• Is 49:14-15
• Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
• 1 Cor 4:1-5
• Mt 6:24-34
Idolatries. Anxieties. Priorities.
If you are anything like myself, you are familiar with these three. We have to deal with them nearly every day in ways big and small, obvious and not so obvious. And they are closely connected with one another, which is one reason, I think, that Jesus spoke about them together in the Sermon on the Mount.
“American Idol” might be a popular television show, but the word “idolatry” is rarely used in common conversation. And yet, as the Catechism notes, it “remains a constant temptation to faith.” In fact, we Americans have become incredibly sophisticated in committing idolatry and convincing ourselves that it is not idolatry, but something necessary and even good. “Idolatry”, the Catechism further explains, “consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, ‘You cannot serve God and mammon’” (par. 2113).
The word “mammon” refers not simply to money, but to the personification of riches. Put another way, it is the god of materialism—the god of acquiring, having, clinging, and hoarding. When material possessions take the place of God, they become our master, in which case we will despise—that is, spurn and reject—the one, true God. This doesn’t mean that material possessions are bad in and of themselves; the issue, as we’ll see, is one of proper priorities.
We cannot effectively recognize and combat idolatry without God’s grace and the guidance of the Church. “The Church is society’s permanent rampart against idolatry”, wrote Dom Aelred Graham in Catholicism and the World Today (David McKay Co., NY: 1952). “This is the ultimate, in a sense it is the only, sin, the root of all disorder.” Man is made to worship, and the object of our worship shapes and molds us into who we will be for eternity. This is why the very first commandment in The Decalogue is, “I am the Lord your God…” and the second is, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2ff). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives the Church a new law that further guides and aids us into resisting false worship.
Anxiety, the Lord teaches, results from a lack of trust in God—“O you of little faith”—usually combined with an unwarranted trust in our own abilities. The temptation is to think that by obsessively planning for the future we can eliminate our worries. But this only leads to new and even deeper worries, which take us away from the peace and joy our heavenly Father freely offers. He knows that we have material needs, and he will provide. While an idol gives false hope and empty comfort, God gives both the life of grace and the necessities of life.
Regarding anxiety, Jesus gives two commandments, one negative and the other positive, both pointing toward properly ordered priorities. First, do not worry about food, drink, and clothing; that is, do not allow earthly cares to overwhelm and undermine our heavenly calling. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we don’t need to work and earn our keep; it means that working and earning aren’t the ultimate purposes of life.
Second, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, for when our heavenly calling is our primary focus, “all these things will be given you besides”. St. Augustine, in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, wrote, “In this sentence he clearly shows the difference between a good that ought to be sought as an end an a value that ought to be seen as a means. Our final good is therefore the kingdom of God and his justice. Let us perform all our actions for the sake of it.” Material goods are good only when they are appreciated in light of the greatest good, which is eternal communion with God, the lord and giver of life.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 27, 2011, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)