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Monday, May 19, 2008

PENTECOST TWO, 2008 | Visitation

Lexegete™ | Year A | Matthew

May 25, 2008 (Lectionary 8)

Isaiah 49:8-16a

Psalm 131 (2)1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

May 31, 2008
1 Samuel 2:1-10 • Psalm 113 (2) • Romans 12:9-16b
Luke 1:39-57

1. Context: Matthew 6:24-34

Here we have one of the greatest of texts from the Sermon on the Mount. It is a fitting text for this part of the Christian year, in the aftermath of the Easter Season, as we (Americans and others across the globe) as we contemplate the impact of major disasters such as cyclones, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquake, and global warning (a slow-motion catastrophe). Of course the quintessential idea buried in this text is found in the verse 24 in which Jesus cites a Jewish proverb “No one can serve two masters.” One can easily see how, in the wrong hands, this text could become an occasion for preaching a law-based theology, or law alone. Dr. David Tiede addressed this briefly in the journal Word and World in 1984:

Matthew 6:24-34: This glimpse of the good life has caught the attention of anxious,
stressed, compulsive, and fearful people throughout the ages. Even as general counsel to “take it easy” it would probably be medically sound for most people. But more is at stake than the
commendation of a laid back lifestyle. The profound assurance of the heavenly Father’s care is
central to this counsel, and the quest of God’s kingdom and righteousness indicate how these
gentle words are related to the rest of the Sermon. In declaring and describing this undergirding reality of grace, Jesus has gone beyond exposing our desperate anxieties. The eschatological dominion of God has already been revealed, and neither depth of hell nor height of heaven can contain the extent of God’s grace. “Do not be anxious” is thus not simply one more command which anxiety-ridden people may now struggle to achieve. The double bind of struggling to master such a command is well known by anyone who has endured medical treatment. But this is a declaration filled with a promise. The righteousness and kingdom of God are already disclosed and imparted in Jesus, and the invitation to trust is as secure as the authority of the Proclaimer himself.

2. Text: Matthew 6:24-34


24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education
of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America


24ουδεις δυναται δυσι κυριοις δουλευειν: η γαρ τον ενα μισησει και τον ετερον αγαπησει, η ενος ανθεξεται και του ετερου καταφρονησει: ου δυνασθε θεω δουλευειν και μαμωνα.

25δια τουτο λεγω υμιν, μη μεριμνατε τη ψυχη υμων τι φαγητε [η τι πιητε,] μηδε τω σωματι υμων τι ενδυσησθε: ουχι η ψυχη πλειον εστιν της τροφης και το σωμα του ενδυματος;

26εμβλεψατε εις τα πετεινα του ουρανου οτι ου σπειρουσιν ουδε θεριζουσιν ουδε συναγουσιν εις αποθηκας, και ο πατηρ υμων ο ουρανιος τρεφει αυτα: ουχ υμεις μαλλον διαφερετε αυτων;

27τις δε εξ υμων μεριμνων δυναται προσθειναι επι την ηλικιαν αυτου πηχυν ενα;

28και περι ενδυματος τι μεριμνατε; καταμαθετε τα κρινα του αγρου πως αυξανουσιν: ου κοπιωσιν ουδε νηθουσιν:

29λεγω δε υμιν οτι ουδε σολομων εν παση τη δοξη αυτου περιεβαλετο ως εν τουτων.

30ει δε τον χορτον του αγρου σημερον οντα και αυριον εις κλιβανον βαλλομενον ο θεος ουτως αμφιεννυσιν, ου πολλω μαλλον υμας, ολιγοπιστοι;

31μη ουν μεριμνησητε λεγοντες, τι φαγωμεν; η, τι πιωμεν; η, τι περιβαλωμεθα;

32παντα γαρ ταυτα τα εθνη επιζητουσιν: οιδεν γαρ ο πατηρ υμων ο ουρανιος οτι χρηζετε τουτων απαντων.

33ζητειτε δε πρωτον την βασιλειαν [του θεου] και την δικαιοσυνην αυτου, και ταυτα παντα προστεθησεται υμιν.

34μη ουν μεριμνησητε εις την αυριον, η γαρ αυριον μεριμνησει εαυτης: αρκετον τη ημερα η κακια αυτης.

Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland XXVIth edition © 1979, Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, Stuttgart;

3. Analysis: Matthew 6:24-34

William T. Cavanaugh’s theological focus has clearly been on the contrast between worldly wealth and the Real Presence of the tortured and risen Christ in the Eucharist. (On these two points, see especially his books Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ: Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Blackwell, 1998), and Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008). An article he wrote for Concilium also combined these two focal points:
Consumption, the Market, and the Eucharist

by William T. Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh is a professor of Theology at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. Among his numerous publications are the books Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Challenges in Contemporary Theology and Theopolitical Imagination: Christian Practices of Space and Time.

