10 November 2012

On serving two Masters

St. Leo the Great
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

The multi-millenial history of God's relationship with His people can be reasonably described as a troubled marriage. All through the Old Testament the patriarchs and prophets of God use martial images and terms to approximate how the Creator chooses to relate to His human creatures. When things are going well, we hear all about the blessings of marital bliss: generations of fat, happy kids; lots of livestock, wine, oil, etc. But when things are not going so well, we hear all about the woes of marital distress: generations of barrenness; war, exile, slavery in foreign lands, etc. Unlike bad marriages between men and women, the marital problems btw God and His people are always the bride's fault; that is, God is never unfaithful to Israel, but Israel—the Bride—has both a wandering eye and tendency toward committing adultery with other gods. Baal, Moloch, the Ashtoreth. When the Bride strays from her marriage covenant, blessings turn to curses and the road back to fidelity is paved with years of penance. Thus, Jesus reminds us, his Bride, “No servant can serve two masters. . .You cannot serve God and mammon.” 

Being a practical people and believers in the strength of our innate goodness, we are prone to wondering why we can't serve two masters. What exactly is the problem with giving ourselves to more than one god?Or, to put it in more modern terms, why can't we live by relying on both God's providence and our own native ingenuity? We all know the old saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” Like most old sayings, there's some truth here. If we just sit on the couch and wait for God to dump all that we need in our laps, we're likely to die and rot on that couch with empty laps. However, if we rely on ourselves to the exclusion of God's help, we risk becoming increasingly entangled in the world, a world ruled by those foreign gods who tempt us into spiritual adultery. The two unacceptable extremes seem to be: do nothing to help ourselves and wait for God to magically provide AND do everything ourselves and call on God's help only when we fail. Neither option places us at the service of God and both lead us away from the covenant. So, why can't we serve two masters? Serving two masters—God and mammon—causes us to reject God's help in favor of helping ourselves, leaving us closed to receiving His blessings and totally reliant on our limited natural gifts. 

Paul sheds some light in his letter to the Philippians, “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry. . .I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.” The secret of maintaining a happy marriage with God—through the good, the bad, and the ugly—is to serve God first, last, and only. By serving God alone we are given the strength necessary to endure hardship and enjoy abundance. This makes perfect sense when you consider: God never changes; He is always faithful, yet each one of us will change over time; the world changes all the time; even the gods of this world—money, popularity, gov't—are constantly changing. How can you faithfully serve capricious and volatile gods? You end up confused, exhausted, anxious, and none the richer for your service. Therefore, ground your life in service to God. Remove from your living temple—your body and soul—all the idols of other gods. And call upon the strength that God alone can provide to endure scarcity and hardship, to celebrate abundance and good fortune. Our God will fully supply whatever we need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 

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  1. I think these daily homilies sometimes pose a problem of how much you can reasonably put in - this one, for example, told "what" to do but not "how" to go about it. Certainly anyone paying attention to you for any length of time has heard the "how", but as a stand-alone piece I found it lacking in this one practical aspect. And honestly I need all the reminders I can get.

    I know I struggle to "serve God first, last, and only"...And sometimes these short homilies can leave me with more questions than my poor Alabama-brain can handle :-)!!

    1. (Leaving aside all comments on "poor AL brain"). . .

      I hear you, and I agree. Most of our daily Mass-goers are extremely regular, so they've been listening to me prattle on with the How for a year now. Of course, this leaves any newbie who might pop in wondering what the heck is going on.

    2. Oh, and one of the things I've been thinking about lately is settling into a more exegetical mode in preaching. That is, just repeating the readings in a more modern idiom with a few questions thrown in.

    3. Good exegesis is one of my favorite things...but you sometimes ask the most infuriatingly challenging questions!!

    4. Well, do me and my growth in holiness a favor: answer them! :-)