Choose, This Day, Whom You Will Serve

Matthew  6: 24-34

Choose, This Day, Whom You Will Serve

One of the most stirring passages of scripture is in Joshua, his farewell speech to the Hebrew people at the end of his life. Joshua led the people well after Moses’ death, and his passage marks yet another chapter and turning point for the people of God who once again must decide who to follow and who to serve.  His words:  “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are now living; but as for me and my household we will serve the Lord.”  Joshua lays it on the line. You cannot serve two masters and so you must choose. 

It was 1200 years later when Jesus laid it on the line to those listening to the Sermon on the Mount.  Choose today who you will serve, and choose wisely. Although this time Jesus wasn’t worried about the people serving the god of the Amorites.  He was warning about the lures of the god of wealth…or mammon. 

Mammon is an Aramaic word in which wealth is personified. It is not merely a possession, but functions more as a deity.[1]  As a deity it commands our allegiance, our time, our attention, our heart and soul.  As Ronald Allen points out the heart cannot be divided between God and wealth, because both cannot be the object of our love and obedience.  If we serve wealth as our master, we cannot serve God.

Certainly there are other things that might serve as our master…one could be a slave to an addiction for example…but we know that Jesus spoke about money and wealth more often than anything else.  Jesus knew what some people never learn—what a cruel master wealth can be and how burdensome can be its yoke upon us.  Whereas Jesus said, “my yoke is easy and my burden in light.”

Jesus had nothing against money or the things money could buy.  It’s just that Jesus could see what kind of world that results when wealth is the object of love.  Jesus was holding up a vision of what a world would look like when there is total trust in God’s provision for our needs.  Greg Carey says that “Jesus encourages them to imagine the world differently, to see it from a God’s-eye perspective, and to value the things Jesus values…Jesus conjures a world in which God’s care is sufficient.”[2]

The passage gives us two examples of God’s providential care. Jesus is doing a guided meditation here using the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as objects of consideration.  Jesus invites us to reflect on these matters by offering an imaginative experience of God’s divine provision.  Look at the birds outside your window.  Now imagine you are that bird.  You neither sow nor reap, and yet somehow you get fed by God’s hand. 

We are idolatrous when we think we can provide for ourselves.  God has created the world in a way that provides for us if we but have the eyes to see that world.

This past week I put on our website a link to an amazing story of an Ecuadoran woman,Maria Aguinda, who  helped bring a landmark judgment against US oil giant Chevron for polluting the rain forest she calls home.  Here is an excerpt:

The diminutive grandmother whose modest home sits near marshes clogged for decades in sticky oil has been at the heart of the David-and-Goliath case, and spoke out after Chevron was slapped last week with a $9.5-billion fine, among the heaviest ever handed down for environmental damage.

“Before I die they have to pay me for the dead animals, and for what they did to the river, and the water and the earth,” the 61-year-old Aguinda told AFP at her home in Rumipamba, a town in remote Orellana province where pollution caused by 30 years of oil drilling and petroleum accidents had become a sad fact of life. “The demand (for compensation) is going on track,” said the ethnic Quechua woman, pointing to a nearby spot marked by spillage from an oil well run by Texaco in the 1970s.

“Mary Aguinda et al” are the opening words of the suit launched in 1993 on behalf of 30,000 residents of Orellana and Sucumbios provinces, in which they charge Texaco dumped billions of gallons of toxic crude during its operations, fouling rivers, lakes and soil and causing cancer deaths in indigenous communities. Aguinda said she believes her husband and two of his 10 children died from effects of the pollution, which rights group Amazon Watch says has affected an area the size of the US state of Rhode Island.

The question that comes to mind is “what were they thinking?”  Of course, we know the answer to that question.  They were thinking about mammon, which had become their god.  Money is a very cruel master, to bring its slaves to stoop to such depths.  Such extreme examples are useful illustrations of why Jesus portrayed money as a master in his teaching.  It commands one’s obedience and allegiance.

When we step back from the extreme example, we ask, what bearing does this have on my life?  Jesus is offering us an alternative to the questions that keep us all up at night, “will I have enough? And when is enough enough? How can I keep what I have?”  Jesus is not saying that being poor is a virtue.  He is saying that we must choose what is our priority: wealth or God.  And we must not think that because we are not wealthy Jesus isn’t talking to us.  Wealth involves how we spend our money and spending priorities.  Jesus is taking aim at a culture of consumerism that equates buying things with happiness.  John Haughey has observed that we read (interpret) the gospel as though we have no money, and we spend our money as though we have never read the gospel.[3]

When my husband and I were buying our house it was just at the beginning of the economic meltdown. So, many of the houses we viewed were either in foreclosure or short sale.  I remember going into one vacant house.  The owners were divorcing and the house was in short sale.  The owners had moved but much had been left behind.  In the kitchen sat a turkey fryer, still in the box.  Outside was a brand new gas grill, with weeds growing up around it. We went in the garage and there we really saw the god of mammon.  It was full of brand new stuff.  Two ATVs, a Sears Craftsman tool chest, fully loaded.   Recreation stuff lined the shelves on the walls.  All left behind.  It was terribly sad, and a stunning commentary on how often we live in a realm of misplaced priorities and wrong choices…beginning with the people who were lending money to people who couldn’t afford the mortgages.  I guess you could say of the whole economic collapse of the last several years–it was all a  house built on sand.

Jesus is inviting us into a realm where priorities are clear.[4] Barbara Essex says that the focus in God’s realm is not on how many toys we have, but where are hearts are.  “In God’s community, people look out for one another and share what they have; people take what they need and leave some for others.  In God’s community, people think about their neighbors, even as they think about themselves.  This is where the miracle of God’s care for God’s people is discovered.”

Last week I visited one of our members in a nursing home.  Compared to where he was a year over, prior to going into the nursing home, he is living in very reduced circumstances.  We sat and talked quietly.  He said that he has finally come to terms with being there and knows that he isn’t going home.  He knows he isn’t going to walk again.  He talked of his gratitude for all the visits he receives and the care he gets from the staff.  He participates in the activities at the home, even though they are a far cry from the things he used to do. And he concluded this line of thought with these words, “but you know, I’m happy. I have what I need and it’s OK.” 

This member of Zion is glimpsing the world conjured up by Jesus, the one in which God’s care is sufficient.  This is not a worry or care-free world.  But it is one in which God will not leave us without resources to cope and one in which we can be joyful regardless of our circumstances.

Many centuries ago the English saint and mystic Julian of Norwich, living among the Black Plague, said these words: Despite all the pains that ever were, God longs to comfort readily and sweetly. He does so by reassuring us that because of the certainty of his boundless love, all shall be well and all shall be well, and manner of things shall be well.

[1] Ronald Allen, The Lectionary Commentary, The Third Readings:  The Gospels, 42.

[2] Greg Carey, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol 1, 409.

[3] Consumerism, p 67.

[4] Barbara Essex, Feasting on the Word, Year A vol 1, 406 and 408.