There was a woman named Rosalinda with whom I attended Sunday mass when I lived in Chile in the 1980s. Rosalinda lived in a small wooden shanty with her elderly mother. Their income, which sufficed for little more than bread and tea, was derived from the potholders and other items that Rosalinda crocheted and sold at the local market. On one of my first visits to her home, Rosalinda gave me a little crocheted bird that is used for grasping the handles of hot tea kettles. When Rosalinda presented it to me as I was leaving her home, my first impulse was to reach into my pocket and give her some money for it. But I sensed that that would have been the wrong thing to do.

The little blue-green bird with a white fringe currently adorns the rice container on my kitchen counter. I live with my wife and kids a world away from Santiago in St. Paul, Minnesota. We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts. The stories both overlap and compete. I will try to tell these two stories briefly, and reflect on what they mean for Rosalinda and the bird.

I. Hunger and the market

Economics, we are told, is the science which studies the allocation of resources under conditions of scarcity. The very basis of the market, trade – giving up something to get something else – assumes scarcity. Resources are scarce wherever the desires of all persons for goods or services cannot be met. Hunger, in other words, is written into the conditions under which economics operates. There is never enough to go around. But it is not simply the hunger of those who lack sufficient food to keep their bodies in good health. Scarcity is the more general hunger of those who want more, without reference to what they already have. Economics will always be the science of scarcity as long as individuals continue to want. And we are told that human desires are endless.

This insight about desire is not new. For St. Augustine, the constant renewing of desire is a condition of being creatures in time. Desire is not simply negative; our desires are what get us out of bed in the morning. We desire because we live. The problem is that our desires continue to light on objects which fail to satisfy, objects on the lower end of the scale of being which, if cut off from the Source of their being, quickly dissolve into nothing.1 The solution to the restlessness of desire is to cultivate a desire for God, the eternal. Augustine famously prays to God that “our heart is restless until it rests in you.”2

In a consumer-driven market economy, the restlessness of desire is also recognized. Marketing constantly seeks to meet, create, and stoke new desires, often by highlighting a sense of dissatisfaction with what one presently has and is. In a consumer culture, we recognize the validity of Augustine’s insight: particular material things cannot satisfy. Rather than causing us to turn away from material things and towards God, however, in consumer culture we plunge ever more deeply into the world of things. Dissatisfaction and fulfillment cease to be opposites, for pleasure is not in possessing objects but in their pursuit. Possession kills eros; familiarity breeds contempt. This is why shopping itself has taken on the honored status of an addiction in Western society. It is not the desire for any thing in particular, but the pleasure of stoking desire itself that makes malls into the new cathedrals of Western culture. The dynamic is not an inordinate attachment to material things, but an irony and detachment from all things. At the level of economics, scarcity is treated as a tragic inability to meet the needs of all people, especially those whom hunger and extreme deprivation confront daily with death. At the level of experience, scarcity in consumer culture is associated with the pleasurable sensation of desiring. Scarcity is implied in the daily erotics of desire that keeps the individual in pursuit of novelty.

For a number of reasons, desire in consumer society keeps us distracted from the desires of the truly hungry, those who experience hunger as life-threatening deprivation. It is not simply that the market encourages an erotic attraction toward things, not persons. It is that the market story establishes a fundamentally individualistic view of the human person. The idea of scarcity assumes that the normal condition for the communication of goods is by trade. To get something, one must relinquish something else. The idea of scarcity implies that goods are not held in common. The consumption of goods is essentially a private experience. This does not mean that charitable giving is forbidden, but it is relegated to the private realm of preference, not justice. One might always send a check to help feed the hungry. One’s charitable preferences, however, will always be in competition with one’s own endless desires. The idea of scarcity establishes the view that no one has enough. My desires to feed the hungry are always being distracted by the competition between their desires and my own.

Adam Smith thought that this distraction was a result of the fact that every person is “by nature, first and principally recommended to his own care.”3

Men, though naturally sympathetic, feel so little for another, with whom they have no particular connexion, in comparison of what they feel for themselves; the misery of one, who is merely their fellow-creature, is of so little importance to them in comparison even of a small conveniency of their own."4

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith pondered the question of how disinterested moral judgments could ever trump self-interest. He developed the idea that pain and other sentiments are communicable from one individual to another by the ability of the human person sympathetically to put him or herself in the position of another. Nevertheless, according to Smith, nature has made our resentment to a lack of justice greater than our resentment to a lack of benevolence, so only the former is subject to punishment: “when a man shuts his breast against compassion, and refuses to relieve the misery of his fellow-creatures, when he can with the greatest ease… though everybody blames the conduct, nobody imagines that those who might have reason, perhaps, to expect more kindness, have any right to extort it by force.”5 Society can exist without benevolence, but not without justice.6 Absent explicit violence or theft, the inability of a person to feed him or herself is not a failure of justice, but a call for benevolence, which falls to individuals. The communicability of pain in the body of society is faint. Moral indignation in its strong form is reserved for explicit attacks on the status quo of life and property.

