You cannot serve both God and mammon.
In the early days of Judaism, the laws of the Sabbath, and how we could use the land were quite serious. There was no work on the Sabbath, no business. The rules applied to all—slave, worker or employer. And the Sabbath was not only a Sabbath for people, but a Sabbath for the land and work animals as well, who were given time to rest. Everyone was entitled to take a rest from work and from working, and to spend time with family, with community, and with God, no matter the potential result in the bottom line.
The rules surrounding what we could and could not do with the land went beyond our enforced break on the Sabbath. The Lord also proscribed Jubilee years, when slaves were freed, debts were forgiven, land reverted back to the original ownership of the families, and the fields were fallow—whatever grew freely from the land could be eaten, but there was to be no new tilling or planting. We could not amass and consolidate wealth indefinitely, nor could we take and take and take and take from the earth, without rest.
The overarching reason for these rules is to recognize the larger nature of God, that we must take time for our contemplation of God on the Sabbath, and that we must recognize that we are only stewards, not masters of this land. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” (Psalm 24:1) We could not gather money and goods for our own without sharing with the poor because God loves the poor; because we are called to love God and to love our neighbor; and, above all, because the gains of the Earth are not ours. All belongs to God, and we are merely temporary caretakers. This is reinforced in the Gospel reading of the shrewd manager. This parable may sound odd to us, thinking merely of today’s laws. How could someone be rewarded for forgiving debts and sharing his master’s wealth? But it is more understandable when we consider it is telling us of serving the Lord, who wishes us to share with those who have less, rather than gathering for ourselves.
And now, today, we can see an even greater wisdom in these laws. Because we know now that constantly using up the land, without thought to anything other than amassing wealth, is the cause of so many of our problems. We are constantly producing, constantly using, constantly consuming. And our consumption has led to our major global problem that we see today. The growing inequality, that is allowing some of us to grow our wealth while others struggle, and the current climate crisis. July of 2019 was the hottest month in human history; just last week a temperature station above the arctic circle hit 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and there are wildfires in the tundra and in the Amazon rainforest. We are destroying our planet, and harming first and foremost the poor and vulnerable, because we refuse to take a break from amassing wealth. Any discussion of how we can combat the climate crisis turns immediately to how much it would cost, would it harm our economic growth, and what will we have to give up, rather than what needs to be done. Rarely, even for those who believe that we must take action on climate change, is there a recognition that perhaps this is the wrong way round. That we must engage in an act of profound conversion, and recognize that that we are stewards of creation, that we must share what we have, and that there is more to life than the economic bottom line.
It helps us to see our situation clearly to recognize that the “obsession with consumption” Pope Francis calls out in Laudato Si’ is not necessarily something new. It is what prophets have been criticizing for thousands of years. It was Amos is speaking out about. The people in his time see the Sabbath as a burden. Rather than a time for rest and being with God, it is only an inconvenience that stands in the way of working (and exploiting) their employees, of buying and selling, of commerce and business. The other laws of the land, such as requiring what falls in the field to be left for widows and orphans, are in their way as well as the people Amos is haranguing say that they will sell even the ‘refuse of the wheat’, using up every last thing on their land.
Amos could easily be speaking to us. How many of us go through Lent complaining to ourselves about why we even fast anymore? Or look at the Sunday obligation as one to be ticked off? More to the point, though, how many of us are turning away from our community, whether our Church community or the neighborhood, or our family because we are focused on work? And how many of us expect others to do so as well—the modern prophets may say to you woe to you who has called another coworker after hours or while they are on a vacation.
And, more directly, how many of us have turned away from doing the right thing, what we know we should do, because we are worried instead about what it costs us in time or money, or that it would be inconvenient? The climate crisis is reaching a breaking point, and it is the poor and the vulnerable who will most suffer. Some of us may well be alright, but there are already climate refugees. While we fret about whether the church can afford solar panels, or whether our government should fund renewable energy, there are others who are worried about seeing their nation disappear. But the choice should be easy because the material wealth we are concerned about is not ours. We are only stewards of God’s creation, and stewards of a creation that is meant to be shared, not hoarded.
Right now we are in the midst of the Season of Creation a time that runs from Sept. 1, the World Day of Prayer for Creation, through October 4, the Feast of St. Francis. This is a time when Christians around the world come together to think through how we can better celebrate creation in our liturgy, and to reflect on our own relationship. It is also a time when, after this reflection, we think through how we can step forward and take action for the climate. We are also in the middle of climate week at the United Nations, when world leaders review their commitments. On Friday, Sept. 20, millions of people around the world came forward to call for change in the global strikes, leaving work, leaving home, leaving school, to call for change. In the Global Catholic Climate Movement people have been looking at how to make this public witness, praying the Laudato Si' Rosary in front of government offices, or asking for change from the Church.
Most importantly, though, for this change to happen we must have a profound ecological conversion, that we feel in our hearts and in our souls. When we focus too much on consumption and material wealth, we harm ourselves, we harm others, and we harm creation. We focus on the wrong things, letting it pull us away from our relationship with God, and forgetting to step back and set aside time for prayer and for God. We need to cultivate this once again, and refocus ourselves on what is most important. We cannot serve both God and mammon.
Marisa Vertrees has cared deeply for creation since her time growing up on a small island in Florida’s Gulf Coast, where she was fortunate enough to spend time in beaches and swamps, inspiring her to study environmental policy in school and become engaged in care for creation. She has also been a passionate advocate for social justice for the Church. After college, she was the Social Justice Director at St. Charles Borromeo in the Arlington Diocese, running the international missions programs, an advocacy ministry, and leading lobby days to the state capitol in Richmond and in Washington, DC.
Since then, she has been engaged in social justice in a number of avenues, primarily working on immigration, global solidarity and ending global poverty, and care for creation and climate work. She was the Organizing Director at the Global Catholic Climate Movement for two and a half years, an organization with volunteer leaders and member organizations in 92 countries, dedicated to engaging the Catholic community and grassroots in living out Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si’ and halting global climate change. The Global Catholic Climate Movement is on the steering committee for the Season of Creation (www.seasonofcreation.org), an ecumenical organization.
Marisa Vertrees currently lives in Northern Virginia with her husband and three children, and is involved at her parish community at St. Ann’s.
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