“No one can be a slave to two masters.”
This title gives us Jesus’ opening words in the Gospel extract for the 8th Sunday (Matthew 6:24)
Without being in any way flippant, there may be those who, hearing these words, smile wryly. Those holding down two or more jobs, to make ends meet, have at least two masters! The consequence could be that Jesus’ words are not being heard as he intended us to hear them.
The Greek word ‘douleuein’ means to be a slave to. The Greek word ‘kurios’ denotes absolute ownership. So Jesus’ words, when translated from the Greek, become: “No one can be a slave to two owners.”
In Jesus’ day, too, slavery existed. A slave was not a person but a thing, a living tool. A slave had absolutely no rights; the owner could treat his slave exactly as he liked because every moment of a slave’s life belonged to his owner. A slave had no moment of time to call his or her own. There were good owners who cared for their slaves and bad owners who didn’t.
Today, employers do not own their workforce. Employees have rights as well as obligations. They can withdraw their labour if they choose to do so. They are contracted to work for set periods ensuring that they have free time for their families and themselves. Employment law safeguards the rights of both employees and employers. In a democratic society nobody can be forced into work.
Likewise, nobody can be forced into being Baptised. When a person chooses to be Baptised that person is willingly committing their whole life, here and hereafter, to God. Note, this commitment does not equate with a contract of engagement defined by hours, days, weeks etc. It is an individual’s freely chosen surrender of their whole life to God, without reservation. On his part, God adopts us as the brothers and sisters of his only Begotten Son who gave His all including his own life for our redemption. For this reason, a person Baptised as an infant must choose to ratify or not that decision, previously made for them, when they become more self-determining. The generosity and depth of the parents love for God will hopefully find expression in the free choice made by the siblings.
There’s a reflection of this surrender of self in the words that unite a man and woman in the Sacrament of Matrimony: “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” In death, the Baptised find an infinite and eternal closeness with God.
In no other place in the Bible is this exclusivity of relationship, humanity with God and God with humanity, more clearly set forth. A reflection of what we hear this Sunday from Matthew can also be found in Luke 16:13.
The question proposed by Matthew’s Gospel extract is: are 21st century Christians sufficiently aware of the depth of their commitment to God which they voluntarily take on through Baptism?
Has this unique and exclusive commitment and relationship been infiltrated by some semblance of secular and commercial employment? There’s a cartoon showing a Catholic leaving church after Mass with a bubble thought saying: ‘That’s me in the clear for another seven days!’ It’s as if Baptismal commitment is something to be ‘done’ once a week!
Jesus’ words: “No one can be a slave to two owners.” should challenge us this Sunday by provoking the question, ‘In my Baptismal commitment am I consciously and willingly surrendering, without reservation, my whole life to God, day be day, moment by moment? Is this consciousness directing my choices in how I am living right now?
Baptismal commitment means that God has the first call upon me day and night. He equally gives himself to me in a like commitment. Therefore, the first question for the Baptised person is always, "What does God wish me to do?"
In reality, this is not the thinking of many today who are more inclined to ask, “What do I want to do?” or “What does my partner want me to do?” So many infant’s Baptisms remain locked in a long gone infancy because individual parents have failed to ratify and live their own Baptism commitments as adults.
Expressed baldly, a Christian has no time-off from being a Christian. There is no time when he or she can set aside their commitment to Christ and act as if they were ‘off-duty’. Being a Christian is a whole-life commitment. A partial or a spasmodic service of God is not compatible with God’s love for us or our Baptismal commitment to Him.
Jesus continues his teaching to say, "You cannot serve God and mammon." Mammon was a Hebrew word for material possessions. Then it did not have the adverse connotations it has today. The ancient Rabbis had a saying, "Let the mammon of thy neighbour be as dear to thee as thine own."
The word mammon originally meant ‘to entrust’. Mammon was what was entrusted to someone you trusted to be kept safe. Over the years mammon came to mean not what was entrusted but something in which a person put their trust. Mammon, spelled with a capital ‘M’, became an idol for property, possessions and power and came to be thought of as a god.
The history of the word mammon shows how material possessions have usurped a place that they were never meant to occupy. As God’s creation we called to trust in Him alone. If people put their trust in material things they are dispensing with God.
Scripture is often misquoted. Scripture does not say: "Money is the root of all evil." What it says is: "The love of money is the root of all evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). Love is the special gift we share with God because it is all that we have to give that is not already His. The love we have for one another is the extension of our love for him because each of us is made in His image and likeness.
This reflection has got no further than the first five lines of this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 6:24-34) and the editorial knife is poised! It makes clear that we 21st century Christians need to cherish God’s Word to us, to give ourselves time to contemplate it not just when in church but at home. We need God’s Word to hold at bay the onrush of the tide of secularism in its myriad and deceptive forms. If we don’t do so we will lose the meaning of the Truth God puts before us for our eternal salvation.