For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
The Gospel today is the first half of Luke 14. Luke 14 is so important that the fathers of our Church set aside two Sundays, Trinity II and Trinity XVII, dedicated to that chapter. Chapter 14 of Luke answers the question “How are God’s people supposed to live here and now?” The answer is that God’s people are to live with humility and generosity. Humility and generosity are marks of discipleship. Jesus says, do not seek the front seats or the high tables of honor, but rather the less conspicuous seat. In fact not only will the disciple of Jesus live with true humility, but his disciples will also share their talents and treasure without hoping to get anything out of it. Thus we have that portion of the Gospel that speaks to whom one should invite to parties. Jesus’ disciples will live generously without expecting to be paid back. Jesus teaches over and over again that God honors the friend of the poor, the lame, and the blind, the unloved and the unlovable. The themes of humility and generosity are at the very heart of the life of Christ and he taught his disciples that they should follow his example. God became man in order that man may become the true likeness of God. There is no humility more profound than the humility of the Son of the Father becoming flesh. And if you wish to follow him then you should pursue the virtues of humility and generosity because that is what God is like. It is impossible to be a disciple of Christ and live any other way.
Only a couple of weeks back the Gospel was that notorious passage where Jesus draws a red line:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
If anything is crystal clear, it is that Jesus and his apostles are constantly warning us about the dangers of money because wealth is an existential threat to our salvation. This is not a sermon against money and not a sermon against accumulating wealth — but it is an exhortation to attentiveness because it is a foolishness to ignore or to attempt to soften our Lord’s plain sense.
A good translation of the word “mammon,” is “personal wealth.”
You cannot serve God and personal wealth.
No, you cannot. If Jesus is your God then you will end up being careful to the point of being suspicious of your personal wealth. You will not trust in your riches. But if you have made personal wealth your god, you will end up suspicious and doubtful of Jesus. Jesus did not teach his disciple to throw their money away and in fact his own disciples during his earthly ministry gave alms to the poor. But he did teach his disciples not to value money and possessions so highly that you dedicate your life seeking them. This is a warning to both the well to do, who have possessions to guard; and it is a warning to the poor who wished they had them.
That is why this so important and this is why Jesus relentlessly declares that the love of personal wealth is like a god vying for our affection. It militates against personal humility and generosity, that’s why. And here’s how — the false god of personal wealth, promises us two things, two temptations, that people have always wanted: security and a sense of having succeeded. Our yearning for security and success militates against Jesus’ insistence upon trusting God while detaching from possessions and submitting only to God’s will. I am not saying that being a failure and insecure is pleasing to God. What I am saying is that trusting God, detaching from personal wealth and submitting to God’s will is impossible without humility and generosity. According to the values of this present culture money and possessions guarantee our security and, whether we admit it or not, our culture instructs us that wealth and success are outward and visible signs of our personal value. You know what self-will is: “I want what I want when I want it.” Personal wealth promises me that I can have just that. But I can promise you this: one is never satisfied. Personal achievements and wealth are wonderful, but they are empty and poisonous apart from a personal devotion to Jesus Christ. St. John Chrysostom warned his very wealthy parish in Antioch that the gold jingling from your wrists could fill many an empty stomach, but as the preacher knew, the values of the city militated against the values of the Church. Antioch had its own civil liturgies, processions, heroes, and calendar. And the same is true for us today.
We learn what to love and what to devalue from the culture we live in — from the liturgies of the market place and politics and the temples we build. Grand Central Station was built in New York, New York between 1903 and 1913. Today it is a dwarf encircled by sparkling Towers. But squatting there in their shadow, Grand Central Station stands out as a monument to lesser gods as much as any temple whose fallen and scattered stones litter Europe, Asia, or the Middle East. Here is an American Temple dedicated to American commerce, power, and presence.
