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Who Is Your Owner? (St. Matthew 6.24-34)

Fifteenth Sunday after Trinity

“Who Is Your Owner?”
Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus          

St. Matthew 6.24-34

25 September 2022



Twice in the Trinity season the appointed Gospel reading includes these words

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Matthew has placed these words in the Sermon on the Mount while Luke places them at the end of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager [Luke 16.1-13]. Both Gospel writers are careful to teach about the place of possessions in the life of the Christian. The goal is the same, the perspective different. 

The people who heard these words of Jesus in their own ears would have grasped them immediately. Twenty-first century ears have a completely different reaction. To grasp them as our Lord spoke them we must enter a world not our own. It is a world that 21st century man finds offensive, even to the point of denying history. 

No English translation of the two biblical texts translates the words as they should be read for fear of offending against sensitivity, of bringing up the history of the world which goes back almost to the beginning of time. The words of Jesus should really translated this way:

“No one can be a slave to two masters . . .  You cannot be a slave to God and money.”

There it is! The Greek word is δολος [doulos]. It means slave, not merely servant. To “serve” means “to be a slave.” The feminine form is doula, the word used for midwife, a female slave entrusted with assisting at a birth. The verb form here is translated by a Greek/English lexicon of the New Testament we call BDAG after the four authors who compiled the words of the Greek New Testament. It was published in 1957 by the University of Chicago Press and the Syndics of the Cambridge Univeristy Press at the prestigious University of Cambridge, England. Of interest to us might be the following sentence on the inner leaf:

This publication has been made possible by funds allocated from the Centennial Thank-offering of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, through the Committee on Developing Scholarly Research.

Here is what the scholarly definition of the verb form is:

to be owned by another, be a slave, be subjected”

 Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 259). University of Chicago Press.

In the BDAG shorthand William Arndt is the “A” and was one of my father’s seminary professors. “D” is Fred Danker, one of my seminary professors. Fred Danker was known as “Red Fred” because of his flaming red hair while his brother William was known as “Black Bill” for his black hair. 

Of further interest is a volume of the Concordia Commentary Series on Philemon by Dr John Nordling, professor at Concordia Theological Seminary at Ft. Wayne. He has dedicated 100 pages to a summary of Slavery in Ancient Society as well as its implications for every instance of the New Testament which teaches about Christian service. Philemon was a runaway slave to whom the Apostle Paul wrote the letter of the same name. 

The difficulty for us is our own nation’s participation in slavery of blacks. Any discussion of slavery in our reading is bound to raise someone’s hackles. However, slavery existed in the Old Testament. In the Genesis account Joseph’s own blood brothers sold him as a slave to the Egyptians. There were laws regarding slavery, especially a Jew who became too poor and sold himself into slavery to pay his debts [Leviticus 25.39-55 et al.] Perhaps we simply do not want to confront the cruelty of human beings as it has existed for millennia. Our U.S. Department of State puts the number of people trafficked into slavery in the United States each year at close to 200,000, almost one quarter of a million people. 

But let’s return to our reading and what it means for us. Here our relationship to God is described. We have no rights of our own. God is the undisputed Master of our lives. This can be said only of Christians. The non-Christian is also a slave, but to a different owner who means him eternal misery and destruction. 

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. [John 8.34-36]

People today see themselves as free agents, like a professional athlete who is able to find employment with any team willing to pay him millions of dollars for playing a game, albeit sometimes a very violent game. In a theological sense many Christian denominations see themselves as free agents when it comes to sin. They can choose to belong to Christ or not. They do not gather the deeper aspects of what Jesus says here. You and I can never ask, “What do I want to do with what is mine?” because none of it is ours. Everything belongs to God who created it and sustains it. This is not a bad thing unless one hates this Master. A slave does not own property, therefore he is not free to abuse it. Neither can a slave claim time which is his own. We have become accustomed to saying, “I need some ME time.” We want to do what we like to do. Being Jesus’ disciple means being completely subservient to him. Such a concept of slavery offends the contemporary person. 

