How many gods do you worship?
This may seem like a silly question at first pass. I serve only one God, revealed through Jesus Christ, as the Bible tells me so. But when you stop to think about, how true is that, really? When I’m working out the family budget, is my decision-making completely attentive to what God wants me to do with the money he gave me? When I’m talking politics, is the Bill of Rights just as sacred as the Bible? When I’m at work, or on vacation, am I attentive to how I am serving God at those times?
When we’re honest with ourselves, there are in fact many gods that we try to appease throughout our lives. Of course there’s Yahweh, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom we worship on Sundays and to whom we pray from day to day, whose Bible we read and study. But there’s also Mammon, the god of money – gotta make sure we’re investing and saving wisely for the future, after all. There’s Lady Liberty, the goddess of freedom who protects our sacred rights as Americans. There’s Apatheos, the god of rest, as we fiercely protect what little free time we get. And of course there’s the god of business, often referred to as “The Man,” against whom it is popular to rebel, but at the end of the day we end up returning to him and his cool new products. Life is just too inconvenient without the next best thing on the market.
All these other gods have something good to offer us. Mammon promises us wealth and financial security and a legacy for our children. Lady Liberty promises a life undisturbed by tyrranous government intervention. Apatheos promises us a care-free vacation. The Man promises us popularity and trinkets. Now, you might be thinking that I’m about to preach against the sin of idolatry. In a way you’d be right, but actually there’s a different underlying issue that I want to point out here: covetousness.
The Tenth Commandment
The Decalogue ends with perhaps the weirdest-named sin of them all. Coveting is not a concept spoken about outside religious circles. It stands between jealousy and greed; jealousy is focused on other people, greed is focused on increasing what you have. Covetousness is the sin of wanting what other people have instead of accepting what you already do have. On the subject of covetousness, our new Catechism states “I am not to let envy make me want what others have, but in humility should be content with what I have.” Pointing to the example of Jesus, it says, “In contentment, Jesus took on the form of a servant without wealth or possessions, and in his earthly life loved and trusted his Father in all things.” It describes the danger of covetousness as beginning “with discontent in mind and spirit, and as it grows in the heart, it can lead to sins such as idolatry, adultery, and theft.”
There you go: idolatry, adultery, and theft. These are classic fruits of covetousness. When you serve Mammon, the god of money, you’re committing idolatry and moving toward theft. Same with serving Lady Liberty, or Apatheos, or The Man.
But, surely, money and freedom and rest and popularity are all good things, you might protest? We can’t demonize people for being rich, free, rested, or popular, can we? That is quite true. The challenge with those things, however, lies in how we treat them. Our Gospel reading this morning contains some of Jesus’ most famous teachings about how rightly to order our concerns.
Rightly Ordering Our Concerns
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus gives us the bottom line right away: it is impossible to serve two masters. When there is competition in your heart between God and some other god like money (or Mammon), one will take priority over the other. Our sinful nature drives us toward Mammon, the god of money, or Lady Liberty, or Apatheos, or The Man, or any number of other gods we might invent. We’re very creative people, after all! But the Holy Spirit in the hearts of every baptized believer witnesses to us that we are to serve God, and God alone.
Recall the words of our Lord. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’” The point is abundantly simple: if you believe God to be God, you can trust God to be God. If you can see that he cares for birds and lilies and grass, then you should know that he can care for you.
Why is this so very difficult for us? It’s because Mammon and Lady Liberty and Apatheos and The Man have been taking such good care of us for all these years that we’ve forgotten that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is actually more powerful and more caring than all of them put together. Why does it seem so much easier for the poor, the destitute, the broken, and the sinners to put such radical trust in God? It’s because they’ve witnessed the lies of those other false gods; they’ve seen through their deceptions and figured out that “what they’re selling ain’t it.” The better we know the truth of the false gods, the more heartily we can cling to the True God.
How do I get there from here?
Jesus gives us an immediate answer to this challenge. First, he says, “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” First of all, he’s pointing out that it’s non-believers who anxiously seek after the needs and comforts of life. But God already knows what we need! Therefore we don’t have to run around trying appease the gods of money and rest and so forth, but go straight to God Himself. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Go to God first, seek what really matters: the Kingdom of Heaven in which we are invited to live forever, and the righteousness that he offers to us which enables us to enter into that Kingdom. With those as our first concerns in mind, we can then beseech him for our temporary earthly needs in addition. So, you see, money and freedom and rest are not bad things. But in the grand scheme of things, they’re extras.
