Striving First for the Kingdom, Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (A), February 27, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry

St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

February 27, 2011

Is 49:14-15; 1 Cor 4:1-5; Mt 6:24-34

The following text guided this homily:

STRIVING FIRST FOR THE KINGDOM, TRUSTING IN GOD’S PROVIDENCE

  • Today we tackle for a fifth week how Jesus is calling us, like he called his first disciples in the Sermon on the Mount, to be different than all the rest.
  • In past weeks, Jesus has said that we are to be distinguished
    • By our living the beatitudes, seeking to be poor in spirit while others long after this worldly riches, pure of heart when others worship sex, peacemaking and meek when others fight, concerned about others to the point of tears while others seek to party,  and willing to be persecuted for the sake of Christ while others seek to be popular and to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
    • The next week he told us that, because we’re different, we have a mission in the world, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, to prevent the world from going corrupt and guiding the world by reflecting Christ’s light in our words and witness.
    • In the third and fourth weeks, Jesus told us that we need to go beyond merely not killing someone physically, but not hating others; not merely not committing adultery in the flesh, but not committing adultery in the heart; not divorcing and remarrying at all; not swearing oaths but being transparently truthful; not just being good with God but reconciled with other brothers and sisters; not seeking vengeance up to the limit of an eye for an eye, but rather not seeking vengeance at all; and loving not just those who love and are good to us, but even those who have made themselves our enemies and do evil to us, just like God the Father loves and does good to all his sons and daughters.
  • In the interim between last week’s Gospel and today’s,
    • Jesus says that we’re supposed to pray, fast and give alms differently from all the rest, not doing it for show but doing it in secret to please God the Father alone. We will hear this Gospel on Ash Wednesday. Notably he says that, when we pray, we’re not to babble on like others do but to turn in confidence to our Father in heaven, to hallow his name, seek his kingdom, ask for help to do his will, to forgive us our sins, keep us from evil and from falling in temptation, and to give us not everything we’d like but just what we need. All of this is very relevant to the passage that we hear today.
    • Likewise, Jesus tells us not to seek to build treasures for ourselves on earth like so many of the rest do, but to place our heart in a treasure in heaven.
  • That leads us to today. Jesus calls us to be different from those in the world who place their desires, their hopes, their love, their trust in the things of this world, who serve “mammon,” a Jewish word that means not just money but material possessions. Jesus says that his disciples cannot serve mammon, because if we’re serving mammon we cannot be serving God. “No one can serve two Masters,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
    • In some ways, Jesus’ message is even more timely for us today than it would have been for his first listeners. We live in a culture driven by serving mammon, in which most people spend far more time seeking to become rich in mammon than they do seeking to store up heavenly treasure. We live in a culture in which so many, especially younger adults, say they “have to” work on Sunday but somehow don’t think they “have to” pray and worship the Lord. We live in a culture in which people value High Definition televisions more than they do Bibles, when 60,000 people will fill stadiums for sporting events and concerts while Churches remain empty, when people obsess over what they’ll give or get in their own or others’ wills and few think about what moral lessons they’ll pass on or receive.
  • This focus on serving material goods, possessions and pleasures leads to a culture of worrying. Even those who are rich worry that they can lose much of it or even it all if the stock market takes a hit. Those who are making ends meet can be eaten alive by worry that if their hours are cut they’ll need to move or change their habits. Those who clearly have enough to survive worry that if they get sick, the nursing home will take it and so they take advantage of various tax structures and trusts in order to ensure that they’ll have to spend as little as possible on their own care.
  • To this culture of worry that flows from the precariousness of basing an existence on the weak foundation of material goods  Jesus says, immediately after reminding us that we can’t serve both God and mammon: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” What’s the “therefore” there for? It’s because when we serve material goods, we can’t help but worrying. But when we are really serving God, when we are really seeking first his kingdom and his holiness, we do not fret as much about our life, our food and drink, our clothing, our shelter.
  • Jesus gives us moving images of why we shouldn’t worry: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith?” Jesus’ point is that if God takes care of grass and birds, he’ll take care of us, too. In today’s first reading, God tells us through the prophet Isaiah, that just like a mother could never forget a nursing child, so he can never forget or forsake us. We are his nursing children and, just like a mother knows the child at her breast cannot make it alone and provides for her child, so God the Father knows what we need and will provide.
  • That leads to Jesus’ punch line, which was the favorite passage in the Gospel on which our patron St. Anthony used to preach, which is why we sing the hymn “Seek Ye First” so often here. Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Jesus tells us that the Gentiles are the ones who strive for the basic necessities of food, drink, clothing, housing. We, as Jesus’ followers, are supposed to make our supreme aim the establishment of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our world, to spread God’s holiness, to be fed spiritually, to drink from the fonts of everlasting life, to be clothed in Christ with the armor of God and the spotless garment of our baptism. If we do this, Jesus promises us, all these other things — all these material needs — will be given to us as well. We won’t need to worry about them because God will make sure we have them one way or the other.
  • So that’s Jesus’ challenge for us today. Are we going to be worriers about material things or seekers of the things that will last forever? Are we going to serve mammon or serve God — and we have to choose because Jesus says we can’t serve both. There are many who think they can serve both. They can serve God for an hour on Sundays and a few minutes before they go to bed and the rest of the week, they can serve mammon. They seek God’s kingdom “a little,” but seek to build up their own kingdom the vast majority of their time. Jesus is calling us to a radical choice about the fundamental direction of our lives. What’s it going to be?
  • Many times people to have been tempted to discredit Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel.
    • One line of attack comes from those who say that Jesus’ words create a culture of dependency, where people just sit back and say, “I’ll do nothing. God will provide and take care of me,” as welfare rolls grow and social service agencies expand, often taking tax dollars from those who work and distribute them to those who don’t.