Adam Smith does not simply leave the care of the hungry to individual preference, however, for in the larger scheme of The Wealth of Nations, the needs of the hungry are addressed by the providential care of the market. According to Smith, the invisible hand of the market guides economic activity such that the pursuit of self-interest by uncoordinated individuals miraculously works out to the benefit of all. The great economic machine of society is driven by people’s wants. Through the mechanism of demand and supply, the competition of self-interested individuals will result in the production of the goods society wants, at the right prices, with sufficient employment for all at the right wages for the foreseeable future. The result is an eschatology in which abundance for all is just around the corner. In the contemporary consumer-driven economy, consumption is often urged as the solution to the suffering of others. Buy more to get the economy moving – more consumption means more jobs. By the miracle of the market, my consumption feeds you. One story the market tells, then, is that of scarcity miraculously turned into abundance by consumption itself, a contemporary loaves-and-fishes saga.

In reality, however, consumerism is the death of Christian eschatology. There can be no rupture with the status quo, no inbreaking Kingdom of God, but only endless superficial novelty. As Vincent Miller writes, “Since desire is sustained by being detached from particular objects, consumer anticipation wishes for everything and hopes for nothing.”7 The witness of the martyrs to living the Kingdom of God in the present becomes a curiosity; how could someone be so committed to some particular thing as to lose his life for it? We are moved by the suffering of others, but we can hardly imagine a change radical enough to undermine the paradigm of consumption. Even the suffering of others can become a spectacle and a consumable item8 – tsunamis sell newspapers. And so we choose to believe that, through the miracle of free competition, our consumption will feed others. The truth, however, is that self-interested consumption does not bring justice to the hungry. The consumer’s pursuit of low, low prices at Wal-Mart means low, low wages for the people in Asia who make the products we buy. Eschatological hope easily fades into resignation to a tragic world of scarcity.

II. Hunger and the Eucharist

The Eucharist tells another story about hunger and consumption. It does not begin with scarcity, but with the one who came that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10). “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry’” (John 6:35). The insatiability of human desire is absorbed by the abundance of God’s grace in the gift of the body and blood of Christ. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life” (6:54), they are raised above mere temporal longing for novelty. And the body and blood of Christ are not scarce commodities; the host and the cup are multiplied daily at thousands of Eucharistic celebrations throughout the world. “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away” (6:37).

This invitation to come and be filled is assimilable to private spiritualities of self-fulfillment if it is packaged as an “experience” of divine life. But the abundance of the Eucharist is inseparable from the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the cross. The consumer of the body and blood of Christ does not remain detached from what he or she consumes, but becomes part of the Body. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (6:56). The act of consumption of the Eucharist does not entail the appropriation of goods for private use, but rather being assimilated to a public body, the Body of Christ. Augustine hears the voice of God say “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.”9 The Eucharist effects a radical decentering of the individual by incorporating the person into a larger body. In the process, the act of consumption is turned inside-out, such that the consumer is consumed.

When we consume the Eucharist, we become one with others, and share their fate. Paul asks the Corinthians “The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” Paul answers “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage, "because he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, and that which shares is different from what it shares in, he removed even this small difference. For after he said A SHARING IN THE BODY, he sought again to express it more precisely, and so he added FOR WE, THOUGH MANY, ARE ONE BREAD, ONE BODY. “For why am I speaking of sharing?” he says, “We are that very body.” For what is the bread? The body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The body of Christ; not many bodies, but one body."10

The enacting of the Body of Christ in the Eucharist has a dramatic effect on the communicability of pain from one person to another, for individuals are now united in one body, connected by one nervous system. Not only can the eye not say to the hand “I have no need of you” (I Cor. 12:21), but the eye and the hand suffer or rejoice in the same fate. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (12:26). For this reason, Paul tells the Corinthians that we should take special care for the weakest members of the body (12:22-25), presumably because the whole body is only as strong as its weakest member.

This communicability of pain underlies the obligation of the followers of Christ toward the hungry. The point of the story of final judgment in Matthew 25: 31-46 is not simply that an individual performing good deeds -- such as feeding the hungry -- will be rewarded with a ticket to the Kingdom. The force of the story lies in the identification of Christ with the hungry: “for I was hungry and you gave me food” (25:35). The pain of the hungry person is the pain of Christ, and it is therefore also the pain of the member of Christ’s body who feeds the hungry person. Unlike in Adam Smith, there is no priority of justice to charity here, no prior sorting out of who deserves what before benevolence can take place. In Matthew as in Paul, the hungry and the benevolent are confused in Christ, such that distinctions between justice and charity, public and private, become impediments to seeing reality as God sees it.

Adam Smith’s economy underwrites a separation between contractual exchanges and gifts. Benevolence is a free suspension of self-interested exchange. As such, benevolence cannot be expected or even encouraged on the public level, because the market functions for the good of all on the basis of self-interested consumption and production. Benevolent giving freely transfers property from one to another, but nevertheless respects the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours. In the Eucharistic economy, by contrast, the gift relativizes the boundaries between what is mine and what is yours by relativizing the boundary between me and you. We are no longer two individuals encountering each other either by way of contract or as active giver and passive recipient. Without losing our identities as unique persons – Paul’s analogy of the body extols the diversity of eyes and hands, heads and feet – we cease to be merely other to one another by incorporation into the Body of Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is gift, giver, and recipient. We are neither merely active nor passive, but participate in the divine life, such that we are fed and simultaneously become food for others.

Our temptation is to spiritualize all this talk of union, to make our connection to the hungry a mystical act of imaginative sympathy. We could then imagine that we are already in communion with those who lack food, whether or not we meet their needs. Matthew is having none of this, placing of the obligation to feed the hungry in the context of eschatological judgment. Paul too places neglect of the hungry in the context of judgment. At the Eucharistic celebration in Corinth, which included a common meal, those who eat while others go hungry “show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing” (I Cor. 11:22). Those who thus, in an “unworthy manner,” partake of the body and blood of Christ “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:27. 29). Those of us who partake in the Eucharist while ignoring the hungry may be eating and drinking our own damnation.

The Eucharist places judgment in the eschatological context of God’s inbreaking Kingdom. There is no gradual immanent progress toward abundance which the market, driven by our consumption, is always about to -- but never actually does -- bring about. The Eucharist announces the coming of the Kingdom of God now, already in the present, by the grace of God. Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium affirms the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist in these terms: "In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims..."11 In the Eucharist, God breaks in and disrupts the tragic despair of human history with a message of hope and a demand for justice. The hungry cannot wait; the heavenly feast is now. The end-less consumption of superficial novelty is broken by the promise of an end, the Kingdom toward which history is moving and which is already breaking into history. The Kingdom is not driven by our desires, but by God’s desire, which we receive as gift in the Eucharist.

I think I have an idea now of why it would have been wrong to give Rosalinda money for the bird. It would have annulled the gift and turned it into an exchange. It would have re-established the boundaries between what is hers and what is mine, and therefore reinforced the boundaries between her and me. The Eucharist tells a different story about who we -- the hungry and the filled -- really are, and where we are going.


1. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 29-30 [Book II, §10].

2. Ibid., 3 [Book I, §1].

3. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. A.L. Macfie and D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 82 [II.ii.2.1].

4. Ibid., 86 [II.ii.3.4].

5. Ibid., 81 [II.ii.1.7].

6. Ibid., 85-91 [II.ii.3].

7. Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum Books, 2003), 132.

8. See ibid., 133-4.

9. Augustine, 124 [Book VII, §16].

10. St. John Chrysostom, Homily on I Corinthians, no. 24 in The Eucharist: Message of the Fathers of the Church, ed. Daniel J. Sheerin (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1986), 210.

11. Sacrosanctum Concilium 8, in Documents of Vatican II, Austin P. Flannery, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 5.

© Concilium. Erasmusplein 1 | 6525 HT Nijmegen | The Netherlands

4. Srategy: Matthew 6:24-34

As already noted, a challenging resource person for thinking about matters of abundance and consumption is the Catholic moralist, William T. Cavanaugh. What follows below is an article he wrote for SOJOURNERS magazine, which demonstrates a fruitful way of reflecting upon, preaching toward, or warning about the perils of abundance in a world of globalization, scarcity, lifeboat ethics, poverty, “The Tragedy of the Commons” , the Credit Crunch of 2007/8, and the global Food Crisis
Predicted in The Economist (“End of Cheap Food, “ Dec. 6, 2007, WEB: ).

When Enough is Enough

Why God's abundant life won't fit in a shopping cart,
and other mysteries of consumerism.

by William T. Cavanaugh

The contrast between consumerism and simple living at first glance seems fairly straightforward: Consumerism is about having more stuff, simple living is about having less stuff. Consumerism seems to be a permutation of the age-old vice of avarice, whose "special malice," says the Catholic Encyclopedia, "lies in that it makes the getting and keeping of money, possessions, and the like a purpose in itself to live for." As the old vitamin commercial from the ’80s so bluntly put it, "I want MORE for ME."

Avarice, however, does not really exhaust the phenomenon of consumerism. Consumerism is not so much about having more as it is about having something else. It is not buying but shopping that captures the spirit of consumerism. Buying is certainly an important part of consumerism, but buying brings a temporary halt to the restlessness that typifies it. It is this restlessness—the moving on to shopping for something else no matter what one has just purchased—that sets the spiritual tone for consumerism.

In the Christian tradition we are accustomed to thinking that the greatest temptation associated with material things is an inordinate attachment to them. Since biblical times and before, some people have accumulated great stores of wealth, and the Bible is often quite severe in its judgment of them. When we hear that the "love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10), and that the "poor in spirit" are blessed (Matthew 5:3), we resolve to cultivate an attitude of detachment from the material things we have. The problem is that consumerism is already a spiritual discipline of detachment, though one with a very different way of operating than classical Christian asceticism.

What marks consumerism as something new is its tendency to reduce everything, both the material and the spiritual, to a commodity able to be exchanged. Things that no other culture ever thought could be bought and sold—water, genetic codes, names (Tostitos Fiesta Bowl), human blood, the rights to emit pollutants into the air—are now routinely offered on the market. The recent story of the Nebraska man who auctioned off advertising space on his forehead is only the latest example of the commodification of everything. This story is not so much a lesson about greed—his forehead was apparently not big enough to garner bids for more than a few hundred dollars—as a statement about the extent to which we are able to become detached from even those things, like our foreheads, to which we are most obviously attached. We stand back from our bodies, faiths, vocations. Our very identity is something to be tried on, chosen, bought, sold, and discarded at will.

The satisfying nature of dissatisfaction. Consumerism is a spiritual attitude that is deeply entangled with changes since the Industrial Revolution in the way goods are produced. In pre-industrial society, the home was a place not merely of consumption but of production. Most people lived on farms and made the majority of the goods that they needed. Starting with the enclosure of common lands in England and elsewhere in Europe, the bulk of the population was moved away from subsistence farming and into factory labor. Cottage industries were wiped away by the production of cheap goods from mechanized factories, compelling people to enter the market as wage laborers.

With the relentless pressures on the family farm that continue today, the home as a site of significant production has all but disappeared. We make almost nothing of what we consume. The process of globalization has accelerated this detachment from production. Fewer and fewer of us have any idea what factory work is like, since manufacturing jobs are more and more being transferred overseas. Nor do we have much more than a vague idea of the wages or working conditions of the workers who make what we buy.

There are two significant results to these historical shifts. First, many people have become detached from their labor, seeing work not as a creative vocation but as a commodity to be sold in exchange for wages. Part of our very selves and the impress we make on the world is commodified. Second, our connection to things has become very tenuous. We know almost nothing about how products are made and how they end up in our shopping cart. The bananas we meet in the grocery story refuse to tell us how they ended up in Minnesota in the dead of winter. We eat cows without ever having been near more than a few pounds of beef flesh at any one time. We simply pull products off the shelves, dump them in our carts, and keep shopping.

Detached from their origins in human work and the networks of human community, commodities take on a life of their own. In the moment of encounter between product and consumer, the connection to other people and places falls away. The consumer has little or no connection to the producer, and more than likely has little connection to the seller either, since most local stores have been replaced by giant, impersonal chain stores. The relationship of consumption has been reduced to the bare encounter of consumer and thing, with nothing to connect the two except the utility of the product to the consumer.

The story does not end with the detachment of consumers from production and from things, however, for alienation and detachment do not explain the appeal of consumerism. If the consumer and the inert thing were left staring at each other across the store aisle, consumption would not keep pace with production. The product must be made to sing and dance and create a new kind of relationship between itself and the consumer.

Histories of marketing commonly trace the rise of mass advertising to the need to create mass consumption in the wake of industrialization. Factories were capable of producing goods at a heretofore unimaginable rate. The value of manufactured goods increased more than sixfold during the last four decades of the 19th century. Markets had to be created for all those products. People had to be trained to act as consumers, to be attracted to items to which they had no natural connection. Marketers began talking about "building relationships" between consumers and products. The catch is that these relationships could not be too durable or, once again, the pace of consumption would not keep up with the pace of production. People could not become too content or attached to products; desire had to be kept on the move. So began what the marketing department of General Motors—in a reference to changing car models every year—once called "the organized creation of dissatisfaction."

What has happened in consumer society is that dissatisfaction and satisfaction have ceased to be opposites. Pleasure resides not in having but in wanting. Insofar as an item obtained brings a temporary halt to desire, it becomes undesirable. This is why shopping, not buying, captures the spirit of consumerism, and why shopaholism is being treated as an addiction. Consumerism is a restless spirit, constantly in search of something new. Consumerism is typified by detachment, not attachment, for desire must be kept on the move. Consumerism is also typified by scarcity, not abundance, for as long as desire is endless, there will never be enough stuff to go around.

Being consumed. If detachment is the problem, should the Christian respond with greater attachment to material things? Not exactly. St. Augustine famously prayed to God "our heart is restless until it rests in you." Augustine knew that mere created things fall far short of the glory of God, such that ultimate satisfaction can never be found in created things on their own. Nevertheless, created things are good because they participate in the goodness of their creator. They contain vestiges of the Creator in them, vestiges that ought to lead us beyond the things themselves to the source of their being.

