Prayer, Wealth and Idolatry – Br. Lucas Hall

Br. Lucas Hall

“You cannot serve God and wealth.” This is a great line from today’s Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus offers a clear and unambiguous teaching. In many contexts, you might hear the word, “wealth,” go untranslated, as “mammon.” This is sometimes accompanied by an explanation that “mammon” is an ancient pagan god. There’s no historical evidence for this identification; “mammon” simply means wealth or money, and if we over-spiritualize here, we might miss the point, justifying ourselves along the way.

But I do think it’s helpful to use the image of an idol, a creation of human hands that is in turn worshipped by the very people who created it. Paul gives us the instruction to “pray without ceasing.” This is possible if we begin to understand prayer not only as active petition and dialogue with God, but rather more simply, the understanding, acknowledgement, and encounter of God in his eternal presence to us and to all creation. We might then take this a step further: if prayer to God without ceasing is possible, it could be helpful to understand ourselves as always praying, in some form or another. Always offering up, in some way, what we have been given by God, what God has provided us for sacrifice. And with that understanding, we may begin to enter into a new way of self-knowledge, a new way of understanding our feelings, thoughts, and actions: if it’s all prayer, we can ask ourselves about any given experience, no matter how mundane or “un-spiritual”, “Who was I praying to there? To whom was I sacrificing? Was it God, or an idol?”

If you’ve been with us for Morning Prayer, you might recall that, toward the very beginning, an antiphon is sung. The first half of this antiphon varies day-by-day, and the last half is, “Come let us adore him.” Today we sang, “The earth is the Lord’s for he made it//Come let us adore him.” This is very appropriate for Jesus’s message on wealth: all creation, and thus all that we might call material wealth, is the work of God. All wealth that we possess, whether meager or great, is given to us by God’s providence, not as some reward for being very good or very special, but rather, as an act of God’s call to us. God places us in a position of stewardship, authority, and responsibility. He provides for sacrifice, and money cannot go un-sacrificed. Whether we spend it or keep it, we always offer it to someone, and it is always appropriate to ask ourselves, “To whom?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the parable of a master and the manager of his wealth, both of whom operate through greed and deceit to further their own ends, propping one another up along the way. When we rise to the task of managing money charitably, lovingly, responsibly, offering freely without hope of gain, taking care of the poor and the oppressed and so participating in the justice of God’s kingdom, we reverse that relationship, helping to restore holiness to the wealth that God has given us.

But this is not just a personal fight. Today’s psalm, Psalm 113, is one I like very much, because it’s one of those psalms that crops up, in various forms, several times throughout the Bible. Most famously, Psalm 113 shares a great deal of structural and thematic similarity with the Song of Mary. Relevant to today’s message about wealth, both the psalm and Magnificat make reference to God lifting up the poor and lowly.

But Mary goes one step further, proclaiming that God does not just lift up the lowly and feed the poor, but also casts down the mighty, and sends the rich away empty. It’s easy to think of this as a joyful song from a joyful woman, and it is! But there’s an element of radicalism here, of revolution, of combativeness. And this combative joy in relation to the social order points to the reality that this is not simple or easy. This is a fight, involving the whole people of God. Mary is called “Blessed among women,” a title used only twice elsewhere in the Bible. In both other cases, that of Jael in the Book of Judges, and the title character in the Book of Judith, the women receive this title, not for some gentle or tender act, but for, in the service of God, striking down the leaders of armies that have come to conquer Israel. This is a fight for the survival of God’s people, and Mary’s combative joy carries on that fight in the world.

But fighting and social change are not held up as good in themselves, as ends in themselves. Looking again to the Magnificat, we see that this willingness to fight for justice for the poor and needy is rooted in encounter with God, and carries forth out of desire for God. We as Christians have an obligation to carry forth the fight for all who are outcast, and doubly so if we occupy positions of wealth and power. But we can become so enamored with the fray, with the battle, that we uproot ourselves from the prayer, the encounter with God; the fight for social, political, economic, and environmental justice can itself become an idol.

And this can devastate us, because the Christian is called to weakness, to death, to forlorn hopes and doomed causes. If we rest our hope on winning the fight, we will be often disappointed, and may lose hope ourselves. But if we take prayer to heart, we can root our efforts, private and public, in the eternal victory of God and his kingdom. We can adopt for ourselves the confidence of Mary’s combative joy in the Magnificat. And we can carry on the fight, in ourselves and in the world, knowing that our prayer is not cast before dead idols, but is offered to the living God.