The largest example of a Tiffany sculpture in the world, crafted for Grand Central Station, in the form of an arch of triumph has been the gateway to New York City for millions upon millions upon of people since 1913. The central figure is Mercury, the god of commerce and he is supported on the right and left by Minerva and Hercules – extolling cleverness and brute strength. In its day, Grand Central Station’s main concourse was constructed to inspire awe and wonder and majesty like a grand cathedral. And it does. It is a wonder. About 300 feet long, 120 feet wide and 125 feet from floor to ceiling, it was and is a temple of worship filled with very busy people who night and day still live according to the liturgies of another culture. The windows and arches draw one’s vision upward to the peculiar ceiling; the whole of which is a painting of the constellations of the starry night sky. The New York Central Railroad put out a pamphlet when Central was opened in 1913, stating that, “It is safe to say that many school children will go to the Grand Central Terminal to study this representation of the heavens.” But two months after it opened a very big flaw was discovered. An astute commuter noticed that the ceiling design was completely backwards: east was west and west was east. Here is the problem with the liturgies and icons of this world: They work, yes they do! But they out of touch with reality and they don’t know east from west or top from bottom.
A long time ago the devil whispered to Eve: “If you eat this fruit, ye shall be as gods.” But Jesus said:
“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
This is the human condition — we have taken the devil’s offer to heart. We have reached out for that apple and if anyone presumes to question our right to it that person becomes our enemy. In the Book of Revelation it is the Beast who controls commerce throughout the world and the Christian is the enemy because he will not worship the Beast. Without the mark of the Beast, your union card, your guild, the Christian could not even earn a living for his family. One chief truth of Revelation is that it is better to lose the whole than to lose one’s heart and soul. Christian had rather die than to live according to the values of that culture.
Our culture has constructed monuments and temples and liturgies and selected its own saints, in order to bless itself and form us and our children in their image. We are in this culture but not of this culture. Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable. Be responsible. Our society is proficient in spiritual formation. How do I know that I have been spiritually formed by this culture? Well, this is how Jesus describes the blessed state of being:
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry, for you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you who are hated and spoken evil of and rejected for my sake.
The realist voice of this culture declares: “Really? That’s crazy! Things are not like that in our world. Any kingdom worth having is the achievement of successful, powerful and assertive men and women. Humility – give me a break!” Our culture has a message for you, your children and everyone you love:
Blessed are the entitled, take all you want!
Blessed are the powerful, no one will stop you or get in your way!
Blessed are you who network with powerful friends at weddings and banquets, they will invite you to their weddings and banquets.
But God’s ways are not our ways. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount there is something that we almost never see or hear about — the four final woes that Jesus adds to the Sermon. Here instead of as state of blessing, he pronounces a state of heartbreak:
Woe unto you who are rich, you have received your consolation!
Woe unto you who are full, you shall be hungry!
Woe unto you who laugh now, you shall mourn and weep.
Woe unto you when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.
Well, if anything is crystal clear, it is that Jesus and his apostles are constantly warning us about the dangers of personal wealth. Like I said, this is not a sermon against money and not a sermon against accumulating wealth — but it is a foolishness to ignore or to attempt to soften our Lord’s unambiguous teaching about the dangers of mammon. Don’t forget that there are also many examples in the New Testament, and in the history of the Church, of people who used their personal wealth for the mission Christ’s Church. The themes of humility and generosity are at the very heart of the life of Christ and he taught his disciples that they should follow his example. There is no humility more profound than the humility of the Son of the Father made flesh. We will never out do God’s humility. You are called to incarnate the life of Christ in your humility and in your generosity and liberality. You have been made the child of God by the grace of baptism; you participate in his divine life, and he calls you to be rich toward God. Those who inherit the Kingdom will be merciful in their assessment of others, forgiving of injuries, liberal in sharing their wealth — they are people who make a positive use of suffering — there is humility, openness, trust, joy and a thankful heart. The Love of God is shed abroad in our hearts.
For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.