Oh Useless Anxiety
I found this Gospel one of the most difficult to consider preparing a homily. I think I have worried about everything. The list in the Gospel is most complete regarding things that have worried me all of my life. Even with prayerful consideration and the addition of my spiritual advisor, (Fr. Louie’s) prayer regarding “useless anxieties” were not sufficiently helpful for a type “A” personality. Even the age of “Alfred E. Neuman”, (What me worry?) that I was not really steeped in, did not change my desire to achieve something better for my family than I was exposed to when I was a child growing up in the 1940s and 1950’s. Perhaps you remember the song “Don’t Worry Be Happy” that won a Grammy for Bobby McFerrin in 1989. It’s still a catchy tune. In 1943 the American Psychologist, Dr. Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) produced a pyramid of the hierarchy of needs that if satisfied everyone would be happy and secure. Maslow’s pyramid describes human motivations from the most basic to the most advanced. None of this is sufficiently inspirational to stop the worry. The only real source to stop worrying is the Gospel. Jesus tells us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
81 years ago, FDR is best known for his famously pointed reference to "fear itself" in one of its first lines of his inaugural address: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself …
Three times Jesus insists that the disciples not worry, whether about life, food or drink, the body or clothing: and he urges reliance on divine providence. This message from Jesus is not a call to relinquish or renounce anything. Rather, Jesus is offering us a choice. He tells us that we must choose between freedom and slavery. He urges us to choose freedom, and tells us how to take the first steps toward the only real freedom there is.
What is “mammon” anyway? Mammon, commentators tell us, is an expression common to Jesus’ day that defines something harmless enough in itself. Mammon is “simply an Aramaic word for ‘property,’ including, but not limited to, money,”1 though it is translated as “wealth” in some Bible versions. Mammon, back then, was “a way of referring to property and wealth in general.”2
As Jesus will do throughout the gospel, Jesus is once again calling us to seek and claim our true selves, and to find our true selves in God. This, it can be said, is the point of his entire ministry. Jesus is urging us here to lay hold of the fullest possible expression of who we really are, and pointing out to us the things that get in the way.
Jesus begins by laying out two possible orientations toward life that will inevitably clash: a life-focus upon God and a life-focus upon Mammon or better said, earthly things. There is nothing particularly evil about Mammon in and of itself. This call from Jesus, situated in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, is not a demand for us to a life of austere poverty. Jesus is not telling us to “renounce” anything; he is telling us to take responsibility for the focus and orientation of our lives.
No one can serve two masters,” Jesus says. Serving two masters here is not the same thing as having two jobs (to make ends meet), and it is not the same thing as saying “Choose between career and family” or something like that — though this could have everything to do with either or both of these examples.
This is not a call to renounce Mammon or wealth or property. Rather, Jesus is saying that our relationship to wealth must not be one of a slave serving a master. We must not love wealth; we cannot be devoted to wealth. Jesus’ call here is not to give up wealth; his call is to love God. “Love” and “hate” here do not refer to emotions; the terms as used here by Jesus “represent the biblical expression for ‘choose’ or ‘not choose.’3 If we would love God, we cannot choose wealth over God.
This Gospel story is not a call to renounce anything except sin itself. It is a call to choose whom we will serve. It is a call for us to love God — and to understand what loving God entails. The most effective approach to confronting and resolving the dilemma implied here is simply to choose to love God. If we are totally devoted to loving and serving God, any attachment we may have to wealth will simply fall away; we will begin to find wealth simply uninteresting.
This is the orientation to which Jesus calls us — not a life of worry, too busy to care about the physical world and physical beauty, but a life that takes in all of the beauties and joys of nature and that accepts the physical hardships, knowing that, somehow, God will provide. It is the life dedicated to materialism that pulls us - as if down a steep, muddy slope to worry. A life completely oriented toward wealth as god quickly becomes a life of slavery, even now, in our postmodern age in which slavery is supposedly dead.
Would you want to be free of worry, of enslavement to wealth and possessions? Don’t renounce them; it has been said that the more we renounce something, the more power we give it. If you would be free, turn your heart and your mind and your strength toward God. Fix your heart upon intangibles: love and generosity, losing yourself in honest work and liberating play, living for the wealth that surrounds us and is right in front of us, and not storing up physical possessions, having them just to have them and then packing them away. Striving first for the kingdom of God entails taking hold of the kingdom that God has already given to us, as well as awaiting that future kingdom, when God’s will shall be done on earth as in heaven. “Oh useless anxiety.”
But we know that there is starvation in the world, one might say; there are in the world hunger, famine, floods, earthquakes and natural disasters. The freeway ramps in Phoenix are popular spots for the impoverished. How does God “provide” in the midst of evils like these?
God provides when God’s people choose to serve God over Mammon. God provides when we devote ourselves to the love of neighbor that inevitably follows from love of God. When we strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, we are moved to provide for people without the basic physical needs, and to reach out to those suffering from disaster and injustice.
We know we are not born as utterly free beings without any particular ties to anything or anyone. We are dependent beings from the beginning — upon parents who brought us to birth, upon family and society that nurture and support us. Our life consists of only one choice, really: Whom will we serve? Jesus breaks that choice down as far as it will go. Whom will we serve? If we would be free, our choice must be God. Don’t worry — don’t worry about food, don’t worry about clothing; don’t even worry about what you must relinquish. Yes one must be a productive member of society. Choose life with God, and everything else will fall in place.
I love to listen to Christian radio broadcasts while making my weekly trip to Phoenix. Matthew West has a new ballad titled, “Do Something”. Maybe you have heard it. A few lines of the ballad is as follows:
I woke up this morning
Saw a world full of trouble
now I thought, how'd we ever get so far down
How's it ever gonna turn around
So I turned my eyes to Heaven
I thought, “God, why don't You do something?”
Well, I just couldn't bear the thought of
People living in poverty
Children sold into slavery
the thought disgusted me
So, I shook my
fist at Heaven
Said, “God, why don't You do something?”
He said, “I did, I created you”1
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