Striving for the Kingdom under God’s Providential Care, Eighth Sunday (A), March 2, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
March 2, 2014
Is 49:14-15, Ps 62, 1 Cor 4:1-5, Mt 6:24-34

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

Jesus’ call for us to be different than the rest

Today we tackle the fifth of six parts of Jesus’ Magna Carta of Christian Life, the Sermon on the Mount. I place a reflection on the sixth and final part in today’s bulletin, which I ask you to take to your prayer this week [See March 6, 2011 homily[. As I’ve been mentioning from the beginning, throughout the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is calling us, like he called his first disciples, 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 whether others fight, concerned about others to the point of tears while others seek to party, and willing to be persecuted for Jesus’ sake while others seek to be popular and to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

Then 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 installments, 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 only 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.

Adoring God rather than Mammon

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. If we’re Jesus followers, we must serve God and place our trust in him. Jesus points out that the Jesus says that his disciples cannot serve mammon, because when we’re serving mammon we cannot be serving God. “No one can serve two Masters,” Jesus says. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus’ message is even more timely for us today than it would have been for his first listeners. As Pope Francis has been repeatedly reminding us, 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, in which 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. Pope Francis said this morning that Jesus’ words “remind us that we cannot serve two masters, God and riches,” and then he tells us why: “In a heart possessed by riches, there’s no longer place for faith, everything is consumed by riches. If on the other hand if one gives God the place he expects, the first place, then his love will head us to share our material possessions.”

The root of our worries

This focus on what Pope Francis calls worshipping the golden calf, when the heart treasures above all material goods, possessions and pleasures, leads to total insecurity in life, to a culture of worrying. Even those who are very rich worry that they can lose much of it or even it all if the stock market takes a hit. Those who are just making ends meet can be eaten alive by worry that if their hours are cut they’ll need to move or dramatically change their lifestyle. Those who clearly have enough to survive worry that if they get sick, the nursing home will take it and so they have to rush to 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.

Jesus confronts head on this culture of worry that flows from the precariousness of basing one’s existence on the weak foundation of material goods. Immediately after reminding us that we can’t serve both God and mammon:, Jesus says, “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. When we are really serving God on the other hand, 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.

I remember when God drove this point home to me in an unforgettable way. I was in my first year of Seminary at Mt. St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. The previous summer I had to work for the Diocese at Cathedral Camp where the gross pay was $1,400 for the summer, and about $500 were taken out for taxes. With the rest of the $900, I was supposed to be able to pay for a car, for gas between here and Maryland, for insurance, for books and for all other incidental expenses. Soon the little savings I had from working during college was depleted. One day I went to the mail room and got my mail. On the top was a bill for Visa for $74.27, what I had used for gas and other expenses in the previous month. I didn’t have the money and I didn’t know what I would need to do. I look at an icon of Jesus hanging on my wall and I told him, “Jesus, you promised that your Father loves us more than sparrows and lilies, that he has counted every follicle on our head, and that he would provide. I need that help now because I don’t know what to do!” To distract myself from the worry I started opening the other mail. Eventually I got to a letter with an Attleboro return address. I didn’t know anyone from Attleboro. When I opened up the letter it was from an organization that up until then I had never heard of, the Serra Club, which prays for and supports priestly vocations. Inside there was a check for $75, which was what I needed to pay the bill. I looked back at the icon and said to Jesus with wonder and gratitude, “Thank you for keeping your promise!” I’ve never doubted since.

Striving First for the Kingdom

This leads to Jesus’ punch line not only of this Gospel passage but probably the whole Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells us, “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.” While everyone else is striving for the basic necessities of food, drink, clothing, housing, Jesus calls us to make our supreme aim the establishment of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our world. He calls us to spread God’s holiness, not to worry about our food but to be fed spiritually, not to worry about what we are to drink but to imbibe from the fonts of everlasting life, not to worry about our clothing but to be clothed in Christ with the armor of God and the spotless garment of our baptism, and not to worry about where we are to live but to abide in Christ. 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, Jesus assures us, because God will make sure we have what we need.

