When the Ukrainian President fled his country last weekend, his impoverished compatriots could visit his lavish residence, full of gold-plated bits and pieces, bizarre artefacts and exotic animals. All that, built on the misery of ordinary people. The place was instantly christened ‘the monument of corruption’. What truly surprised me was the reaction of the Ukrainians. We would have expected them to loot and burn the place to the ground out of their understandable anger. But no; the place has been preserved in the hope of selling it and recovering part of the money by that means. Instead of venting their anger fleetingly in a blaze of fire, they followed a mindful way to freedom. People in that ‘primitive country’ – as shamefully described by a British journalist – have maintained their high moral ground.
At first glance today’s gospel is about money, as Jesus says: ‘You cannot be both the slave of God and of money.’ He seemingly makes it clear that God and money cannot go together, and that makes some people a bit nervous and happy to overlook this bit of the gospel. Wealth is a touchy topic in the Church and among Christians. Pope Francis’ ‘bias towards the poor’ has made him a bit unpopular among some clergy and in shady business circles. On the other hand, a recent petition was signed by a couple of dozen of Anglican and Catholic bishops in defence of people affected by the welfare cuts. But today’s gospel is not about money; it’s about slavery. Or more precisely: about internal slavery.
The key phrase in today’s gospel is this: ‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money’ with emphasis on ‘the slave’. I’ve found two short descriptions of this noun “slave”: a) a person who is the property of, and wholly subject to another; b) a person entirely under the domination of some influence or person. Being a slave means having no freedom; a slave must do whatever he or she is told, ordered and demanded. There’s no room for discussion or consideration. We can replace money with anything else: health, prosperity, appearance, respect… the list is infinite; and if anything on that list dominates our lives, we are slaves to it and determined by it. All those things give us an illusion of safety, but deep in our hearts we dread the moment when they will have disappeared. We are driven by that fear, and we try to suppress it by gaining more and more of the same or new things. But the more we gain, the more we are afraid to lose. It’s a vicious and destructive cycle.
One could ask: ‘is it not the same to be a slave of God?’ Religious wars and conflicts, past and present, seem to prove this point. But they don’t. What they do prove is that religion can be a useful ideological standard to be raised for political purposes. In the gospel, being a slave of God is the result of a personal decision to submit oneself to God freely and out of love, not out of fear. The closest human example is of a loving couple, mutually submitting themselves to each other.
Our translation of this phrase: ‘You cannot be the slave both of God and of money’ is unfortunate, as it implies a rather passive attitude that the decision has been made once and for all. As a result, many people baptised as babies consider themselves to be Christians even if the Christian faith is completely absent from their everyday lives. The original Greek phrase is more dynamic: ’You cannot serve both God and money.’ It involves a more dynamic approach. Internal freedom and submission to God are not qualities gained once and for all, but attributes that each one of us must renew – and sometimes regain – again and again. It means to hold these at the very top of my priorities. If God is in the first place, everything else is in the right place.