No one can serve two masters.
I cannot quite remember when it started, but for some time now during Chapter Office (when we brothers gather daily to hear a chapter of our Rule) I have been following along in a German translation. While this practice has certainly helped my facility with the German language, it has also (rather unexpectedly) offered me intriguing new points of entry into the spirit of our Rule that I would not have noticed otherwise. A peculiar word choice on the translator’s part or even the simple encounter of a thought ordered to a different grammar, will invite a curiosity for my praying imagination.
Recently I noticed that, while our English original makes great use of the English’s expansive word “worship,” (from the old English worth-ship) the German text uses a word much more limited in its meaning: Dienen, or “to serve.” As I sat these last few days with the readings we just heard, I found myself put in mind of this linguistic oddity as I tried to hear Matthew’s Jesus with fresh ears. No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.
Aside from a handful of exceptions, every translation of this passage I consulted uses the same words, “to serve” as a gloss for Matthew’s doulein. This feels especially significant to me on a day of Marian devotion, like today. For the verb Matthew uses here grows from the same root as a noun used by Luke in the first chapter of his gospel in a phrase often translated “behold, the handmaid (doulē) of the Lord.”
No one can serve two masters.
I believe we can miss a deeper lesson behind these words if we simply hear them within the more limited frame of a concept like Dienen. The dynamic described by Jesus here—of split motivations, of devotion and spite—attests to his deep knowledge our humanity in all its frailty and weakness—and, equally, of its innate inclination for worship.
What is really at stake for Matthew’s Jesus here is worship—worth-ship, that is, where we put our ultimate worth. You cannot worship God and wealth, says Jesus. Likewise, we may hear him continue, you cannot worship God and your ego; you cannot worship God and pleasure; you cannot worship God and… any good thing. For I do not hear Jesus saying wealth is itself bad. Wealth is a good, as is of course pleasure or any other gift of creation. But it cannot be served—worshipped—alongside God. Worship is, then, about much more than what we do together in church.
This service, this worship is embodied for us in the person of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In her obedience to God’s call, as she bore Christ to the world, she gave us all an example of true worship—of a life in its wholeness, grounded in the worth given not by created things, but by the Creator of all things. In her companionship, she shares this very worship with us as she prays for her children, the Body of Christ. In her example, she discloses a life lived in a humble awareness of one’s limitations, finitude, and dependence. A life that listens eagerly for the voice of God. A life in service of but one master.
Saturday in Proper 7B | The Blessed Virgin Mar
 Matthew 6:24
 Luke 1:38
The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.
Jesus uses the image of masters and slaves, as much as any other, to characterize our relationship to God, and to the world. For us, we may not be so quick to identify with the image of masters and slaves as Jesus’ first hearers were. Yet, many of us, I suspect, know something about being a slave; that is, we know something about being owned, being bound, being controlled by something other than God. Perhaps it’s wealth that we are owned by, as Jesus suggests. Perhaps we are slaves to obsessions and compulsions; addictions, in a word, that dictate what we do, where we go, and who we associate with. It may be that pride is calling the shots, or maybe lust is your master; it might be greed, envy, anger, sloth, gluttony, but we don’t have to specialize.
“No one can serve two masters for a slave will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth”
There probably isn’t anybody in this room that needs to be told that as Americans we lead very privileged lives. “Welcome to the world, America,” was a phrase many of us heard in the wake on 9/11. It reflected the view that America and its citizens are largely insulated from grim realities that are the stuff of daily life for billions who share the planet. I thought about that the other day as I drove down Somerville Avenue. There’s a string of gas stations along the avenue and I couldn’t help notice that gas prices had risen about thirty cents since I bought gas the previous week. I thought, “Welcome to the revolution, America;” that the effects of popular revolutions that we’ve all been reading about have finally come to our shores.
Isaiah 49:8-16a; Psalm 131; 1 Corinthians 4: 1-5; Matthew 6: 24-34
I wonder how many of us would describe ourselves as being particularly wise. Do you think of yourself as wise? Sure, we might have a lot of leaning. Sure, we might have a lot of knowledge. But do we have a lot of wisdom? Are you an especially wise person?
I wouldn’t describe myself as especially wise. I know a little about a lot, and I know a lot about a little. Just ask me about icons, or bees, or chickens, and I can hold forth for quite some time. I can tell you why chickens don’t lay so many eggs in the winter as they do in the summer. (It has to do with light, and the role light plays in the hormonal cycle of chickens.) I can tell you what bees do in the winter; (they don’t hibernate, rather they cluster and vibrate to keep warm) and how much honey a single bee will produce in her short lifetime (1/12th of a teaspoon! Think of that next time you put a tablespoon of honey in your tea or on your toast). I can tell you how to paint an icon, and what it all means. (That alone can keep me going for a couple of hours as some of you discovered yesterday!). But that’s knowledge. That’s information. That’s not really wisdom. So no, I wouldn’t describe myself as particularly wise.