‘The new Idolatry of Money’

Father John A. Kiley

Pope Francis raised hope in some quarters, and eyebrows in other quarters, when he took the world’s monetary practices to task in his first public exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” The Pontiff had challenging words for those responsible for what he termed “an economy of exclusion.” The Holy Father decried “the new idolatry of money” and was certainly harsh on “a financial system which rules rather than serves.”

As happily reported in the media, the pope’s words were enthusiastically received by those intent on the redistribution of wealth. The Bishop of Rome’s economic advice was less eagerly accepted by those focused on the creation of wealth. But whether one favors the entitlement programs of big government, or the laissez-faire policies of less government, the words of Jesus Christ in this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage are far more challenging than the reforms outlined by Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel,” or by Pope Paul VI in “Populorum Progressio,” or by Pope John XXIII in “Mater et Magistra,” or even by Leo XIII in “Rerum Novarum.”

Suppose these words of Jesus Christ were addressed to a conscientious parent whose unemployment insurance has just been terminated: “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” What if these words of Jesus Christ were addressed to a financial advisor whose livelihood and whose service to the community hinges on a concern with stocks and bonds: “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Jesus clearly demands that, in adversity and in prosperity, absolute trust in God’s Fatherhood must be the guiding element in a Christian’s life. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” Easy to say, but tough to embrace.

Imagine the director of the diocesan fiscal office quoting these words of Jesus to the pastor of a stressed urban parish struggling to pay his winter fuel bill: “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” Very unlikely advice. Consider the regional superior of a motherhouse filled with ailing, elderly sisters telling her dependent clients: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” Bitter pill to swallow. Or suppose the supervisor of Emmanuel House, the diocesan shelter, remarked to a homeless person at the door: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?”

Surely, Jesus was not oblivious to the reality and legitimacy of human needs. At times he had nowhere to lay his head. On occasion, he himself accepted the generosity of those devout women who cared for the apostolic band out of their resources. Nor did Jesus look down on the well-to-do. He frequently dined with the ruling class. Two of his greatest parabolic heroes were men of means: the Good Samaritan and the father of the Prodigal Son. Jesus’ chief concern, both for the rich as well as for the poor, is the spiritual paralysis that can occur when money, wealth and resources — or the lack thereof — begin to obsess the believer. Brokers who are willingly preoccupied with the marketplace and the homeless who are unavoidably obsessed with shelter are both slaves to their circumstances. The anxious cares of the wealthy, and the nervous cares of the needy can both be spiritually debilitating. Jesus forbids such excessive anxiety roundly when he chastens his listeners: “O you of little faith!”

All mankind, rich or poor, must be totally convinced, that is, totally faithful, toward the Providence of God. God’s Providence is not a metaphor. God deliberately chose to reveal himself to mankind in the caring role of provident Father. God is solicitude itself. He does not abandon or disappoint. Perseverance on the believer’s part is the challenging path toward him from whom all Fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name.