Sunday Homily: Jesus Rejects Money and Work: He Embraces ‘Back to Nature’ Abundance

Gandhi Greed

Readings for 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 49:14-15; PS 62: 2-3, 6-9; I COR 4: 1-5; MT 6: 24-34.

Today’s liturgy of the word raises the question of work and money – always two difficult elements of life for those claiming to follow Jesus’ Way. They’re difficult because both occupy so much of our attention and lives that they can distract us from what’s really important – what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.” Consequently, in this morning’s Gospel selection, Jesus tells us to back off from both money and work while opening ourselves to the abundance of God’s Kingdom.

For American workaholics, that’s surprising. It’s especially challenging for those who love to attack “the undeserving poor” – that is, workers empowered by government programs even like the Affordable Health Care Act. (I’ll get to that in a minute.)

About money Jesus directly compares the worship of God with the common attitude Americans adopt towards money – or as Jesus puts it, “Mammon” (the name for an idol). It’s impossible, Jesus says, to make money the focus of your life while claiming to serve God. In fact money can make us hate God. But that’s not the surprising part.

What is surprising is that Jesus’ claim comes very close to saying that loving God should make us hate money. That seems to be the meaning of his words recorded in today’s selection from Matthew. Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

In other words, there’s a choice to be made here: serve God or money; hate and despise money or hate and despise God. No one can have it both ways. The text seems to bear that reading, don’t you think?

Of course Jesus’ pronouncement will lead many to “clarify” his words to mean don’t be attached to money. It’s the service of money – it’s making money your master – they would explain, that causes hatred of God.

Okay. But who among us (even financiers, banksters and hedge fund managers) would claim to serve money even though they spend all their waking hours scheming about it. Who would admit that they’re attached to money, or have made it their master? Even those 85 individuals proud of owning as much as half the human race would probably deny that they “serve” money or that it’s their master. (And if they’re right, we can stop our discussion right here!)

On the other hand, those wishing to have it both ways might go further. They might invoke “nature.” They might point out we obviously can’t do without money; it’s a product of nature (human nature) they might say. Some might even argue we can’t even do without capitalism and its drive to “maximize profit.” Capitalism and profit maximization simply represent the inescapable way the world works. They are reflections of the natural order. If they allow 85 people to own more than half the world, so be it. That’s simply natural. (Please hold that thought.)

Such talk about nature brings us to my second point – Jesus’ attitude towards work and those who choose not to. Here he definitely has a “back to nature” approach. And once again, it’s surprising. Jesus is not talking about the naturalness of competition or of the law of supply and demand.

In today’s reading from Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says clearly that the natural order not only minimizes the importance of money (at the very least); it also minimizes the importance of work. “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says, “they don’t sow or reap or store food in barns.” Or “Consider the lilies of the field. They neither toil nor spin.” Learn from them both. Follow their example.

Say what? Is Jesus intention here to discourage work itself? (Talk about contradicting “American” values!) It’s easy to draw that conclusion, I think. After all, he seems to be saying don’t sow or reap or store products in warehouses. Don’t toil or spin. It’s a short step from there to saying, “Don’t work!”

Besides that, Jesus seems to have lived out that latter implication. I mean as an able-bodied 30-something, he left his job as a carpenter to wander from village to village in Palestine philosophizing and apparently living on hand-outs. On the road, he had no home and must have sought shelter from friends. Moreover, he got rough fishermen to leave their nets and follow his example of what appears to be idleness as far as economic productivity is concerned.

In fact, Republicans today would clearly regard Jesus and his apostles as examples of the idle undeserving poor – not to say bums – living off the donations of hard working people. I mean, does that contradict our Protestant Work Ethic, or what?

And that brings me to that Obamacare business.

Did you follow last month’s flap over the Congressional Budget Office’s Report on jobs and President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act (ACA)? It said that the ACA would induce 2.5 million people to leave work. They’d escape “job lock” – i.e. the inability to leave employment because doing so would lose them health coverage.

All hell broke loose.

When Paul Ryan (R-Wis) heard that, hypocrisy demanded that he and his Republican cronies reverse their position on “job lock.” Formerly they were against it. In fact a couple of years ago, Ryan said,”[The] key question that ought to be addressed in any healthcare reform legislation is, are we going to continue job-lock or are we going to allow individuals more choice and portability to fit the 21st century workforce?”

Now, however, since freedom from “job lock” represented a boon of the ACA, Ryan and the Republicans had changed their tune. They quickly became opponents of “more choice and portability.” Having realized that Obamacare will not eliminate jobs, but increase worker freedom to change jobs or leave the workforce altogether, GOP spokespersons were forced to readopt their familiar tack of demonizing empowered workers and the poor.

This meant that mothers and fathers leaving coveted jobs at McDonalds or as greeters in Wal-Mart to spend more time with their families were characterized as slackers and lazy. According to Ryan, such people lose respect for “the dignity of work.” They were worthy of their traditional rank among Republicans’ favorite target, the undeserving poor. (Never mind that Ryan has done everything he can to undermine labor’s dignity – but that’s another story.)

The point is that Jesus and his sainted friends were not only among the undeserving poor, they flaunted it. They recognized that according to God’s natural order, the world belongs to all creatures including the birds and flowers. If its resources were shared according to Jesus’ Kingdom values, there’d be enough for everyone – just as there was for birds and flowers in Jesus’ day.

