Divided loyalties. You can’t serve two masters.
You can’t be a Chicago Cubs fan and a St. Louis Cardinal fan. Doesn’t work.
Oh, to keep peace in the office or at home you say for public consumption: “Yeah, I’m a UK fan and a U of L fan.”
Nice try, pal. But we ain’t buying it. We may have been born at night, but we weren’t born last night.
You can’t be a peace activist and a nuclear bomb maker. You’re constantly working at cross-purposes.
Yeah, Jesus is talking about divided loyalties in our Gospel this morning. But we kind of know that already, don’t we? Experience tells us that we can’t play both ends against the middle. We’ve got to pick a side. Nothing particularly earth shattering there.
But Jesus isn’t just talking about the generic principle that you can’t serve two masters—like you can’t be a vegetarian and sneak prime rib. He’s got two masters in particular in mind—God and wealth. Pick a side.
Now, this seems interesting in light of the text last week, in which Jesus suggested that we ought to be thinking creatively, breaking down the too easy binaries of this world—specifically, being violent or being a wimp.
Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Jesus said that there are creative ways to opt out of the assumption that your only choices are hitting back or running away.
But not today. Today, Jesus sets up a binary of his own. He gives a religious ultimatum: God or wealth.
So, the first question we ought to ask ourselves is “why?” Why does Jesus set these two in opposition to each other?
Well, it’s like marriage. There’s no free agency. Pick a team and stick with it. You don’t get to wander around at will seeing what it’s like to play for another team.
Well, not only is it not fair to your beloved, but beyond that, you’re working at cross-purposes with the very goal of marriage—which has to do with giving yourself to someone else for their sake … and not for your own self-aggrandizement.
Same thing with God and wealth. Jesus doesn’t condemn money as a tool. But he is pointing out that serving God and serving wealth is like trying to be an advocate for women’s rights during the day, and then punching into your night job as a pole dancer.
What’s the barrier between God and wealth that Jesus sees?
Serving God means believing that God will provide, that wherever God is, there will be enough.
If you serve wealth, on the other hand, there’s never enough. Loving stuff doesn’t leave much room for God, since the love of stuff is driven by the conviction that what defines our relationship to the world is scarceness. Serving wealth means we don’t believe there’s enough to go around, and therefore, we have to grab “our share” of an increasingly small pie.
In the Deer Park Discourses the Buddha famously observed that “life is suffering”—the first noble truth—which, when heard by most people strikes them as unnecessarily morose.
“Yeah, life’s tough and all that … but it’s not all bad.”
When I teach Buddhism I explain to people that the word used by the Buddha (dukkha), which often gets translated from the Pali as “suffering,” doesn’t just mean something like “unremitting agony.” It can mean that, of course; but it means much more.
Dukkha is better understood as a wheel in which the axle is off center, making the wheel wobble constantly as it turns. It’s like a pebble in the shoe, which can cause great pain, but which is more often experienced as a phenomenon that exists just beyond the horizon of awareness, always seeming to lurk at the edges of consciousness. It is, in short, the nagging sense that something is not right.
Suffering … not in the epic sense of the grand heroic struggle, but in the dislocative sense that life is not as it should be.
Why is life dukkha? According to the Buddha, the second noble truth is that life is suffering is because we desire.
“Of course, we desire. Why is that bad?” people want to know.
Again, I stop and explain that the word the Buddha used (tanha) is probably better translated “selfishly grasp.”
We suffer because we grasp after things intended only to satisfy ourselves. We want things because we want them, and when we don’t get them, we experience suffering.
Our selfish grasping causes us to treat things as permanent, which things are only fleeting (anicca).
Surely, this time love will last forever, that my new __________ (fill in the blank) won’t break, rust, expire, leave, wear out, etc., that the body that has served me so well in the past will keep on working like it always has.
When that which we grasp for inevitably stops working, takes off, runs dry we suffer. We worry that we won’t have enough to stop the gnawing sense that something’s not right.
Scarceness. We better grab what we can for ourselves, because nobody else is going to do it for us.
Furthermore, as the Buddha observed, we’re amazingly good at lying to ourselves about the nature of our existence (anatta). We tell ourselves that the world we inhabit is the real world—and not just the world we perceive—that truth is an easy thing to possess for ourselves, but not for our enemies; that we really are who we believe ourselves to be. When we find out the extent to which we cling to illusions, we suffer.
By now, many people are itching to argue with the Buddha. But that’s when I break out the third noble truth.
The third noble truth consists in seeing the first two noble truths together as inextricably bound up with one another, then seeking to untangle them. The Buddha said that “If you want not to suffer, you must not selfishly grasp.”
Isn’t that elegantly simple?
People say, “Yeah, well, that’s fine for the Buddha; he gave everything away. He didn’t have anything left to hold onto.”
And Jesus agrees with the Buddha here: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
Our grasping, our fear that God is unable to provide is—according to Jesus and the Buddha—at the heart of the world’s suffering. No one can serve two masters: God or wealth. Plenty or scarcity. Pick a side. No divided loyalties.