Then Jesus adds this almost comical statement: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” You see, he knows that there is a lot of anxiety to deal with in this life. He lived it too! And so he gives us the deceptively simple (and perhaps annoyingly simple) reminder that it’s best just to take it one day at a time. This doesn’t mean he is forbidding any long-term planning. Elsewhere he tells us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The point is about our anxiety and concern and worry. These are emotional expressions that can lead us toward the sin of covetousness, and if we’re more worried about money than about righteousness, there’s a conflict of gods in our heart, and the wrong one has the upper hand.
The Judaizers, against whom St. Paul was writing in his letter to the Galatians, had a similar issue. They were worshiping the Law of Moses as a god. They “boasted in the flesh,” so to speak. They were more interested in how well-behaved they could be, and how well-behaved they could get their disciples to be. True righteousness, from Christ, was not on their minds at all. Instead of boasting “in the flesh” like the Judaizers, we are to boast “in the Cross of Christ.” Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. Or, as Joshua said, a couple thousand years earlier, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” This is exactly what Jesus said too; you cannot serve God and Mammon; you must pick one or the other.
Help me, O Lord!
How can we make this choice? How can we change? Far be it from us to boast in the flesh! These are not changes we can make ourselves. John Calvin famously wrote that the human heart is a factory of idols. Left to our own devices we constantly invent and reinvent our own gods to serve whatever desires we fancy at the time. If we are to lay them aside and focus upon God alone, we need his help.
Let us begin with prayer. The prayer that Jesus himself taught us is always the best place to start. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it begins. In prayer are first drawn toward God himself – who he is and the worship he deserves. Then we seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness by praying “Thy Kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Once we have those priorities in mind, we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Recognizing this order, and taking it to heart, is so very important. That’s why not one but two of the Gospel writers recorded this prayer for us. That’s why the Church to this day includes the Lord’s Prayer in every public worship service, and recommends it for your private devotions as well. Furthermore, we are to pray for “our daily bread.” Technically this means “our bread for this day.” So even the Lord’s Prayer expresses what Jesus taught shortly thereafter: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.”
Another prayer strategy that we might undertake in this fight to rid ourselves of all those other gods is to pay attention to our needs even when we don’t feel the crunch of those needs. Think about it – our tendency is to ask God for things only after we have become anxious about them. We should be praying for our daily bread every day, whether we have enough money for next week’s groceries or not. We must remember the words in this morning’s Collect: we can’t “help but fall” without God, and so we need his “perpetual mercy.” Whether we’re rich or poor, employed or unemployed, rested or exhausted, we all need God’s mercy, help, and provision. As we pray to him for these things whether we feed the need or not, we train our hearts seek God instead of those other gods.
One Final Word of Advice
Finally, as we wrap this up, I want to direct your attention to one more quote from the Catechism. As we combat the sin of covetousness, we should “think often of the inheritance that Jesus has prepared for us, meditate upon his care for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, be generous with what God has entrusted to us, and help others to keep what is rightfully theirs.” This meditation upon God’s provision, similar to the prayer we already discussed, helps us build trust in God as our true provider. Similarly, being generous with our own things and protecting the property of others enables us to “put the money where the mouth is,” so to speak.
After all, how many times have you seem people who say they believe in God and love Jesus, but lead horrifically unfaithful lives? The hypocrisy is simply dreadful. On the other side, consider people who do strive to “live well,” but don’t really believe in Jesus. They, like the Judaizers of old, have merely the appearance of holiness, but at the end of the day they have nothing to show for it because they have been serving gods other than the True God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So, as the classic Christian songs go, “set your eyes upon Jesus, behold his wonderful face.” “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Meditate on the promises that God makes throughout the Bible; He promises never to leave us or forsake us. He promises eternal life in perfect health, cleansing, and sinlessness. Recall the contentment and joy expressed by St. Paul and the others: despite the outward hardships and sufferings they experienced from time to time, there was a peace which surpassed all human understanding that kept their hearts and minds fixed upon the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. That same peace is yours. The less distracted you become by the various gods of this world, the fully and completely that peace will be known to you; yes, even in this life, today.