The facts, however, are stubborn things. Nowhere else in Scripture are the demands of discipleship spelled out as severely as they are here. Many people like to look at the Sermon on the Mount as gentle and nice, yet it is no such thing! Maybe they don’t get beyond the opening Beatitudes and don’t hear further about the Law’s severity in condemning anger, lust, divorce, oaths, retaliation, loving one’s enemies, giving to the needy.

Self gets in the way, the self that wants to be free of the Master who owns him and everything he has. Yet, there were advantages to being a slave in the ancient world, and perhaps even in the modern world. Slaves were largely free from the duties that come from rights. Slaves paid no taxes, did not need to be concerned with the intricacies of the Law. Slaves did not have to pay damages in things like tort law where wealthy people sued each other over whatever argument they had. We are stuck in egalitarianism, the idea that all people regardless of circumstances MUST have equal results. It didn’t happen in the ancient world and no amount of social engineering can make it happen today. 

So where does this leave the rest of our Gospel reading? Here it is: “You can’t be a slave to money and be a slave to God.” They are mutually exclusive. You will end up devoting yourself to the pursuit of material things, mammon [μαμωνς] as the King James Version records it. Pursuing that which is not yours to keep is like trying to harness the wind. Mammon, or wealth—property—can become your god. It brings terrible responsibility. You must protect it, insure it, take care of it. Being a homeowner brings a never ending list of tasks to be done. 

Let’s turn to Luther’s Large Catechism, the Ten Commandments, the First Commandment.

“You are to have no other gods.”

[1] That is, you are to regard me alone as your God. What does this mean, and how is it to be understood? What does “to have a god” mean, or what is God?

[2] Answer: A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. [3] If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God. [Kolb, R., Wengert, T. J., & Arand, C. P. (2000). The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (p. 386). Fortress Press.]

You and I do not need to have another god to supply our needs. We have a heavenly Father who knows what we need. This heavenly Father treats his slaves in a way that no earthly slave owner ever has or ever could. He feeds us, clothes us, gives us to drink. He gives us everything so that our minds might not be anxious about the things of this world, the things that shall pass away on the last day. Even the weather is under his control. The pagan world cannot resist obsessing over climate change, as though we slaves are in control of it! But look at the lilies of the field. Look at the riot of color which shall soon dot our landscape as we marvel at the beauty of it all

As I said, there are advantages to being a slave of Christ. We are freed from worry and anxiety over how we shall subsist. The slave of Christ has no such concerns. You have a Master who knows everything you need and he has promised to supply it in abundance. He will not skin you and fail to keep his promises because he has kept the most important promise in his Son. On him all the burden of sin, shame, guilt, trouble, and sorrow—have been placed. He who owns everything visible and invisible, made himself a slave, taking on the form of a slave so that he could redeem all of us who were slaves to sin and had no future whatsoever. 

Does Christ know what it means to be a slave? Indeed he does! He became a slave for us to redeem us, to drive away for good the old, evil foe who would like to “put us all back in chains!” No such thing can happen if we are in faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, God forbids worry. It’s not a warm thought such as we might give to another person undergoing hard times. It’s a divine guarantee that he will care for us. After all, he cares for all those sparrows that no one can number, and Christ did not die for sparrows, but for you! 

If we are slaves of Christ then what Luther says should bring joy to our hearts:

If I believe that I have a God, then I cannot worry about myself. When I know that God cares for me like a father for his child, what do I have to fear? What do I need with much worrying? I simply said, “If you are my Father, then I know that nothing bad will happen to me. [Psalm 16[:8] says, “I have the Lord always before my eyes, for He is at my might hand; therefore I will prosper.” Since He also has everything in His hands, I can lack nothing since He cares for me. [AE 79.105]

Who is your owner, your Master? God the Father owns everything and he uses it to sustain your life. What is more, he provides eternal things like forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation and a glorious heavenly home. It’s good to be a slave of Christ because in Him you are free from worry!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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