8th Sunday of the Year
26 February 2017
Isaiah the prophet speaks the Lord's word today: "But Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.' Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?" (Isa 49:15). The image Isaiah presents is so striking precisely because it is impossible, or at least it should be: a mother could never forget her baby, a woman could never withhold kindness from the child in her womb-but we know that this does happen, and to be tragically fair we must include the fathers who "forget" their children or withhold kindness from them as well.
But thankfully the story does not end there; the Lord adds: "Even should she forget, I will never forget you" and then continues: "upon the palms of my hands I have engraved you" (Isa 49:16). Already from the times of rabbinic commentary on Isaiah it was noted that this verse could refer to the well-attested practice of making a primitive sort of tattoo of a loved one's name on one's hand, or it could be a reference to the practice of tattooing or branding slaves with the master's name or symbol. In the one possibility we are so beloved of God that, like spouses who wear wedding bands to publicly acknowledge their union, God wears a mark of his fidelity to his people. The other possibility is even more astounding: it turns our perceptions about God upside-down by picturing God as submitting to our mark of ownership. In either case these words are an amazing testimony to the depth of God's love for each one of us.
With this total devotion in mind we better understand Jesus' teaching in the gospel that "no one can serve two masters". Awakened by Isaiah to the depth of God's love for us we can hardly offer half-hearted worship to the Lord while clinging to other desires or "masters". At the practical level this means that we ought not worry excessively about the many concerns that crowd our lives and can quickly become our masters (see Matt 6:25-34). To be sure, we should be responsible in terms of providing a living for ourselves and our loved ones, and overcoming the obstacles in our way with the help of others, but we should not worry about such things, replacing hand-wringing worries with proper assertiveness and self-respecting action.
Further we should note how frequently the legitimate pursuit of the things of this world can become deformed into an obsession with acquiring more of everything. Such a preoccupation with our income, home, car(s), clothing, social standing, and so forth will invariably pull us away from the one truly important thing that our Lord highlights in today's gospel: the Kingdom of God (Matt 6:33). What Jesus is aching to get across to his hearers in both the first century and the twenty-first century is that when we look above all to God and his righteousness, all else is put in proper perspective and we can live at peace, knowing that we have what we need for the present life and by being content with that we prepare ourselves for the life to come.
As I re-read what I just wrote I realize that with the words "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness" the Lord presents a very hard teaching! It is our natural human inclination, molded in part by the selfish effects of original sin, to prefer self-enrichment and worldly comforts and security. Jesus, however, asks us to walk with him in faith, prizing not earthly desires but those that are of God, and letting ourselves be filled with every blessing as the result. This is an often difficult path, but one he trod long before us: let it be our ultimate aim to follow in his footsteps so that we might hasten the coming of the Kingdom and the blessings it bears for all God's children.