The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time [C]
Amos 8:4-7  +  1 Timothy 2:1-8  +  Luke 16:1-13
September 18, 2016

“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”

Father Hasenpfeffer made it a practice to visit his parish school each week.  One day he walked into the Fourth Grade, where the children were studying the fifty states.  Father asked how many of the states they could name, and they were able to come up with about forty of them.  He told the students that when he was a schoolboy, he could name all of the states from memory.

A little boy in the second row raised his hand and said, “But Father, back then there were only thirteen.”

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Of course, I myself am not nearly as advanced in age or wisdom as Father Hasenpfeffer.  But the older I get, the more I find myself wanting to simplify my life.  Or to use another image, the more I want to carry out some pruning.

Jesus talked about the art of pruning at the Last Supper when He used the metaphor of the vine and the branches.  He said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.  He takes away every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does He prunes so that it bears more fruit.”[1]

We practice the art of pruning in many areas of life.  Once a year I go through the files in my office, throwing away paper after paper that I’d tucked away for some possible future use.  Or, to reflect on a different example, many people have garage sales at their homes, or go through their clothes closets and pack boxes to take to Goodwill.  And of course in the Church we have a season called Lent, which involves pruning away within our spiritual life whatever hinders us from growing more deeply in Christ.

In all of these examples, there’s a common principle at work.  These examples illustrate that our lives become better, stronger, neater and more focused when we pare away what’s unnecessary:  when we give away what is really a distraction:  when we prune those branches that are preventing greater growth.

This same principle is at work in today’s Gospel passage.  Jesus’ final words are well known even among non-Christians.  Even those who don’t practice what Jesus preaches know what He means when He claims, “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (“mammon” being roughly synonymous with “money”).

At the most recent Altar Society meeting at St. Mary’s, I asked the members to write down suggestions for sermon topics.  There was a good variety, and some members submitted their ideas later.  The suggestions fell into clusters of topics:  many, for example, suggested the lives of the saints.  That topic I’d like to take up next week.  But this week the Gospel sets before us another topic that was suggested.  This topic is one of the two biggest stressors in the lives of married couples and families:  that is, the place of money in our lives.

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“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  This sentence is sometimes falsely interpreted to mean that you cannot have both God and money in your life.  In other words, this false interpretation says that there’s a sort of competition in your life between God and money which is a zero-sum game.  Or to use a picture metaphor:  this false interpretation says that there’s a see-saw in your life:  God and money are sitting at opposite ends of the see-saw.  If one goes up, the other goes down.  The holier you are, the less money you will have, and the more money you have, the less holy you must be.  This interpretation of Jesus’ words is false.

Our spiritual well-being and our financial well-being are not in competition with each other.  Rather, when Jesus plainly tells you that “You cannot serve both God and mammon”, the key is the word serve“You cannot serve both God and mammon.”  You can serve God, or you can serve mammon.  But you cannot serve both.

God, of course, wants us to serve Him alone.  He had declared to Israel many centuries before Christ, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!  Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength.  Take to heart these words which I command you today.”[2]  To love someone is to serve her.  This is true in our relationship with God, as well:  to love Him is to serve Him.

The beautiful thing about serving God is that through this form of love, we become more like Him.  After all, “God is love”,[3] St. John taught the first Christians.  This is as God wants, and in fact this is as each of you wants, in the deepest center of your heart, because God planted that desire there when He created your heart:  the desire to serve Him, and so become more like Him.

On the other hand, what happens when you try to serve money?  One simple way to get at an answer is to ask yourself whether your self-image goes up and down with the amount of money that you have.  Do you feel worse when you lose a significant amount of money?  Do you feel better about yourself when you gain a significant amount of money?  If so, then there is a certain likeness between your money and you.  As the money in your possession grows, so you grow.  As the money in your possession diminishes, so you diminish.  This is a false form of love, and a false serving:  a false servanthood.  It is a love of something that is beneath you.  God wants us to serve Him alone.  Money is meant to serve us, to facilitate our needs in this world:  not our desires, but our needs, and most especially those needs connected to our vocations.

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With all this in mind, consider again the art of pruning.  Consider the fact that a majority of Americans have more money than they need, and need to take pruning shears to their financial life.  Many would laugh at such an idea.  They would object, saying, “What do you mean that most Americans have more money than they need?”  They would point to the number of Americans today in debt.  However, debt in most cases does not signify a need for more money as much as it signifies a need for more planning and pruning.

Many Christian financial counselors—Dave Ramsey and Phil Lenahan among them—have shown why this is true.  Both of these two financial counselors are married men living in the real world today.  One of them is Protestant; the other, Catholic.  Both have helped thousands of people put their financial lives in order, and they do so by taking those in debt by the shoulders, and pointing them squarely towards God, our one true Lord.

