God or Money?
(Readings: Amos 8:4-7; Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13)
Introduction to Mass
Every person's destiny is to be with God, in a close friendship with him, and in the gospel reading for the Mass today, Jesus speaks in very blunt, prophetic language about the threat to our friendship with God posed by money and material things. Money doesn't have a personality, of course, but it can absorb our time and our energies to the extent that it becomes an idol, a substitute for God.
To begin Mass, we think of the times when we've not had the spirit of detachment from money that Christ asks for, and we ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our commitment to him.
In the early days of the Church's history many of the people who joined the Christian community came from the lower end of the social scale. The Roman middle-classes, to begin with, looked down on the Christian communities as being made up of the dregs of society.
But before long, for one reason or another, some of the better-off sections of society were drawn to the gospel message as well, and the Church community that Saint Luke was writing his gospel for was made up - in large part, at least - of well-to-do converts from paganism.
Saint Luke didn't want his community to lose sight of the fact that God had always been on the side of people who were poor, people who were victims of exploitation. That was the prophet Amos's message, in the first reading: God's Kingdom belongs to the poor by right.
Whereas the people who are wealthy and comfortable, and don't have any particular financial worries, only get into God's Kingdom by God's gracious permission. They have to prove themselves.
The first thing they have to do to prove themselves, Luke says, is they have to make a basic choice: God or money. Jesus always tended to speak in rather black and white language when he talked about the spiritual dangers of wealth and possessions - but he also chose his language very carefully, as he does in this passage.
Money, says Jesus, is an idol. In other words it's a false God. It enslaves people and takes the place of our relationship with God, and it brings disorder, or corruption, into our moral outlook and our moral relationships. That's what the Bible means by the word 'idol'.
So at a certain fundamental level - the level of basic values and goals in life - Jesus gives the people he's preaching to a straight choice: God or money - you can't serve both. And this is the message Saint Luke wants to get over to the well-off members of his community: the more you want to serve the real God, the less you'll be attached to possessions. And the less you're preoccupied with money and material comfort, the more you'll be ready to give them up and commit yourself to the values of God's Kingdom instead.
We might find the choice easy, or we might find it difficult - but there is always a choice, and as we travel further along the path of being a disciple, there comes a point where we have to make the choice. Jesus doesn't say anything about managing some combination of the two, or an accommodation.
The second way that well-off Christians have to prove themselves to God is by their attitude towards the poor and the needy. Are they willing to enter the world of the poor? Are they willing to demonstrate concrete love and care for them, or are they satisfied to stay in their own world, with their own comforts, maybe doing a bit of charity work and feeling very pleased with themselves for doing it?
If we look up and down a country like ours, and look at the distribution of poverty and wealth, it's difficult to deny that Christianity in Britain is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the comfortable sections.
Among many of the people who make up the membership of the Churches, especially the influential types who populate diocesan committees and the like, attitudes which Saint Luke claims are mandatory often, in practice, take second place to rather cosy and undemanding notions of religion and of church activity. There isn't much of a sense of the choice that Jesus' poses between two incompatible goals, God or money. Religion is understood more as a sort of icing on the cake, the finishing touch added to an already affluent lifestyle.
As against that, the readings today hold out the two aspects of genuine discipleship.
If we're fairly comfortable ourselves, we have to simplify our way of life and detach ourselves from the baggage of material things, so as to clear the way to a closer relationship with God. Second, we have to go out of our way to serve Christ in the people that very often he's most present in - those who haven't got any choice about the poverty and the hardship in their lives.
These sorts of decisions about the material side of our way of living were central to Christ's proclamation of God's Kingdom, and the more we follow his advice in these areas, the further we progress in becoming subjects of that Kingdom.