I once heard about a community of women religious that have a practice of doing something every year that seems incredibly foolish.
At the end of each fiscal year, after they pay whatever bills still remain, they give away every dollar that they have left in their accounts and give it to the poor.
I remember when I first heard about this practice and, despite being a Franciscan friar who knows well that this sort of practice is what St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi had in mind with their communities, responded: “Why would they do that?”
My feeling was, like so many who might come across this and similar stories, that this practice is so foolish — what if the next day there was a flood or a fire or there was a medical need in the community or whatever? And the sisters’ response to this sort of question seemed so illogical: God will provide through the interdependence of the whole community.
Foolish and illogical alright, but foolish and illogical according to whom?
For the last three weeks we have been hearing St. Paul talk to us, by way of his Letter to the Corinthians, about wisdom and foolishness. There are two spheres, the worldly, human wisdom and the wisdom of God. Each appears as foolishness to the other, but we are challenged to consider according to which we decide to live.
This is why, in so many ways, my initial reaction to hearing about this religious community’s practice was perfectly normal. There is a sort of wisdom, a “common sense” guide by which we have been formed and according to which we — especially those who are affluent in the United States — live our lives. We are encouraged by friends, family, and society to plan for the future, to be on guard about finances, to make sure all is accounted for…just in case.
Yet, in today’s Gospel we have Jesus telling us something very different. There is a sense in which Jesus appear to be speaking against prudence, common sense, planning.
Maybe, but maybe not.
Jesus is definitely uncovering a tension that human beings face in today’s Gospel (Matthew 6:24-34). It’s a temptation that even he faced while in the desert. It is the struggle to face what we will serve, what will be our true divinity: will it be God or will it be ourselves.
Jesus puts it famously in terms of serving two masters, serving God or “mammon,” which might best be rendered “riches” here because it means more than just money as it is sometimes suggested. Ultimately, I believe, the issue is between God and us, between serving the will of God or serving our own will. It is between putting our desires and interests first and putting first the Kingdom of God.
Jesus’s point, and St. Paul’s after him, is to get us thinking about what should govern or direct our lives and what actually governs or directs our lives.
This is not to suggest that we should be reckless or irresponsible. Remember, the women’s religious community did pay all their bills before aiding those who needed the remaining money more than they did. It is a question about what ultimately guides us in how we go about this world.
St. Augustine puts this rather starkly in his writings when he makes the distinction between that which is for our use (uti) and that which is to be enjoyed or loved in itself (frui). In the end, it is only God who should be loved for God’s self, everything else should be loved or utilized proportionally and with an eye toward the ultimate goal of each person and all of creation.
But so many of us get those things reversed. We confuse what we want to love with what should be loved. For some it is money, but the riches come in various shades: property, power, prestige, wealth, attention, control, and so on. These things all pass away, they are not ends in themselves and when they become an end, they morph into our god, which precludes us — as Jesus says — from serving the true God.
At the center of this is our desire to break away from who we really are, which goes all the way back to the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It’s not about apples and snakes, it’s about us wanting to be our own gods. It’s about loving ourselves first and God and others second. It’s about being completely independent and without having to rely on anybody else (which is, of course, “the American way,” right?).
What that community of sisters realized is that which St. Francis, St. Paul, St. Clare, and so many others we admire for their Christian lives also realized: to be Christian, to be fully human, is to recognize and accept our inherent interdependence and to live into that rather than avoiding it. This interdependence is another way of talking about the striving first for the Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel. It is the caring for one another, it is to realize that we depend on others and that others depend on us.
With this Sunday goes the end of the Liturgical Season of Ordinary Time for a while. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent officially begins. This seems to me to be a good time for us to pause and reflect over the next forty days on the questions: What motivates us? What is our starting point? Do we seek to build up our sense of independence rather than embrace our interdependence? Do we let the wisdom of the world guide our behaviors or do we let the wisdom of God show the way? Do we put our trust in God or do we only trust ourselves?