A student recently asked me about St. Francis of Assisi. Are we all called to be like him? Or is that just a crazy vocation for one strange person in a strange, distant time?
Well, the first thing to say is what another former student recently wrote to me: I am not called to be St. Francis, I am called to be St. ____. In that sense, no, we are not called to be like Francis. But we are called to be saints.
Vatican II declared the “universal call to holiness” just about the time that the American church was drifting into assimilated suburban comfort. In that context, the call got sort of retranslated into a “universal proclamation of holiness,” as if Vatican II said everything is fine, whatever. Actually, Vatican II said the exact opposite – and the tendency of our culture to ignore that call of the Council shows how important it was. You and I are called not to assimilated suburban comfort, but to sanctity – yes, as radical as St. Francis.
Last Sunday we finished our reading of every verse in Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. The Lectionary finishes the Sermon by reading just the final verses of chapters 6 and 7, one Sunday for each. With the location of Ash Wednesday this year, we won’t get to chapter seven until after Pentecost.
But the reading from chapter 6 is perfect for this last Sunday before Lent. The first half of Matthew 6 is about almsgiving, prayer (with the Our Father), and fasting, the three practices of Lent; several of those verses are the annual reading for Ash Wednesday. But the second half of the chapter explains the point of those practices, with six verses on laying up treasures in heaven and ten verses on worry. The Lectionary’s summary of this chapter gives us the last verse on treasures in heaven and all the verses on worry, in a way that perfectly shows how the whole chapter hangs together.
“No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, at the beginning of our reading. The key is in lordship: it’s not that money is evil, it’s that money is an evil master.
He adds a line that can be overlooked as dull repetition: “He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despire the other.” The point is, sometimes you actively hate the thing that isn’t your
master – sometimes, if money is your master, you hate God – but sometimes you just “despise,” or under-value, the one who isn’t your master. Sometimes, that is, it’s more insidious than hate: we might not hate God, but our love of money can make us treat him with contempt. Be careful.
This verse introduces the verses about worry, with their famously Franciscan lines about the birds in the sky and the wild flowers. Jesus says God cares for them, and we should have confidence that God will care for us. I am sure I’m not the only one who has had a priest directly contradict these verses, directly tell me that we shouldn’t be like crazy St. Francis and just assume God will take care of us, we have to be hard-nosed and worry about money.
Friends, I think this tendency to reject the direct teaching of Jesus is a disease, a heresy that threatens the American church to its core.
Now, Jesus doesn’t say you shouldn’t work for a living – even Francis went out begging. But he does say you should be careful who your “master” is, and what you “worry” about. He doesn’t say you shouldn’t seek your meal, but he does say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
The chapter (and our reading) ends with a verse that seems out of character, after all this happy stuff about lilies of the field: “sufficient for a day is its own evil.” This verse has a clue for how to read the whole chapter. This “evil” really is the word for evil, not just deprivation, like a couple weeks ago. Each day has evil to be battled.
What is the evil? It is the very real temptation to make money our master, to worry more about food and clothes than about God and righteousness, to think that if we don’t outright hate God, then we don’t need to worry about despising, or undervaluing, him.
We don’t worry about this temptation enough. But Jesus sees it as a major threat, and he hits it hard, here and elsewhere. Every day, make sure you are more worried about calling Jesus Lord than about how much money is in your bank account. That’s why we have Lent, with its threefold call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
Our short reading from Isaiah reminds us that God is our Father. Seek his kingdom and his righteousness, and you really will have everything. The secret of St. Francis was his trust in the providence of God the Father.
Our reading from First Corinthians puts the same thing in more dire terms. Our job in this world is not to lay up treasure on earth, but to steward our goods for Christ – and we should worry, above all, about
how Jesus will judge us on his return (he says it will be how we feed the hungry, not how big a house we owned).
Seek first the kingdom, and take seriously how easily our American values can get in the way of the Lordship of Jesus.
What part of your life demands clearer priorities?