06. August 2023
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
The three highest goods enshrined in our country’s founding documents are presumed to be rights given by our Creator: life, liberty, and the pursuit of property. But calling them rights means they are no longer gifts. And if they are no longer gifts, they become things to be feared, loved, and worshipped. This is the fatal flaw of our political order. We live as if we (along with our rights) matter most and God matters little. We think we have a generic Deity who endows rights once and then steps back to see what we do with them.
But again, if that is true, then the Deity is irrelevant now, and everything is about what we’re going to do with what this generic god handed over to us a few centuries ago. Rather, the central truth of the Scriptures is that everything needed for body and life is a regular, ongoing, even daily gift of your Creator. You cannot be religiously attached to these “rights.” They are not good unto themselves. But you are given to fear, love, and trust the one who gives them: God the Father by the Holy Spirit working through the Word, Jesus Christ.
You cannot serve God and the pursuit of happiness any more than you can serve God and life or freedom. And what does God do when your worship is not on him but on the gifts He gives? He takes them away. The unanimous witness of Moses, the Prophets, the Psalmists, Wisdom, Evangelists, and Apostles is that God removes whatever and whoever gets in the way of you trusting Him. Whether patriarchs, Israel, or Gentile, God ceases to give when the gift is received apart from praise and thanksgiving to Him.
This is why Job was given to confess, “The LORD [Jesus Christ] gives, and the LORD [Jesus Christ] takes away. Blessed be the name of the LORD [Jesus Christ].” How could he say such a terrible thing? It violates the first principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of wealth. Doesn’t God want us to live, be free, and be prosperous? Of course, He does! But what if we cease to receive those as gifts, loving the gift more than the giver? Then He takes them away. He wiped the slate clean with the Flood. He removed Israel into exile in Egypt and again into Babylon. The extraordinarily wealthy kingship of Solomon was brought to poverty in only a few generations. The free people were put under the oppressive rule of tyrants and enemies as slaves.
As Franklin once popularized, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, 1789). And he was correct, even as an agnostic or atheist. Apart from fear, love, and trust in God the Creator, you can never receive His good gifts to your benefit. When they are received as rights unto themselves, rather than daily bread from your loving Father, they become idols of worship. If we fight for life, liberty, or happiness, without recognizing them as ongoing gifts of God, they will be a detriment to faith. And when that happens, don’t be surprised if God takes them away.
There’s no point in holding on so tightly to them. Nor are they yours to do with what you want. All you have that gives you life and breath or provides for you and your family is a gift. You’re free to use it or give it away. But you must not ever think of it as yours alone. Then your heart will be turned to love it more than the Giver who gave it.
And consequently, you will treat even the civil estate’s God-given role to protect your life, freedoms, and property as another god with its own scriptures. The benevolent state will be feared, loved, and trusted. Its constituting documents will become sacred texts. Its ruling houses will become hallowed sanctuaries. But “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.”
Believing that everything needed for faith and life is a gift of your loving Father is the only way, whether you are given to experience suffering, slavery, and poverty or health, liberty, and wealth. This is why Jesus repeatedly warns you to be ready to forfeit anything and everything for His sake and the Gospel. Life, liberty, and all the world’s wealth was, is, and will always be God’s to do with as He pleases. If He chooses to entrust it to you, thanks be to God! If He chooses to give it to another, thanks be to God! Can He not do what He wants with what is His by right? None of these things are yours by right but are given to you in His time and according to His good and gracious will.
So, how does one serve God and not mammon? The church has not always understood what Jesus is getting after. For a long time, and in many places, they thought that Jesus here demanded that you give up everything and follow Him, much like the rich young ruler, that meant selling everything and living a life of poverty. That was true faithfulness. Ironically, the church got ahold of that wealth and, to this day, is incredibly wealthy with property, immense buildings, art holdings, and hordes of cash. So charity became another fundraiser, and somehow the funds no longer got into the hands of those in need. But that was the abuse but not the rule.
We are to be willing to forfeit everything, whether goods, fame, child, or wife, as Luther has us sing. But why? So that you could curry God’s favor, earn heaven, or even demonstrate your faithfulness? All of that presumes that it was yours, to begin with, and not a gift of God. It also presumes that God won’t just take it from you when it’s getting in the way of faith. Or even that you’ll lose it for no apparent reason except what is God’s hidden will.
God demands sacrifice. But we miss the parable’s point (and all the parables). When you try to insert yourself into the parable, it becomes about what you must do. But that’s not it at all! It’s about what God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has done for you—namely, Christ Jesus’s gifts distributed freely, even unjustly, here in this Christian church. You could not sacrifice what is yours to gain what is His. No, Jesus already did that when He forfeited His throne, inheritance, and life for you and your salvation. He unjustly died the death of crucifixion that He would shrewdly give us everything that was His. And then God the Father who knit His Son together in St. Mary’s womb, forfeit that life for sinners, and then be commended by the Father for such a waste? It doesn’t make any sense! But that’s what makes it such good news for you and me!
The gifts of Jesus, His Word, His Forgiveness, His Baptism, and His Supper are true riches greater than life, freedom, or any earthly happiness. Whether we have, lose, or give them away, blessed be the name of the LORD Jesus. But no one can ever take from us Jesus’s life, the freedom of forgiveness of sins, and the joy of the resurrection, not even God. That’s His promise today and always. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin