Two masters: sermon on the fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“No one can serve two masters”

This Sunday is sometimes called “the Sunday of the two masters”. Both the readings tell us about two masters which all human beings must choose between. St Paul, in the epistle, speaks of the flesh and the spirit; our Lord, in the gospel, talks about God and mammon. Let’s try to understand their teaching.

St Paul contrasts the flesh and the spirit. Now, all of us, if we are baptised, have been born of the Spirit of God. We are children of God. If we have remained in a state of grace since our baptism, or else, if we have been unfortunate enough to commit mortal sin but have regained the state of grace through the sacrament of penance, then we have the Spirit of God living within us; in fact, we have the three divine Persons dwelling in us, as in a holy temple. And by the three great virtues of faith, hope, and charity, we already have on earth a foretaste of the life of heaven. All this is true: yet, we are still sons and daughters of Adam, and this means that we still carry his weakness in our bodies. “When shall I be free of temptations?” somebody once asked St Francis de Sales. “As soon as you are dead”, he replied.

This is why St Paul needed to warn the Galatians to avoid the works of the flesh, even though they were living not long after the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and although they had been instructed in the Christian faith by him, St Paul, in person. By the works of the flesh he means all the acts that proceed from fallen human nature. And if the Galatians needed such a warning, despite all the advantages which they enjoyed, then we certainly cannot suppose that we do not need one. The collect of this Mass says: “Guard, thy Church, O Lord, by perpetual propitiation, since without Thee, human mortality fails.” If it were not for the graces that we receive from the Holy Spirit every day, especially thanks to the offering of the Mass, which is itself the “perpetual propitiation” which Christ has left to His bride, then we would undoubtedly fail, and start performing again the works of fallen human nature.

But as well as relying on the intercession of the Church, through the Mass and the Divine Office, we can and should also work on ourselves to prevent the flesh from overcoming the spirit. We call this process of working on ourselves “mortification”, and it is and will always be one of the necessary elements of Christian life. What then is mortification? It is closely related to penance, although the two things are not quite the same. By penance, we impose some penalty on ourselves, to help make up for past sins. By mortification, we deny ourselves some legitimate pleasure, to prevent the appetite for pleasure from growing in us too much and leading us eventually to forbidden acts. So, penance and mortification differ not because they involve different actions, but because they have different motives. We can do both at the same time. For example, somebody who fasts can offer his fast to God both as an act of penance for a past sin and as an act of mortification of the flesh, so that he will find it easier to avoid sins in the future.

On 14 September, it will be Holy Cross day. In many religious communities, Holy Cross day marks the beginning of a period of stricter observance which lasts until Easter, and it is also traditional in the Church for the faithful in general to mark this time of year with some acts of penance and mortification. This is why the three ember days of Autumn come after 14 September. It would be a good way of fulfilling the advice of St Paul, as well as of uniting yourselves to the tradition of the Church, to make one of these days — or at least some day at about this time — into a fast day. That will gain for us greater resolution in carrying our own crosses, whatever they may be.

Our Lord, in the gospel, addresses the same question as St Paul, but, so to speak, from another angle. He also is talking about a fundamental conflict in human existence, but whereas St Paul speaks of a conflict between principles internal to us — our redeemed, spiritual life versus our fallen, fleshly life — Christ talks of things outside us. When He says that we cannot serve two masters, He is speaking, not of the flesh and the spirit exactly, but of God and mammon.

What does He mean by “mammon”? The commentaries tell us that it is an Aramaic word for “riches”. It is easy to see why He would mention riches as a rival to God: just as God is omnipotent, so riches can easily confer on someone the illusion of being omnipotent — that is, able to do anything. Yet perhaps we should look more deeply. Our Lord speaks of mammon as if it were a person, someone in whose service you might be enrolled, even though you might only “put up with” or “endure” serving him, as a servant would put up with serving a ruthless master if he had no other choices. The desert Fathers, those early saints who were experts in spiritual warfare, tell us that each of the capital sins has behind it some fallen angel, who has some particular affinity with that sin. So mammon, it seems to me, means not only riches, but also — and perhaps especially — that fallen angel whose province is avarice; that is, who tempts human beings to sin for the sake of money. 

In the gospel, we read that the devil put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot to betray the Lord — which he did for a financial reward. Dom Guéranger, the famous Benedictine who has left us beautiful commentaries on all the Sunday Masses, writes: 

“Who was it but Mammon that had our Lord Jesus sacrificed on his hateful altar for thirty pieces of silver? Of all the devils in hell, is there one whose hideous guilt is deeper than the fallen angel who prompted Judas to sell the Son of God to His executioners?”

And although that was a unique case, perhaps many people are led to act against their consciences for the sake of gaining, or perhaps more often, for the sake of just not losing, money. The person who becomes complicit in some sinful activity at work in order to gain promotion, or just not to lose his job, or the person who defrauds his customers, or his employers, or his employees, is in some way serving mammon. He will not like it if he has a conscience, but he will put up with it all the same, until his love of God becomes great enough to enable him to break free.

So, our Lord teaches us how stay clear of this servitude. How do we do it? We are to think often of the fact that we have a heavenly Father who loves us, and knows all our circumstances, and who is powerful enough to supply us with whatever we need. Even if our fidelity to Him means that we cannot give to our children, or other dependants, all that we would like, He will bless us and them all the more because of this very fidelity. Again, we are to remember our own dignity as Christians. The gentiles — that is, the unbelievers — are anxious about food and drink and clothing, and as a result, they fall under the influence of this evil being called mammon. We who are children of God can remember that Christ has redeemed us by His blood, and that He has a right that we should not collude with His enemies.  And finally, we are to keep our eyes on the kingdom of heaven. That is where the true wealth is; and just as our heavenly Father clothes the grass with the beauty of the lilies, so the most insignificant and down-trodden person who gets there will be clothed with a glory of which no earthly riches can give even an inkling.