Fr. Nathaniel Dreyer, IVE
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Dear brothers and sisters, although it’s hard to believe, Lent is almost upon us. This coming Wednesday will be Ash Wednesday, and we’ll have our forty days of preparation for the commemoration of the passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Lent is a time for returning to God, a time to focus on what’s really important, and so today’s readings give us a nice “warm up.”
In the very short first reading, we’re reminded of just how much God loves us. Zion laments that God has forgotten her, but, with words full of compassion, God replies: “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Perhaps even more beautiful is the verse that follows: “See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands.” “See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands” (NLT). Sometimes guys get the names of their girlfriends tattooed on their arms, but to have a name written on your hand, on your palms, means that you always see it, especially every time you go to do something or make something. It’s a beautiful image to think that no matter what God does or allows to happen, He has us right there on His hands.
Likewise, the Psalm reminds us, over and over again, that our souls can only find their rest in God. Time and time again, the psalmist emphasizes that we can place our trust only in God: “He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all. . . . With God is my safety and my glory, he is the rock of my strength; my refuge is in God. Trust in him at all times, O my people!”
These words prepare us for the Gospel, in which Christ Himself tells us, using a variety of beautiful metaphors, that we must place all our trust in God, and this precisely because He loves us and wants the best for us.
We can divide the Gospel into three parts: first, Christ’s words about mammon and the command not to worry, second, some thoughts about worry in general, and then thirdly, two ways to overcome worry. So, mammon and worry, thoughts about anxiety in general, and then two practical suggestions.
In the first part of the Gospel, Christ tells us that we can’t serve both God and mammon. We should remember that mammon doesn’t mean just money: it can be anything I have that’s not God, be it popularity, my job, my friends, the opinion people have of me . . . anything that’s not God can be mammon. However, at first it’s a little hard to see why Christ would follow this up by saying, “Therefore, do not worry.” Even Saint John Chrysostom, a doctor of the Church, asks in homily, “Therefore? Why therefore?” The connection between serving God or mammon, and therefore I shouldn’t be worried, isn’t immediately clear.
Part of the answer lies in the Greek word for worry. Jesus uses the word merimnaó, which figuratively means anxiety or worry, but literally to be divided into pieces; the word reflects how being anxious about this world divides and fractures a person into parts. In English, when someone is overwhelmed by problems or difficulties, we sometimes say they “fall to pieces.” The meaning here is something similar. Yet, Jesus warns us that such a division is impossible: either I serve God, or I serve the things of this world. There’s no middle ground, and no divided service, and so I shouldn’t be divided inside; if I’m serving God, then I shouldn’t worry.
Once Christ commands us not to worry, or not to be divided, He then gives some thoughts about worry in general, our second point. He first remarks, “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” We must put our lives in perspective; if God gives us life, He will also take care of everything else besides. Here Christ uses some beautiful images, perhaps the most beautiful images He uses in the Gospels, to show us why we should trust God. The birds of the air and the flowers of the field are so beautiful, and yet don’t need to work; God provides them with what they need. If we, with our immortal souls, are worth so much more than they are, how much more will God care for us?
Jesus adds a short qualifier to when He commands us not to worry about what we are to eat, or drink or wear. He says, “All these things the pagans seek.” “All these things the pagans seek.” Herein lies the sources of most of our difficulties when it comes to worry. The pagans worry about things because they don’t believe in God, or at least not the God who reveals Himself in the Bible as a loving father. This is often our problem too: we don’t really understand what it means to have God as a father who provides for us. There could be any number of reasons for this, but, ultimately, if I don’t believe that God is a loving father who looks after the smallest things that concern His children, I will be anxious and worried.
This leads us to our third point: in addition to praying and considering how God is a Father, what else can we do to overcome this anxiety, this dividedness? Christ gives two practical suggestions. First, He commands “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” In other words, focus on God, and He will provide for you. This doesn’t mean sitting around like a bump on a log: it means praying and doing whatever it is that our state in life requires, because this is how we build up the kingdom of God. It goes back to what Christ said at the beginning of today’s Gospel: we can’t be divided. Either I concern myself with God and His things, or I worry about something that’s not Him and that can’t bring me peace. There’s no middle ground: it’s either one or the other. We can ask ourselves: where are my priorities? Is God really the most important part of my life? Or is something else in His place? A good way to know is to see if I’m anxious or worried about something. That’s a good sign that something is out of place or out of order.
Secondly, Christ tells us “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” In other words, we must fully live in the present. The past has already come and gone, with its good things, for which I give thanks, and its bad things, which I ask forgiveness for. But it’s gone, it’s past. Likewise, the future hasn’t come yet. Maybe it won’t come: I could get hit by a bus, or the world could end, and that’d be it. All I have is today, and worry prevents me from fully living in the present. It’s been said that anxiety is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. It just unsettles us, and leaves us in a worse state than before.
On the contrary, the saints are excellent examples of trust in God, and perhaps no better example is Saint Joseph Cottolengo, the saint of Divine Providence. Cottolengo started numerous homes for the poor, elderly, and abandoned in Italy, all without keeping any sort of records or accounts. At one point, the king urged him to hire an accountant and keep the books, saying that people would be denied their due when Cottolengo died. Cottolengo replied, “Sir, how long has Providence ruled this universe? During that long period, has it been known that Providence has wronged any one, or denied any one his due? Or does it keep books and registers? Has it ever become bankrupt? The Little House is the House of Providence, ruled by it, provided for by it. It will never be a loser itself, or be the cause of losses to anyone.”
God never goes bankrupt, “[His] is the silver and [His] the gold,” as the prophet Haggai says [2:8]. All we need to do live our out faith and vocations, and trust.
As we prepare for the Lenten season, let us ask, through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God, for the grace to truly trust in God, knowing that only in Him will our souls be at rest.
 The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 21.2.
Priests of the Institute of the Incarnate Word