So we need to ask:  what is financial wealth for?  The answer is:  financial wealth is a means by which to serve others.  If a person gains financial wealth, God intends for that wealth to be used for others.  That doesn’t mean that the wealthy person has to give it all away, like St. Francis of Assisi.  Despite what some socialists might say, there’s nothing inherently immoral about the action of accumulating wealth.  The sin lies in not using one’s wealth for others, especially within the setting of one’s vocation.

We can speculate that God allows financial wealth to accumulate to those who have the skills to use that wealth for others.  Some persons just don’t—for whatever reason—have it in them to handle the responsibility that comes with wealth:  if those persons were to come into wealth—as happens, for example, with government lotteries—they would end up with ruined lives.  But some persons do have the skills required to deal with wealth in a way that not only allows them to grow that wealth, but also to use it to serve others.

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So with that as a backdrop, consider the guidance of Holy Mother Church.  Consider her precept about personal finances.  As you know, there are five “Precepts of the Church”, listed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in sections 2041-2043.  The first Precept is to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, and to rest on those days from servile labor:  most Catholics understand that this is a non-negotiable part of being a Catholic in good standing.  The second Precept is to confess your sins at least once a year:  that’s really not a challenge for most Catholics.  The third Precept is to receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter Season:  this also is not much of a challenge.  The fourth Precept is to observe the days of fasting and abstinence:  most Catholics don’t find this a challenge given that “fasting” is defined by the Church these days so leniently.  But the fifth Precept of the Church is definitely a challenge for many Catholics.

The fifth Precept of the Church is to provide for the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities.  In a single word, this is the Church’s precept to “tithe”.  The word “tithe” literally refers to giving one-tenth of one’s income.  The Diocese of Wichita does break this ten percent down into two parts:  eight percent given to one’s parish, and two percent given to any charitable group of one’s choice (which can be one’s parish, or which can even be a secular charity that follows sound moral principles).

Some Christians are unaware that tithing is a practice not only rooted in Scripture, but also in the life of the Church and her saints.  In the Old Testament, tithing was seen among the Israelites as a giving of one’s “choicest first fruits”.[4]  This phrase comes from the Book of Exodus“choicest first fruits”.  This is an important image to consider spiritually, because it reveals to us that tithing is not merely a Precept of the Church, but also a spiritual exercise:  a practice that stretches the soul.  By making demands on the Christian, the exercise of tithing strengthens her, just like the art of pruning in agriculture or gardening, or the practice of asceticism during Lent.

The image of “choicest first fruits” explains two things about tithing as a spiritual exercise.  First, what does the word “choicest” tell us?  This word, if you’ll pardon a mixing of metaphors, insists that we give God not the rump roast, but the sirloin.  Tithing is giving to God our best, not our leftovers.

But even more demanding is the call to give our first fruits”.  If you were a farmer harvesting his crops, then your “first fruits” would be given at the beginning of the harvest, when there’s more harvesting to come.  If you were to give God your tithe from the first day of harvest, you would have no way of being sure that Mother Nature wouldn’t wipe out the rest of the crops that night, leaving you with nothing for yourself.  Nonetheless, that’s exactly the sort of faith that the Bible describes in commanding the giving of one’s choicest first fruits”.

So here are two practical considerations.  The first practical consideration is to look once again at your monthly budget, making sure about the difference between your wants and your needs.  The second practical consideration is to make an act of faith in God by increasing your pledge to the parish by one percent of your income (that is, if you’re not already giving 8%).  Some people simply give a flat amount each week—like twenty dollars—without ever reflecting on when exactly the last time was that they increased that amount.

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Recently I had lunch with a former parishioner who serves on the Finance Council of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Wichita.  He reminded me of the late Msgr. Thomas McGread, who served St. Francis Parish for 31 years as its pastor, and who is considered the founder of what’s called the “Stewardship Way of Life”.  Msgr. McGread often challenged his parishioners with this question:  “Do you give to a need, or do you need to give?”  That question is important because it puts the spiritual life front and center, ahead of material needs or wants.  In advance of your own pledge of time, talent, and treasure to your parish this Fall, let Msgr. McGread’s question challenge you to carry out some spiritual pruning in your financial and spiritual lives:  “Do you give to a need, or do you need to give?”

During this coming week, reflect on and speak to the Lord about Jesus’ challenge in today’s Gospel passage.  Our spiritual lives and our finances are not in competition with each other.  The chief threat that finances pose to our spiritual lives arises when we start serving money, instead of making money serve us (or more specifically, our need to give to others, especially within our vocations).  Whenever necessary, pruning helps us make our finances our servant, rather than our master.  This financial pruning ought to go hand-in-hand with the practice of tithing, where we give to God’s Church not just some of the fruits of our labor, but the choicest fruits, and the first fruits.  When we make the sacrifices needed so that our finances serve our needs rather than our desires, then we’ll be more free to serve the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul, and all our strength.

[1] John 15:1-2.
[2] Deuteronomy 6:4-6.
[3] 1 John 4:8.
[4] Exodus 23:19.