In this spiritual universe there is no such thing as an isolated commodity confronting an isolated individual. All created things sing and dance and shout of the glory of God. People and things are united in one great web of being, flowing from and returning to their Creator. Our dissatisfaction with things does not lead us endlessly on to the next thing but to our true end in God. The Christian view elevates the dignity of things by seeing them as participating in the being of God, but simultaneously causes us to look through and beyond things to their Creator.

Participation in this great web of created being informs the way that Christians view production. Work is not simply a means to gaining money so that we may consume. Work establishes an intimacy with God’s creation, so that we become, as Pope John Paul II reminds us, "co-creators" with God in our work. Participation in God also informs how we view one another. Human persons are not only connected to things but to other persons. We are all made in the image of God, and all made to participate in the body of Christ. Such is our close connection that we share the same sufferings and the same joys (1 Corinthians 12:26). It is as impossible to ignore sweatshop labor as it is to ignore pain in our own bodies.

In the Christian view, we do not stand apart from the rest of creation as individuals, appropriating, consuming, and discarding. We are rather consumed, as it were, by something larger than us. When we consume the body of Christ at the Lord’s table, we are in fact consumed by the larger body, the church. Augustine hears Christ’s voice say, "Grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me." At the communion table, the act of consumption is turned inside out, such that in eating we become food for others. True consumption, in the Christian understanding, is thus a kind of self-emptying, a decentering of the self into a larger web of participation. Thus Jesus connects the "abundant life" in John 10:10 to laying down one’s life in 10:11. True abundance is never realized by the competition of insatiable desires for scarce goods. It is realized by emptying the small self into the larger reality of God’s superabundant life.

The Christian task in a consumer society, then, is to create economic spaces that underscore our spiritual and physical connection to creation and to each other. We must strive to demystify commodities by being informed about where they come from, who makes them, and under what conditions. We should support products, such as fair-trade coffee, that pull back the veil from the production process and offer a sustainable life to their producers. We should attempt to create local, face-to-face economies, where consumers and producers know each other well enough that their interests tend to merge. My parish’s connection to a local cooperative of family farms ( is a hopeful example.

Finally, we should attempt to close the gap between work and consumption by supporting worker ownership of the means of production. The first step toward doing so is turning our homes back into sites of production. To bake bread, to make our own entertainment, and do so in community with others: These are small but important steps in turning from consumers to celebrants of God’s abundant life.

William T. Cavanaugh was associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and author most recently of Theopolitical Imagination (T. & T. Clark) when this article appeared.

5. Further Reading: Matthew 6:24-34

James H. Burtness, “Life-Style and Law: Some Reflections on Matthew 5:17,” dialog 14 (1975) 13-20.

William T. Cavanaugh. Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ: Challenges in Contemporary Theology (Blackwell, 1998).

William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (Eerdmans, 2008).

W. D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1964).

Jack Dean Kingsbury, “The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel and His Concept of Salvation-History,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 35 (1973) 451-474.

Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975).

David L. Tiede. "Matthew 6:24-34, The 8th Sunday after the Epiphany," Let Your Light Shine: The Sermon on the Mount in Epiphany, Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, Luther Northwestern Theological School, v. 4 n. 1: 1984.

6. Worship Suggestions: Matthew 6:24-34

Each and every celebration of the Eucharist is by definition a meet, right, and salutary occasion for exploring the deeper meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. But the Eucharist should NOT be used as an excuse for scolding Christians (or others) for the foibles and frailties of materialism, or their clinging to material things for security or a putative “pursuit of happiness” or what the people who write ad copy for Cadillac motors now call, simply enough, “The Pursuit!”
It would be a far better thing, as Prof. Cavanaugh does above, to reflect on one or more encounters between poverty and abundance, haves and have-nots, or between the tortured and risen Christ we encounter in the Eucharist as he is manifest in our actual, material world with all its human insecurities, grasping and grabbing, bribery and bullying. If one keeps one’s eye on the Gospel, it might be possible to do so without playing the “Marx card” or without merely playing up guilt feelings for a temporary session of flogging. Luther, with the help of Johann Staupitz, showed long ago the futility of such an approach. There are myriad hymns which address these themes. Some which might be especially apt fcor this Gospel pericope are:

‘Tis A Gift to be Simple” (Shaker Hymn)
“Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” (ELW 712)
“God of Grace and God of Glory (ELW 705)
“Turn Back, O Man” (Old 124th, SBH 348)

Exegete: David A. Buehler | Providence College (RI)

Lexegete™ | Year A | Matthew

May 31, 2008
1 Samuel 2:1-10 • Psalm 113 (2) • Romans 12:9-16b
Luke 1:39-57

1. CONTEXT: Luke 1:39-56

Mary's visit to Elizabeth follows the account of the annunciation of
Jesus' birth and artistically links the John the Baptist and Jesus cycles
The MAGNIFICAT is a free composition modelled on Hannah's song (1
Samuel 2:1-10) and contains similar themes. There are many
reminiscences of the Old Testament, but unlike Zechariah's song, the
BENEDICTUS (1:68-79) it does not use LXX phrases. Hymnody of this sort
was written in the 1st century B.C., of which the Psalms of Solomon (circa
65-55 B.C.) are the examples most similar to the canticles in Luke. The
Qumran Hymns of Thanksgiving belong to the same genre but have the
peculiarities of the other Dead Sea Scrolls.

The sentiments of the MAGNIFICAT are revolutionary, although the
revolution is brought about by God alone. In Longfellow's poem, "King
Robert of Sicily," the king remarks, "'Tis well that such seditious words
were sung / only by priests and in the Latin tongue."

Luke thinks typologically; thus Hannah is the type of Mary--and John the
Baptist partly parallels Jesus. No one knows what sources Luke may have
used in writing chapters 1-2 but he composed them in a style imitating
the Septuagint. His picture of simple Jewish people who expected a
Davidic Messiah may partly describe actual non-Pharisaic Jews, but it is
an ideal, nostalgic portrait of the best of the piety of simple people. The
pericope is followed by the birth of John and by Zechariah's canticle.

1b. TEXT: Luke 1:39-56


Mary Visits Elizabeth

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be* a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
Mary’s Song of Praise

46 And Mary* said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.


39αναστασα δε μαριαμ εν ταις ημεραις ταυταις επορευθη εις την ορεινην μετα σπουδης εις πολιν ιουδα,
40και εισηλθεν εις τον οικον ζαχαριου και ησπασατο την ελισαβετ. 41και εγενετο ως ηκουσεν τον ασπασμον της μαριας η ελισαβετ, εσκιρτησεν το βρεφος εν τη κοιλια αυτης, και επλησθη πνευματος αγιου η ελισαβετ,
42και ανεφωνησεν κραυγη μεγαλη και ειπεν, ευλογημενη συ εν γυναιξιν, και ευλογημενος ο καρπος της κοιλιας σου.
43και ποθεν μοι τουτο ινα ελθη η μητηρ του κυριου μου προς εμε; 44ιδου γαρ ως εγενετο η φωνη του ασπασμου σου εις τα ωτα μου, εσκιρτησεν εν αγαλλιασει το βρεφος εν τη κοιλια μου.
45και μακαρια η πιστευσασα οτι εσται τελειωσις τοις λελαλημενοις αυτη παρα κυριου.
46και ειπεν μαριαμ, μεγαλυνει η ψυχη μου τον κυριον,
47και ηγαλλιασεν το πνευμα μου επι τω θεω τω σωτηρι μου,
48οτι επεβλεψεν επι την ταπεινωσιν της δουλης αυτου. ιδου γαρ απο του νυν μακαριουσιν με πασαι αι γενεαι:
49οτι εποιησεν μοι μεγαλα ο δυνατος, και αγιον το ονομα αυτου,
50και το ελεος αυτου εις γενεας και γενεας τοις φοβουμενοις αυτον. 51εποιησεν κρατος εν βραχιονι αυτου, διεσκορπισεν υπερηφανους διανοια καρδιας αυτων:
52καθειλεν δυναστας απο θρονων και υψωσεν ταπεινους,
53πεινωντας ενεπλησεν αγαθων και πλουτουντας εξαπεστειλεν κενους. 54αντελαβετο ισραηλ παιδος αυτου, μνησθηναι ελεους,
55καθως ελαλησεν προς τους πατερας ημων, τω αβρααμ και τω σπερματι αυτου εις τον αιωνα.
56εμεινεν δε μαριαμ συν αυτη ως μηνας τρεις, και υπεστρεψεν εις τον οικον αυτης.

2. ANALYSIS: Luke 1:39-56

Luke 1:39 - oreinein - the hill country...Mary came from Nazareth and went
up into the central range. The traditional home of Zechariah and Elizabeth
is at Ein Karem, just west of Jerusalem.

Lk. 1:41 - kai epleisthe pneumatos hagiou - - Luke John the Baptist and
Jesus, Elizabeth is impelled by the Spirit.

Lk. 1:42 - Eulogeimenein - blessed; is almost synonomous with makaria in
verse 45, but the latter, here and in the Beatitudes, can perhaps better be
rendered as "happy;" it corresponds to the word in Psalm 1:1. This is,
however, a special kind of happiness such as the Greeks ascribed to their

Lk. 1:46 - Mariam - The variant Elisabet (see critical apparatus) is
interesting but not well attested, and verse 48f. applies better to Mary.

Lk. 1:47 - eigalliasen - "glad " - 1 Samuel 2:1-10 uses aorists also.

Lk. 1:48 - makariousin - cf. note on verse 42 - Here almost meaning

Lk. 1:51-54 - The aorists epoieisen etc. suggest the Hebrew perfect tense.
These are prophecies of the future, but the thought is that if God has
decided on an action, it is as good as done already.

3. STRATEGY - Luke 1:39-56

The newer lectionaries, which read pericopes of the annunciation to
Joseph on Year A of this Sunday and to Mary on Year B, give the homilist
an opportunity to prepare for the Nativity in a more thorough fashion than
is possible on Christmas, particularly on Christmas Eve.

The visit to Elizabeth is charming in that it reminds one that the
Nativity is also a human story involving two happy women. Luke is
always sensitive to the interests of women; in chapters 1-2, Zechariah
and Joseph are only on the periphery.

The Magnificat inevitably recalls Hannah and the birth of Samuel who
was a little boy prophet and later became a king-maker and the judge of
kings. Jesus is born into a family which had messianic expectations. The
might will be put down and the humble exalted. Humanly speaking, it is
significant that he grew to maturity in such a household. The passage
from Micah 5:2-4 fits well with this, because it expects a Messiah from
Bethlehem who would shepherd the people of Israel.

Hebrews 10:5-10 is well chosen for this Sunday. The sacrificial
system in which Zechariah served with such awe and joy, and which was
good as far as it went, has been superseded by a better system in which
Jesus the high priest comes simply to do the will of God. In this he is like
his mother Mary (1:38) who, as Raymond Brown points out in his masterful
study THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, is the model of Christian discipleship.

The gospel reading is another example of the reversal of roles which
runs throughout the gospel story. The mighty are put down and the gentle
and humble are exalted. The bad priesthood of the sons of Eli resulted in
disaster for Israel, but Samuel was instrumental in restoring the nation's
fortunes. The potentates of Jesus' time, mentioned on Advent 2, came to
bad ends or at least to an evil historical reputation. There were no more
obscure women than Hannah, Elizabeth and Mary, but they were the mothers
of sons whom all generations have glorified!

4. REFERENCES: Luke 1:39-56

Brown, Raymond E. THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH. Garden City: Doubleday,
1977, pp. 330-366.

5. MUSIC SUGGESTIONS: Luke 1:39-56

Hymns that would be well suited for this Advent celebration day are:

(Wachet Auf, LBW 31, HB 61/2); THE KING SHALL COME (LBW 33, HB 73);
HB 71/2); and, especially if the sermon is on Mary, LO,HOW A ROSE E'ER

Exegete - Sherman E. Johnson, PhD, STD †


In his article, "Words at the Solstice: Four Theses and Eight Christmas
Greetings," [ dialog, vol. 21] liturgical scholar Gordon Lathrop shared a
number of thought-provoking insights into the liturgical significance of
Advent, Christmas and Solstice. Among these was the interesting
observation that the littleness and humility of Christ's nativity, the theme
of the cross, is at the heart of the season. It was most evident in
medieval liturgies in what Durandus called in the post-Christmass feasts
of the "companions of Christ," or COMITES CHRISTI.

Thus we mourn and rejoice at once over the ADMIRABILE COMMERCIUM,
the astonishing reversal through which our down-troddeness, our
awareness of suffering, (do we see it") is exchanged for his joy.
Hence the commemoration of the first martyr Stephen on December 26th,
the Apostle and Evangelist John on December 27th, and the victims of
Herod (i.e., Holy Innocents) on December 28th. Of course, for preaching
this text at the end of May, Memorial Day comes closer to the mood of the

To best set the mood of this text, LEXEGETE recommends that invaluable
liturgical handbook for this season which has been published by the
Archdiocese of Chicago,IL.

Entitled A CHRISTMAS SOURCEBOOK, edited by Mary Ann Simcoe, Chicago:
Liturgy Training Publications, 1984), it is an invaluable tool for preparing
not only one's mind but also one's heart and tuning one's liturgical
sensitivity seasons of birth and re-birth. The 158-page volume is filled
with wonderful examples of poetry and prose and prayer for the Incarnational
liturgical cycle of the church year (there is also a sourcebook for the
Triduum cycle, edited by M. Simcoe and Gabe Huck). In particular the
section on Mary, Mother of God, gives a refreshing look at the place of
Mary in the history of salvation, and even in an anonymous verse of 15th
Century English poetry:

Moder (mother) and mayden
was never none but she:
Well may such a lady
Goddes mother be.

The Christmas Sourcebook is highly recommended for poets, pastors and
preachers everywhere. The best source that Tischrede Software has found
for this and related books, cards, calendars, posters and prints on ritual,
religion, feasts and seasons remains from year to year the small family
mail-order business of Tom and Susan Cahill. Formerly (but no longer)
known as Cahill & Co., the Cahills dropped that label to later go by
the name of THE BOOKPERSON. For a copy of their interesting newsletter,
tell them you heard about it in LEXEGETE and drop them a line at:

The Bookperson [at the sign of the 3 Candles]

135 East 96th Street

New York, New York 10128

Among other things, you’d verify for me if they still exist!

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