    • Another line of attack comes from those who look at the countries in which people are starving or even those in our own country who do not have enough food and say, “If God takes care of the birds and the grass, why doesn’t he take care of those in Darfur or the hundreds of people who are in our food pantry line?”
  • It’s important for us to know how to respond to these arguments.
    • First, Jesus is not calling us to become spoiled brats saying that we don’t have to work because our Father in heaven will give us all we need. This was a little bit of an issue in the early Church, as we see in St. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians. There was a group of Christians there that was so sure that Jesus’ second coming was going to occur any second that they basically stopped working altogether, taking advantage of the sacrificial generosity that reigned among the Christians in the first days. St. Paul was very clear about the response to this: “We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is living in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. … When we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.” The way God provides for the vast majority of us is giving us the skills and the job opportunities for us to earn a living. Many times we think that WE are the ones who provide the food for our table, not God, but we can’t forget that it’s God who gave us our brains, it’s God who gave us our hands, it’s God who gave us our coordination, it’s God who arranged for us to meet certain people, all of which is the background to how we were able to get our jobs in the first place. To choose not to work when we can is not just idleness, as St. Paul describes, but is also a sin against God who gave us these skills precisely so that he can provide for us through these means. Like with the bread and wine at the Mass, so the food on our table is a combination of God’s gifts and the work of human hands.
    • Second, our hands, our minds, our lives, are not just to put food on our tables, but to take care of those who cannot yet take care of themselves. Most of us do this naturally when we have children. We know that when they’re young they cannot provide for themselves and both out of love and duty we work to provide for them. Likewise out of a sense of love and duty, we’re called to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, because they are members of the larger family of God. Talking about our judgment, Jesus gave us some of the criteria: “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was naked and you clothed me.” It’s clear that Jesus wants us out of love to care for others as we would care for him. This is not only something that helps those who receive such aid, but it helps the giver even more, by forming us through love to become much more like God who provides for us like he provides for the birds and the grass. One of the principle reasons why people are starving to death in countries like the Sudan is precisely because many have lost this sense of caring for brothers and sisters. Corrupt government leaders pocket the foreign aid, rather than use it to care for those in need. There is plenty of food to give them, but it remains in airports because of corruption or incompetence. God has provided, many have worked, but sin has intervened. Likewise as we look to our food pantry, there are always some people who are in line because they’ve hit a stretch of bad luck and need some short-term help, like any of us might need. But some are in line precisely because they or others have violated what Jesus is describing in today’s Gospel about seeking first God’s kingdom and his holiness. In the case of many, their family members haven’t stepped up to the plate to help them. In some cases, the family members have, but their offers of assistance have been refused out of pride. In other circumstances, people are in line because of other choices that have been made that are not in line with the kingdom, when people are suffering the consequences of a life of drugs, or suffering the consequences of choices where they’ve sought to structure, for example, their love lives on foundations other than the life-long mutual commitment of marriage, or because they were born into situations where they’re now the third or fourth generation of a broken home. Again, none of these situations is because God’s providential care reached a limit, or that God doesn’t care for them or love them. One of the reasons why there’s a food pantry is because God wanted it as a means to care for them even still. But, at the same time, we have to say that Jesus said in today’s Gospel that if we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, somehow everything else we really need will be given us besides. He didn’t say that if we seek our own kingdom, if we seek after this worldly pleasures and possessions, that everything else will be given to us besides. Sometimes that deprivation, as hard it is to experience, might be a providential act of love by God to bring us to our knees to pray, to reestablish our relationship with God, and to convert others out of their selfishness to commit not just to imitating and exercising God’s charity but also seeking true justice when injustice is the reason why so many go without. Rather than invalidating Jesus’ statements, the situations of poverty in the world illustrate their importance.
  • As we celebrate this Mass today, we’re aware that God in his providential care has provided the richest feast imaginable for those who seek him first. He is about to feed us with his Son’s body and blood, a nourishment made not merely to strengthen us in this world, but to bring us to eternity. This is something he does neither for the birds of the air or the grass of the field. This is a special privilege kept for those who seek to live by Jesus’ way, by his word, by his standards. This is the “supersubstantial bread” we ask him to give us every day in the prayer of the Our Father. He has heard that prayer. We ask him for the grace to recognize, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, that God the Father hasn’t even spared his own Son but handed him over for us all to save us and to feed us, will he not give us everything else besides?

The readings for today’s Mass were:

Reading 1 IS 49:14-15

Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me;
my LORD has forgotten me.”
Can a mother forget her infant,
be without tenderness for the child of her womb?
Even should she forget,
I will never forget you.

Responsorial Psalm PS 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9

R/ (6a) Rest in God alone, my soul.
Only in God is my soul at rest;
from him comes my salvation.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.
Only in God be at rest, my soul,
for from him comes my hope.
He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.
With God is my safety and my glory,
he is the rock of my strength; my refuge is in God.
Trust in him at all times, O my people!
Pour out your hearts before him.
R/ Rest in God alone, my soul.

Readng 2 1 COR 4:1-5

Brothers and sisters:
Thus should one regard us: as servants of Christ
and stewards of the mysteries of God.
Now it is of course required of stewards
that they be found trustworthy.
It does not concern me in the least
that I be judged by you or any human tribunal;
I do not even pass judgment on myself;
I am not conscious of anything against me,
but I do not thereby stand acquitted;
the one who judges me is the Lord.
Therefore do not make any judgment before the appointed time,
until the Lord comes,
for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness
and will manifest the motives of our hearts,
and then everyone will receive praise from God.

Gospel MT 6:24-34

Jesus said to his disciples:
“No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”