Our modern idols are not so modern

The kind of gold that fills our hearts’ abyss is different than the one we usually seek.

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Occasion: Sunday, February 26th, 2017 Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Gospel.

Reading

Jesus said to his disciples:
“No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say,‘What are we to eat?’
or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’
All these things the pagans seek.
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 given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil.”

Standout words

two masters, mammon, worry, anxious, tomorrow will take care of itself

Reflection

In, George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner, the eponymous protagonist falls away from a small church after being wronged by its members, one of whom is his beloved. He moves away and creates a new life for himself as a weaver, at which he is immensely skilled. Having lost faith in both his fellow man and in God, Marner tries to fill his heart’s abyss with gold. He amasses a small fortune, hides it away under the floorboards, and counts it every night after shuttering the windows. He grows increasingly nearsighted as he ages, and while his neighbors respect his work and pay him well for it, they have little to do with him. It suits him fine.

…until one day, when someone steals his gold. Going out in desperation to find the one thing he loves, Marner spots what looks to him like a pile of his gold — until he places his hands on it, and finds that it is the golden hair of a small girl whose mother has just died. In that moment, grace touches the miser’s heart: when people offer to take the girl away, he clings to her. He sees her as a gift to replace the gold coins he has lost. By taking responsibility for a child and her future, this man who had lost faith in both God and man comes to regain both, to the point where one day he finds himself able to give up even this gold.

I don’t know that Eliot had today’s Gospel in mind when she wrote her novel, but they certainly complement each other. Many of the Bible’s strongest repeated warnings are against an inordinate attachment to money, here referred to as “mammon”. The Bible’s view of mammon is so dim that it repeatedly condemns usury, a condemnation the Church retains (Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, reminded an audience of this).

It is something of a curiosity that the more financial resources people acquire, the more insecure they feel. I’ve certainly noticed this in my own life, and it seems curious that, at a time when our nation is on average richer and than ever and enjoying more and more material goods (when’s the last time an American could not find food because of a famine?) we seem to be less happy, more fearful, and consequently more divided culturally and politically.

Indeed, surveys of “happiness” often find a negative correlation between income or wealth and happiness; that is, poorer, more rural Americans and foreigners were happier than wealthier, more urban ones. What tends to make people happier are actually generosity and social support; in other words, the sorts of things one expects from a good church. This used to make routine headlines, followed by perplexed commentary from the commentariat, but fear not: to “fix” this “problem”, some polling organizations concluded that it was a bad idea to measure people’s happiness by actually asking them. Instead, they ignore the people altogether and look instead at material measures, such as “financial wealth” and “access to quality health care.” These are the surveys I’ve noticed in more recent headlines, and while these metrics are without a doubt important for many material aspects of well-being, one wonders if the people who made these changes have perhaps missed the point.

Ponder what our Lord’s words actually say. He does not say that it is wrong to think about future obligations, to buy clothes, or to put aside enough money for future expenses. What he actually counsels against is worry about these things: letting them consume so much of our concern that they become the most important things in life. When we grow so attached to our lifestyle that we cannot bear to engage in charity lest we can no longer make ends meet — yes, we Americans, who live in larger and emptier houses, travel further for both work and pleasure with less worry of the cost, and enjoy access to more free entertainment and information than virtually anyone else in history — we are the people our Lord is speaking to here. We made an idol of mammon, and it should not surprise us that our marriage and birth rates have declined at phenomenal rates over the last few decades: like Silas Marner, we have lost faith in both God and each other, and seek to fill the resulting abyss with gold. So we worry, worry, worry that what “little” we have — and little it is indeed, though not in the ways we think — will be taken away from us. And what is it that we worry about? That we will no longer be the wealthiest people in the world — nor the unhappiest.

(The reader unfamiliar with Silas Marner really should consider reading it, as it is a tale beautifully told. If not, Steve Martin — yes, that Steve Martin — adapted it two decades ago into a film called A Simple Twist of Fate. It is quite unlike his usual oeuvre, and while it pales in comparison to the book, it is on the whole a faithful adaptation to the modern era.)

Author: Jack Perry

Catholic. Mathematician. Square monomial diagram in a round avatar's circle.

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