Sunday Scriptures

Are We Servants of God or Mammon?

by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz

“DO NOT WORRY about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”

My gut-level reaction when I read these words from this Sunday’s Gospel? Dear Jesus: that’s way more easily said than done!

That’s because, dear Jesus, you know better than I do that there are so many hundreds of millions of people in this world of yours who will go to bed hungry tonight, and that in 2015 more than 40 million people in the United States lived in food-insecure households. In our own city of New York, dear Jesus, there were more than 60,000 homeless people last December, according to the Coalition for the Homeless ( Among them were more than 24,000 homeless children and over 15,000 homeless families.

As for being worried about our bodies, what about refugees and the perils from which they take flight? The UN tells us that there are over 65 million displaced persons worldwide, and among them more than 21 million refugees. How can they possibly not be worried about their endangered bodies and those of their families, imperiled as they are by so much violence and indifference?

Missing the Point

If I stayed with my gut-level reaction, I would be missing the point because I would be ignoring the admonition with which Jesus begins this portion of the Sermon on the Mount: “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.”

Mammon? It’s the transliteration of an Aramaic word that, in general terms, means property, and a bit more specifically refers to wealth. Many Bibles translate it as wealth or even as money. So what is Jesus saying? Jesus is drawing from the social structures of the first century in which His first disciples lived. Theirs was a world in which many people endured the harsh reality of slavery that put their bodies and wills wholly at the service of a master’s whims, the master demanding absolute compliance and surrender of the slave’s free self-determination.

By using this example, Jesus is by no means endorsing the social order of His time, nor the structurally sinful institution of slavery. The Gospel of the Reign of God proclaimed by and embodied in Jesus insists on the radical equality of all God’s children, and the equal dignity of all those whom God has made in the divine image and likeness. It rejects the exploitation of human beings by other human beings. Yet, here Jesus calls His disciples’ attention to an institution with which they were painfully familiar so as to be absolutely clear: “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”

Fulfillment in God’s Will

To place ourselves at the service of God – to recognize the sovereignty of God and to obey God’s will in everything – is nothing less than the fulfillment of human flourishing. Because God commands nothing that debases, demeans or dehumanizes, to pray, “Your will be done,” is to embrace God’s will that we should enjoy and share God’s own gifts of life and love.

On the other hand, to serve mammon is to bow low, not before Someone, but before something – something that can never love, satisfy or make us whole; something that can only dehumanize us with empty promises, numbing us to our own human dignity and that of our brothers and sisters in the human family.

Pope Francis has aptly identified this numbing as the globalization of indifference. “We are accustomed to the suffering of others,” the pope laments, “it doesn’t concern us, it’s none of our business.”

In his September 2015 address to the U.S. bishops, Pope Francis observed: “Today consumerism determines what is important. Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming … Whatever the cost or consequences. A consumption which does not favor bonding, a consumption which has little to do with human relationships. Social bonds are a mere ‘means’ for the satisfaction of ‘my needs.’ The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality.”

A Disposable Culture

The pontiff goes on to spell out the consequences of life at the service of mammon: “The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer ‘useful’ or ‘satisfying’ for the tastes of the consumer.” Pope Francis warns, if mammon is in charge, we become thralls of “a disposable culture that considers the human being in himself as a consumer good, which can be used and then discarded.”

Elderly people, young people, unemployed people, sick people, stateless people and refugees – all those who are legitimately preoccupied about where their next meal will come from – are the collateral damage of society’s collective enslavement to mammon, to the material stuff that eats away at our human dignity even as we consume more and more of it.

What is to be done? What does Jesus call for? “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,” he insists, “and all these things will be given you besides.”

This is not a proof text for the prosperity gospel, the seriously mistaken – but altogether too popular – notion that God rewards the faithful with material wealth. That’s not what it means and that’s not how it works.

As disciples who regard ourselves, in the words of St. Paul, as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” we are called to displace the culture of indifference with a culture of compassion. That is a matter of putting people first: hungry people, homeless people, sick people, imprisoned people, people who have fled their homelands out of fear for their lives. People first, for God’s sake!

That’s what it means to seek the righteousness of the reign of the God, the One who alone deserves our faithful service.

Readings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time                    

Isaiah 49: 14-15

Psalm 62: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9

1 Corinthians 4: 1-5

Matthew 6: 24-34

Father Ruiz, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn, is a professor of theology at St. John’s University.