“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 (NRSV)
If you have been following along through this entire stretch on the Sermon on the Mount, you probably already know what’s coming. You also probably deserve a medal or a plaque or at least a video game achievement of some sort.
Up until this point, the Sermon has done a lot of line-drawing: you’re either on this side, or you’re on this side. You’re either the poor, or you’re the rich. You’re either the oppressed, or you’re the oppressor. You either belong to the new creation, or you belong to the world system as it is. You will either be suffering now and rewarded later, or you will be rewarded now and suffer latter.
In between all this line drawing, Jesus reserves the sharpest criticism for those who try to keep a foot in both worlds. It is this group who has been his target when talking about people who have all the external trappings of God’s faithful, but in their hearts they love what the present world system will get them.
In case the argument has been too subtle for anyone, Jesus brings the point home with clarity and directness: you cannot serve both masters. You love one and hate the other. You don’t love one more than the other. You don’t love one and feel casually about the other and everything is ok because the other isn’t your main priority. It’s this or that. Jesus’ listeners cannot keep up a certain level of service to one while also trying to serve the other.
In Jesus’ world, this division was certainly and clearly the case. The impoverished peasantry of Israel was light years away from the rich and the gap was widening all the time. It was a Marxist’s dream case study. The laborers became poorer and more numerous and lost the means of their sustenance to the wealthy. There was no sizable chunk of the population that you could describe as, “not rich, but still doing ok for themselves.” Doing ok for yourself meant that you were allowed some level of subsistence off the land you worked that used to belong to you and you stayed out of debtors’ prison another year.
There was only one way to escape that state, and that was to ally yourself with the other side. You had to adopt their practices and their values. You had to win their approval and their allegiance. That involved cozying up to the right people, saying the right things, doing the right things, and you might find yourself in nice clothes living in the part of Jerusalem closest to the palace with a nice position in the Roman hierarchy.
There was a segment of people who wanted that life of prosperity while still keeping their “religious” life going. They still wanted their Israelite membership card, but they didn’t want to actually throw their lot in with them. “Of course, the Holy City and her people mean everything to me,” they might say, “but have you seen these people, recently? So dirty, and far more concerned with bringing in a harvest than purchasing appropriate sacrifices. Barely spiritual at all, really, so unlike myself. Many sinners. Lamentable, really. And of course it’s just terrible that we’re under Roman occupation. Grrrr. But one does what one must. The show must go on, and if we want to keep our Temple, we need to place nicely. And have you seen the wines Herod has been bringing in from Italy? Faithfulness deserves a reward from time to time, don’t you think?”
Jesus has no patience for this. Jesus is dirty and poor eats leftover wheat lying around in fields. Jesus, the most faithful of the faithful, eats and drinks with the lowly and diseased sinners. He looks around at this group of farmers and tradesmen and prostitutes and failed revolutionaries and pronounces them the new Israel – the ones who will be comforted, filled, and inherit the world – the ones who will enter the Kingdom ahead of scribes and Pharisees.
And any who would consider themselves Israel have to make the same decision. Where is the kingdom of God, who are the faithful, and will they align with that group whatever it costs them?
Outside of first century Israel, the situation is more complex, especially if we consider the Church globally. We certainly do have countries where the situation looks very much like first century Israel, and in those contexts it may be much easier to identify whose “side” Jesus identifies with and calls us to identify with as well. We should continue to testify to the world that wealth is not God and what we have is a gift to be used for meeting the needs of others, and the integrity of this profession is weakened when we see how thoroughly wealth and the valuing of wealth and the individuation of wealth has permeated much of the Western church.
But we also have to acknowledge that, in many other places, the lines are drawn in a much more complicated manner. Many countries have a very broad middle class that cannot be easily defined as “rich” or “poor” in the stark categories of first century Judea. In other countries, power and wealth is in the hands of corporations or private individuals and not an oppressive government per se. While we don’t want to take any teeth out of Jesus’ teaching, we also have to acknowledge that transposing his ideas into our political and economic situation may take some serious thought and prayer as we discern these things in our own age without falling into the trap of “discerning” ourselves right into a nice, comfortable situation that affirms our prejudices.
Perhaps the challenge of the Western church is to discern what this phenomenon looks like in our own cultures and contexts. Where do we have powers that oppress the people of God while at the same time having a powerful temptation to cozy up to those powers? Who are our undesirables and outsiders? Who have we mentally excluded from the kingdom because of our own assumptions? Who is about the work of new creation, and who is working to keep the status quo running, and what role have we played in that?
We might find ourselves, in the name of Jesus, lining up yet again with those who might be considered undesirables by the world at large.
- Think of the groups of people off the top of your head that you are sure are outside the kingdom of God. Now, think through those groups more carefully. Are you sure? How are you sure? What criteria are you using? If they come from the Bible, are there other things in the Bible that might call your criteria into question?
- Which people do you most desire their respect? Why is that?
- Where does most of your time go? Your money? Your talents? Your thoughts? Are those your highest priorities? If you don’t think they are, why would you think that?