So in minimizing the importance of money and praising freedom from work, Jesus was not being unrealistic or some starry-eyed hippy. Instead (as always) he was proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In God’s order, he insisted, there is abundance for everyone – or as Gandhi said enough for everyone’s need, but not for their greed.

Realizing the reality of God’s and nature’s abundance – and not giving in to the world’s myth of scarcity, overwork, and focus on money – should give workers and those not belonging to Ryan’s 1% courage to demand what is their birthright.

That natural condition is a life without worry about making ends meet and with enough leisure to enjoy life just like the birds and flowers.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Sunday Homily: Jesus Rejects Money and Work: He Embraces ‘Back to Nature’ Abundance”

  1. Well, Mike, you made my day — again! Your treatment of the Sunday homilies is outstanding. For me, a good homilist is one who can get his point across by ferreting out (discerning) the meaning of any particular scriptural reading as if he were actually there at the time the original words (or ideas) were expressed. Making it understandable to the ‘ordinary’ listener is paramount and you do that exceedingly well — whether you are addressing a peer group or people with varying degrees of education and/or understanding capabilities.

    Jesus was a genius. He did not obfuscate His message nor threaten the people as did the rulilng religious authorities of the time. That is why His message is as germane for us today as it was for those who first heard Him proclaim it 2,000 years ago. We know that, over the years with various redaction efforts and multiple translations, the exact words may have been changed. But the basic message has remained the same. Jesus spoke in the Aramaic vernacular and effectively used metaphors understandable in the culture of His time. That is one of your very special gifts, Mike. In this piece, I especially liked your tongue-in-cheek reference to the ‘coveted jobs at McDonalds and Wal-Mart.”

    Thank you.

    Now: I am waiting for you to synthesize the broad subject of Liberation Theology when you have an opportunity to get such a piece together. I don’t mean a dissertation-size piece — just a good working description of the gist of what it means, why it has been so poorly received by the Vatican, how it differs from the theologies of Aquinas, Rahner, Kung, et al – with special emphasis on why it is NOT Communism and we understood it in the WWII era and following years.


    1. Always good to hear from you, Alice. And thanks for sending my way the postings from Richard Rohr, Tikkun and other sources. I always find them so thought-full. For my understandings of liberation theology, please click on the button by the same name at the top of my blog site home page. There I’ve tried to lay out what I know in a brief and clear way. Let me know if I’ve left anything out that you think important.


  2. Hi Mike. It’s been a long time since my classes at Berea (which I enjoyed immensely, all of them, and your “exegesis” assignment was a memorable adventure! Forever thank you for that!) I just googled another’s name and your blog popped up! Good to see you again.

    People so often talk past each other….was Jesus a “hater” and a “despiser”? I would not want to Iearn those attitudes from Jesus, if that in fact was his mindset. (or is it translation?)

    I enjoyed my economics classes at Berea. The concepts of “comparative advantage” and “absolute advantage” in economics were thought-provoking. When people lay their best gifts at each other’s feet, it is possible for everyone to come out ahead. Some people can do specific tasks with much greater skill (and efficiency) than others, and when these people share their individual skills, we are all lifted up. It can be like watching Olympic athletes, if we aren’t consumed by envy.

    Jesus laid down his carpenter’s tools to do something that he had magnificent skills for: healing, teaching, inspiring hope and dignity in others. That was not a rejection of labor, as I understand economics. Jesus was taking up a different task, human ideals which required enormous courage, audacity, and energy (and which took a toll….)

    With that in mind — Today I am mourning the loss of a beloved counselor, Bobby Drinnon, who passed away in Talbott TN on March 3rd. Bobby was a bit of a local celebrity, originally a laborer in a furniture factory, but took up intuitive counseling. I don’t ask you to believe that intuitive counseling is possible — but please understand that for people who were lucky enough to get the opportunity, and who sat down for a meeting with Bobby, his level of compassionate (and intuitive, startlingly specific) understanding was far beyond anything ordinary or expected. It was mindbending (and delightful) to be understood by a complete stranger. Somehow I think Jesus did things like that too, (although I don’t confuse Bobby with Jesus).

    Bobby was probably a decent furnituremaking employee. However, as a counselor and healer he was superb. Bobby will stay be in my prayers always. A lot of other people cherished him also:

    Anyway… let’s all just do our honest best. What a waste of his gifts, had Jesus had stuck to carpenter work, had failed to share his wild dreams, had he not gone out to heal the suffering of his neighbors.

    Hope the weather brings flowers soon. It’s dreary here still. Suppose if he had waited another week and the flowers came out, it would have been much harder for Bobby to take his leave…


    1. Thanks, Mary. I have fond memories of that semester with you in “Understandings of Christianity.” Of course, I agree with you about the value of Jesus’ work. The point I was trying to make was that lower class people, like Jesus and his friends, going around (without visible means of support) stirring up the people, denouncing the religious establishment and under investigation by the powers that be would have been seen as disreputable vagrants and trouble-makers. In that context, Jesus’ words about imitating the birds and flowers would have been heard by those who love the demonize the poor as “lazy” (see Paul Ryan’s recent remarks) as encouraging irresponsibility.
      I’m sorry to hear of the death of your counselor. I know how painful losses like that are.
      So good to hear from you, Mary.


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