Opening the Word: Proper priorities

Idolatries. Anxieties. Priorities. If you are anything like myself, you are familiar with these three. We have to deal with them nearly every day. And they are closely connected with one another, which is one reason that Jesus spoke about them together in the Sermon on the Mount. 

“American Idol” might be a popular television show, but the word “idolatry” is rarely used in common conversation. And yet, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, it “remains a constant temptation to faith.” In fact, we Americans have become incredibly sophisticated in committing idolatry and convincing ourselves that it is not idolatry, but something necessary and even good. “Idolatry,” the Catechism further explains, “consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’” (No. 2113). 

The word “mammon” refers not simply to money, but to the personification of riches. It is the god of materialism. When material possessions take the place of God, they become our master. This doesn’t mean that material possessions are bad in and of themselves; the issue is one of proper priorities. 

We cannot effectively recognize and combat idolatry without God’s grace and the guidance of the Church. “The Church is society’s permanent rampart against idolatry,” wrote Dom Aelred Graham in “Catholicism and the World Today” (David McKay Co., 1952). “This is the ultimate, in a sense it is the only sin, the root of all disorder.” Man is made to worship, and the object of our worship shapes and molds us into who we will be for eternity. This is why the very first commandment in the Decalogue is, “I, the Lord, am your God,” and the second is, “You shall not have other gods besides me” (Ex 20:2-3). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives the Church a new law that further guides us into resisting false worship. 

Anxiety, the Lord teaches, results from a lack of trust in God — “O you of little faith” — usually combined with an unwarranted trust in our own abilities. The temptation is to think that by obsessively planning for the future we can eliminate our worries. But this only leads to new worries, which take us away from the peace our heavenly Father freely offers. He knows that we have material needs, and he will provide.  

Regarding anxiety, Jesus gives two commandments, both pointing toward properly ordered priorities. First, do not worry about food, drink and clothing — that is, do not allow earthly cares to overwhelm and undermine our heavenly calling. This doesn’t mean that we don’t need to work and earn our keep; it means that working and earning aren’t the ultimate purposes of life. 

Second, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” for when our heavenly calling is our primary focus, “all these things will be given you besides.” St. Augustine, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, wrote, “In this sentence he clearly shows the difference between a good that ought to be sought as an end and a value that ought to be seen as a means. Our final good is therefore the kingdom of God and his justice. Let us perform all our actions for the sake of it.” Material goods are good only when they are appreciated in light of the greatest good.

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.