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? Are we going to put our trust and security in our own hands, work, and investments or believe in God’s promises? Jesus says we have to choose because we can’t serve both. We must admit, however, that there are many who believe 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 spend the vast majority of their time seeking to build up their own kingdom. Jesus is calling us to a radical choice about the foundation and direction of our lives. What’s it going to be?

Answering Common Objections to This Trust in God’s Providence

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 starving in Darfur or the hundreds of people who are in lines for food pantries within our diocese?”

It’s important for us as Catholics to know how to respond to these arguments. First, Jesus is not calling us to become spiritual spoiled brats saying that we don’t have to work because our Father in heaven will give us all we need. He doesn’t want us to be the spiritual equivalent of the deadbeat sons who simply don’t want to go looking for a job but just stay at home with our mothers to prepare us three meals a day, wash our clothes, even make our beds, and give us spending money.

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 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.”

This wasn’t written to people who couldn’t work because of handicaps but to those who could work but simply chose not to. St. Paul was indicating to us that 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. It’s burying our God-given talents in the ground. Just like with the bread and wine at the Mass that become Jesus’ body, so the food on our table is meant always to a combination of God’s gifts and the hard 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. Pope Francis said this morning, “To bring about a situation in which no one lacks bread, water, clothing, house, work and health, it’s necessary that we all recognize that we are children of the Father in heaven and therefore brothers and sisters of each other and behave accordingly. … The way of peace is the way of fraternity. When we are walking together, we will share things together.” 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 chief reasons why people starve to death in places like Darfur is precisely because many have lost this sense of caring for brothers and sisters. Corrupt government leaders become billionaires pocketing the foreign aid, rather than use it to care for those in need — a sign of how serving mammon prevents one from serving good. There is plenty of food to give those who are starving, but it remains in airports because of corruption or incompetence. God has provided, many have worked, but sin has intervened.

The conditions for receiving God’s providential “everything else besides” 

With regard to poverty closer to us, many times people are in need of food, clothing, housing and other necessities because they’ve hit a stretch of bad luck and need some short-term help, like any of us might sometime require. But some are in need, living in sudden or endemic poverty, precisely because they or others have structured their lives in ways other than what Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, because they haven’t sought first the kingdom of God but rather have made choices that are not in line with the kingdom and unsurprisingly lead to poverty, like getting involved in a life of drugs, or choosing to skip and drop out of school rather than attend school and give one-hundred percent, or irresponsibly conceiving children in situations lacking a life-time matrimonial commitment.

When people are in need because of such choices, it doesn’t mean that God’s providential care has a limit, or that he doesn’t care for them or love them. But note what Jesus says in today’s Gospel. He states that if we seek his kingdom and his righteousness, 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, if we make irresponsible choices that everything else will be given to us besides. God loves us to much to enable our sins, and sometimes he allows us individually to experience deprivation precisely bring us to our knees to pray and to reestablish our relationship with God. Sometimes he allows reat and soluble famines to convert the world out of its mammon-driven selfishness. Rather than invalidating Jesus’ statements, the situations of poverty in the world illustrate their importance.

The greatest example of God’s providential love

As we celebrate this Mass today, we’re aware that God in his providential care has provided the richest feast imaginable for those who us who seek him first. He is about to feed us with his Son’s body and blood, nourishment that not only strengthens us in this world, but brings us to eternity. This is something God the Father 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, and every day he hears that prayer and responds by giving us his Son on this holy altar. St. Paul wrote to the Romans, that if God the Father didn’t even spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, would he not give us everything else besides? Yes, God the Father not only gave his Son to save us, but gives his Son to us everyday on this altar. Since God the Father is so lavish in giving us what he treasures most, we can be totally confident that he will provide everything we need. But he will do so helping us to learn to be more and more like him, giving us the privilege through our hard work and charity, in cooperating in his providential care for all his sons and daughters. Today Jesus on the altar is the most tangible reminder we’ll ever need of how God cares for us. If God loves us this much, we have nothing to fear. And if he provides for us this much, then he will make it possible for us to go out and say to others, “this is my body, this is my blood, these are the material possessions given by God to me that are now given out of love for you.”

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.”