Have you ever heard a child say: “You’re not the boss of me”? It’s usually said in resentment and defiance when the child doesn’t want to do what he or she is being told to do. And sometimes it really is justified – when one girl has told another that she can’t play on the slide or the swings because the first girl and her friends have decided that they have exclusive rights to the playground equipment and don’t want anyone else around. “You are not the boss of me” then becomes an assertion of the excluded child’s right to share the swings or the slide; she’s standing up for herself.
So who is the boss of you – you, sitting in the pew this morning? Your first thought may be of your employer, or maybe your spouse, or how about your cats! Or, in our individualistic society, you may feel that no one is your boss – in the sense of having control or power over you.
But that was not the case in the first century Roman world. Caesar’s reach stretched from the Irish Sea to the Persian Gulf, and from the Straights of Gibraltar to the Caspian Sea – and throughout that entire empire the residents and citizens were required annually to burn a pinch in incense before the statue of the Emperor and say “Caesar is Lord.” This phrase even was sometimes used as a greeting between people: “Caesar is Lord;” it helped to cement the bonds of the social system, the hierarchy, making it very clear that it was the Emperor who was the highest and final authority – politically and spiritually.
The only group of people who were exempt from this requirement (most of the time) were the Jews; the Romans had realized it was useless to try to get them to participate in Caesar worship, because it violated the first Commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” And then as Christians – particularly Gentile Christians – began to claim the same exemption from having to burn incense and proclaim Caesar as Lord, conflict with the Roman authorities began to build. The supremacy of Caesar and his authority could not be challenged or ignored; everyone in the Empire was to be under the lordship of Caesar.
So when Jesus spoke of not serving two masters his listeners would have understood that he was not just talking about the person they worked for, the employer who gave them wages or goods, but that he also was speaking about who was politically and socially and spiritually in charge. And Jesus was clear that the pursuit of wealth, and the accumulation of it, could become master or lord of one’s life all on its own, as much as Caesar could. He wanted his followers, those who were choosing to walk in Jesus’ way and live a Jesus life – to know that they could only have one master – and that was God.
And how much greater a master was God than Caesar – the Empire might promise the peace of the realm, security from war, the benefits of living in an ordered society – but it could not promise salvation, nor peace of heart and soul. Jesus told his disciples not to worry about life, not to worry about what they would eat or drink or wear, because God knew they needed those things and would provide them – whether they worried or not.
Jesus says the same thing to us – we are not to worry, not even about the most basic essentials of life. He is not asking us to ignore very real physical needs and hungers, either in ourselves or in someone else; feeding the hungry is part of our Christian responsibility; Mother Theresa is quoted as saying: If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one. Nor is Jesus proclaiming a disembodied spirituality, saying that material things don’t matter or are somehow evil in themselves. But instead – Jesus is saying that God knows what we need - food, shelter, clothing - but our needs and wants are not the master, we should not make our needs the ultimate force in our life, they are not what rules us: GOD is.
When I was travelling to Honduras and working at El Hogar, the boys’ home in Tegucigalpa, some of the boys there needed to learn not to hoard food, not to take it from the cafeteria back to their beds and hide it away under the blankets. So many of these children had lived on the streets, and had come close to dying for lack of food or safety; it is no wonder that when they first arrived at El Hogar they might have been fearful and nervous, and felt that they needed to stockpile whatever food they could get their hands on.
But it’s a problem, a spiritual aspect of their poverty; the boys were very anxious that there wouldn’t be enough – and they ended up denying themselves their proper meals so they would have something to store away against a fearful future. But in reality they had come to a place where they had all the food they needed, where the love of God was made real and tangible every day through regular meals and clean clothes and schooling and sensible, consistent rules and caring, stable adults. God was taking care of them, and part of what they were learning was faith and trust in the Lord in whose name they had been rescued from the streets and set on a path to health and wholeness.
So what about us? What are the things that make us anxious? What are the areas to which we give control of our lives – for that is what we do when we worry incessantly; we make that person or need or concern or desire the controlling factor – the master - in our lives.
It’s very understandable that we might be nervous about finances – especially after the last several years, or about our children – especially when we see them making choices that may very well harm them in some way, or about the safety and stability of the world. But Jesus asks us to remember that, because we are Christians, we have given charge of our lives to God, and God is more than capable of being in charge and doing a good job of it. One of my colleagues has a tag line at the bottom of her e-mails; it says: “Stop telling God how big the storm is, and start telling the storm how big your God is.”
Jesus asks us to face into the hard places of life with the confidence that God will not leave us or abandon us. But if we are going to serve God, if Jesus is our master, then we need to let go of the worry, to free our hands from the false gods of control, and take God’s hand, instead. Jesus says: …indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Let us pray. "O Christ Jesus, when all is darkness and we feel our weakness and helplessness, give us the sense of Your presence, Your love, and Your strength. Help us to have perfect trust in Your protecting love and strengthening power, so that nothing may frighten or worry us, for, living close to You, we shall see Your hand, Your purpose, Your will through all things. Amen. " (St. Ignatius of Loyola, 1491-1556)
Victoria Geer McGrath
Eighth Sunday after Epiphany
February 27, 2011