. We are not to worry about our lives, because the God who cares for the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field will care for us.
This is not a promise that we will be wealthy or healthy all our lives. This is not a promise that we will always have everything we desire. Instead, Jesus says nothing more than this: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Mt 6:34).
In this last sentence, Jesus means it’s enough to worry about what is needed for this particular day. To worry about a future that we cannot control is to place ourselves once again at the service of mammon rather than God.
As we enter into the season of Lent next week, this Gospel can serve as a mirror for us. You often hear it said that Lent is a good time to pick up a practice rather than enter into self-denial. This is an artificial contrast. For the problem with being a human being, prone to sin, is that we often place our hopes in mammon.
We stop praying because we don’t have time. We forget the poor because we’re worried about our retirement. We place our hope in a political party, in an ideology, rather than in the self-giving love of the Word made flesh.
During Lent, we are called to practice a nonpossessiveness where we bid farewell to our worship of mammon and instead adore once again the living God.
The irony is that to possess God, to reach the prosperity that we are called to, we must give up everything else. Rest in God alone, my soul (Ps 62:6a).
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.