In a world of perverse economic sin and abuse, from the constant favoring of the rich by our government to the obscene rental prices, student-loan debt and homelessness that run rampant right outside this chapel, the words of Jesus resound: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” We can fight this. We must. There will be setbacks, disappointments, and failures. Things will sometimes seem hopeless. So let us pray, and ask ourselves to whom we offer this prayer. Pray, and root ourselves in something eternal. Pray, and take into ourselves the confidence of God’s triumph and joy.

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  1. Damon D. Hickey on September 1, 2022 at 09:33

    I just finished the new novel “Babel,” which raises the question of whether it’s possible to fight structural evil while continuing to accept its benefits and privileges. I don’t believe wealth is simply a gift from God to be used responsibly. Much of my wealth is stolen. I live well because my forbears enslaved other humans and stole their labor. I live in a country that still takes from the poor and gives to the rich, including me. How can I be a responsible steward of such stolen wealth?

  2. Ann Trousdale on September 1, 2022 at 09:05

    Absolutely stunning, Brother Lucas. While God does not always call brilliant people (many have a “simple” faith) God has clearly called one here and uses that good and clear and critical mind to the well-being of us all. I give thanks.

  3. Mary Spence on September 1, 2022 at 06:26

    Brother Lucas, I am so thankful for your sermon – full of truth and helpfulness!

  4. Carney S Ivy on September 1, 2022 at 06:21

    Brother Lucas,
    I have always struggled with money – probably always will. I am all too aware of the “haves and the have nots” and that gap is growing daily. I think what has struck me most about the sermon was the “praying without ceasing”. That is tricky! I start off intentionally, but as the day gets more chaotic, my centering shifts. It is my goal to stay centered all day. I am not there yet. As a nurse practitioner in an inner-city clinic, I realize how intoxicating that service can become. Does this become the idol? When it does, you can become negligent in tending to those you love the most.
    Thank you for stirring this up in my heart and soul yet one more time. We are never “there”. It is the “Holy tension”. Well done.

  5. Carol Carlson on March 24, 2021 at 09:58

    Right on, Br. Lucas – I love the idea that all action is prayer and we are always worshiping some god or other; it’s always a good idea to ask, ‘which one?’ Especially in America, which boldly proclaims, right on its money, ‘in [this] god we trust’. A little addendum to your thought that Christians are always fighting for doomed causes (which, because we fight for them, sometimes turn from being doomed – may God grant it in our time!): the motto of William the Silent, which came to me by way of Samuel Johnson, was ‘It is not necessary to hope in order to undertake, nor to succeed in order to persevere’. While this can’t be carried too far in the realm of psychology (beating a dead horse always being a danger there), it’s certainly a necessary reminder when dealing with our society’s pervasive racism, sexism, xenophobia, stupidity, ignorance and general hatred. Thank you!

  6. Elizabeth Hardy on August 28, 2020 at 10:45

    Br Lucas: Your writing always causes me to slow down in my reading, backtrack, re-read and really digest what I have read. It helps me to focus and reflect much better. I enjoy the challenge and the mental exercise. Thank you for making me think rather than skim! It enlarges my faith. Elizabeth Hardy+

  7. Julie Huff on September 28, 2019 at 22:01

    Brother Lucas,

    I believe prayer is a means of waging war against the enemy. An enemy who twists even our best efforts to please God by shifting our focus back on ourselves, thus stealing God’s Glory – idolatry. An enemy who whispers in our ears hold tightly to your money, your time, your talents, we forget that everything we have, is all His to begin with. This war is too large to fight without seeking Him first. And when we pray we’re to make our requests with joy. (Phil. 1:4). Joy in knowing our requests are heard by Our Great God. Our small acts of kindness, our reaching out to help the one are multiplied on a heavenly scale when we continually talk with Him.

    You write some seriously deep and stirring devotions. Keep up the good work – you’re making us seek Him!

  8. Mom Hall on September 28, 2019 at 15:53

    Great sermon Br. Lucas!
    Praying by doing good with the wealth God has provided!
    As stated, ” you hit the nail right on the head!”
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  9. Glenn Wolfe on September 27, 2019 at 08:57

    Brother Lucas,
    You have hit the nail on the head. You are right that we cannot serve 2 masters. When done properly
    and in the manner you described you are in line with the Fathers love.

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