And the interesting thing is that people often let themselves off the hook on this one. “I don’t serve wealth. I mean, look at me. I don’t have as much as the … you know, really rich people.”
It’s easy to think that the people with the real problem in Jesus’ mind are those folks who have everything. They’re the real materialists, right? The one-percenters. The elite. The monied class. They’re the ones who have to look out here, aren’t they?
Interestingly, Jesus isn’t talking here so much about what we do with our money—although in this Gospel, as well as the others, Jesus has plenty to say about how we use money. (He’s got a real agenda when it comes to those with money using it as a way to ensure that their own grasp on power remains secure, and who take advantage of those without it.)
However, in this passage Jesus is more concerned with what money represents to us.
What do I mean?
To those who don’t have a lot of money, it’s extraordinarily easy to convince ourselves that true happiness lies in acquiring more of it than we already have. In this passage, Jesus seems to be challenging not the use of money so much as the idolatry of money—the belief that wealth has some magical properties that can insulate us from the uncertainties of life.
Because people believe there’s not enough to go around. So, we’d batter grab ours, or be left out in the cold.
But serving mammon isn’t just the overwhelming desire to have more stuff, to add to the pile we already possess—although it is that. Serving mammon has another side, one we don’t often speak of, but one that affects many more of us who have only modest wealth: Serving mammon can also just as easily be an unhealthy worry about what we don’t have.
You know what I’m talking about, right? That’s why Jesus follows up the part about serving two masters with an admonition about not worrying. Which admonition strikes us as a little too easy, doesn’t it?
If you’re afraid about what comes next in your life, how helpful is it to have someone tell you, “Don’t worry?”
See what I mean?
But Jesus isn’t just talking about a little attitude adjustment—“turn that frown upside down.” He’s talking here about a radical reorientation of our understanding about how the world works.
We’re so used to thinking that somehow or another we’ve got to make it happen … or it won’t get done. All this trust in God stuff makes nice greeting cards or whatever, but when it’s my mortgage on the line, I’d like something a bit more tangible.
You see the problem. Scarcity convinces us that someone or something other than God is in charge.
I get scared. I grasp. I worry. I suffer.
And, here’s the thing. It’s not just a phenomenon that individuals suffer. It can happened to churches, too.
Churches are not unlike individuals in their mad scramble to hold onto something, to grasp after that which is impermanent.
I was talking to a colleague not long ago. She works in a church that lives in fear, worried that scarcity rather than God is in control.
I was trying to get her to do some creative thinking about how churches get into that situation. So, I asked her:
Have you ever been to a church where desperation hangs in the air—the feeling that “we’ve got to do something, or we’re going to die?”
Have you ever been to a church where every meeting is punctuated by hand-wringing over money? The lack of young families? Declining worship attendance?
Have you ever been to a church where failure is not viewed as a learning experience, but as one more step down the inevitable path toward extinction?
Have you ever been to a church where institutional maintenance is more important than getting out where people are hurting, and hungry, and scared?
Suffering. Selfish grasping. According to Jesus and the Buddha, they’re inextricably linked. The more we have of one, the more we can be sure we’ll have of the other.
If we want not to suffer, we must relinquish our tendency to grasp for the untrue and the impermanent. That is to say, we must disentangle ourselves from that which causes our suffering. We must detach from those things, ideas, expectations that keep us chained to our own selfish desires.
If we believe scarcity rules the world, we’ll never escape the worry about tomorrow. We’ll never be fully able to give ourselves away for others.
She said, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. You work at a great church.”
And I said, “I do work at a great church. But I can’t take much credit for it; they were great before I got here. But even though it’s a great church none of this is easy for me to say, and even harder for me to do. We have our own worries at Douglass Blvd Christian Church. Look, I didn’t say it was easy, only necessary. Jesus says the cost of the whole process of letting go is a cross, which is to say, death (Matt 16:24–25).”
Then, I said, “But think about it. What if your church actually believed that God is calling the shots? What would that look like? Maybe the way to think about it looks something like this:
Have you ever been to a church that spends more time struggling over what to give away than what to keep—a church that expends as much energy on the Outreach committee as on the Property committee?
Have you ever been to a church that sees its small youth group not as a disappointment, but as an opportunity to offer more focused ministry?
Have you ever been to a church that views its building as a present to the world and not as a bequest to its members?
Have you ever been to a church where worship is centered on the gift that is offered to God rather than on what individual participants “get out of it?”
Have you ever been to a church where truth is a treasure most trusted and illusion is the thing to be avoided at all cost?
Have you ever been to a church in which justice is not just the securing of individual rights, but the pursuit of a vision of the reign of God in which there is no justice until it gets extended to everyone? Where the people who live in fear of what an uncertain world holds for them are more important than the people who are making laws to oppress them?
Let go and quit grasping. Set down the worry that God won’t provide. Each day has plenty of worries of its own.
Letting go means relinquishing everything, perhaps even the life to which we cling so desperately.
Take heart, though, if you follow Jesus, you have a pretty good idea what giving it all away for others looks like already.