In his 1975 classic, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Henri Nouwen describes the painfully ironic gap between the images of happiness and prosperity used in advertisements for consumer goods and the lifestyle that is required in order to pursue those goods. He writes,
“Sitting in the subway, I am surrounded by silent people hidden behind their newspapers or staring away in the world of their own fantasies. Nobody speaks with a stranger, and a patrolling policeman keeps reminding me that people are not out to help each other. But when my eyes wander over the walls of the train covered with invitations to buy more or new products, I see young, beautiful people enjoying each other in a gentle embrace, playful men and women smiling at each other in fast sailboats, proud explorers on horseback encouraging each other to take brave risks, fearless children dancing on a sunny beach, and charming girls always ready to serve me in airplanes and ocean liners. While the subway train runs from one dark tunnel to the other and I am nervously aware where I keep my money, the words and images decorating my fearful world speak about love, gentleness, tenderness and about a joyful togetherness of spontaneous people.”[i]
In the gospel reading for this Sunday Jesus famously preaches, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24). The word we are translating as “wealth” here is also sometimes rendered more directly “Mammon,” carrying a connotation beyond simply money to systems of production that keep us tied to vicious cycles of consumption. The Christian ethicist John Francis Kavanaugh describes the effects of that cycle,
“Money, Moloch, the Tyranny of Production strip us of our humanity. Living only to labor and to cling to the products of our labor, we recreate ourselves in the image and likeness of our products. We alienate ourselves from each other in the struggle for possession and profit. We become alienated from our own humanness.”[ii]
If we hear Jesus’ call to choose between these two masters as a threat to our way of life, it is only because we have already so thoroughly identified ourselves with wealth as the way to create and secure a meaningful life for ourselves. Jesus asks us to consider if there might not be another way to structure our relationships to self and others, one that leaves us less anxious, isolated and exhausted.
As we finish our study of the Sermon on the Mount that has carried us across these weeks since Epiphany, we are left where we began – remembering that in God’s priorities the poor, the hungry, the meek and the merciful reside inside the reign of God, along with those who care for them. We are invited to relinquish our obsession with self and trust that God will care for us so that we may care for each other. In fact, it is by caring for each other that we participate in the reign of God where all are cared for, and we can finally join Jesus by living in the present moment, not worrying about the past or the future. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).
[i] Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (New York: Image Books Doubleday, 1975), 24.
[ii] John Francis Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society: The Spirituality of Cultural Resistance (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1981), 11.