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
July 12, 2019
If I were to tell someone how much they mean to me, and I said to them, “You, my dear friend, are more important to me than sparrows.” I think this friend would be nonplussed. Probably offended. Deeply. So what’s going on with Jesus’ rhetorical question, “Are you not of more value than many sparrows…?”
It’s worth considering the value of a sparrow in Jesus’ day. In Jesus’ day, when making an offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, the poorest of the poor could not afford the offering of a lamb; they brought sparrows. Two sparrows were sold for one Roman penny. Two pennies made farthing. A farthing was 1/64 of a denarius. And a denarius was the average laborer’s wage for one day. So a common laborer’s daily wage would buy about 130 sparrows. It would have been one thing if Jesus had said, “you are of more value than gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” But no. He says, “You are of more value than sparrows.” Sparrows.
For several years after college I worked for an international development and relief organization. We provided medical supplies and expatriate staff for hospitals in 80 or so of the economically-poorest countries of the world. My work was in personnel, which included preparing and orienting our medical workers for what they would encounter in their host culture. We always told them in great detail the worst they would likely experience: the extremes of the weather, the meager diet, the primitive sanitary conditions, the political tensions with the host government, the competition among various religious and political groups in their area, the lack of privacy, the prospect of their becoming sick, the homesickness and loneliness they would feel, the possible strains on their family, the desperate need for their work… and the haunting guilt they would probably feel being such privileged people in the face of such great poverty.