What a difference a word can make!
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11:28 PM 6/20/2012 — The difficulty with finding a relevant meaning from some of these Gospel passages has a lot to do with the art of translation. Matthew’s Gospel is a problem in particular, because it’s the only book of the Bible written in what is now a dead language. The other Gospel’s were written in Greek; Matthew’s was written in Aramaic, the common Hebrew dialect spoken by our Lord.* Those of you who saw Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, heard that language being spoken.
The word in question, which causes the difficulty in this passage, is the one which our own Gospel book has translated as “money”; the actual word is “mammon”; and, while it’s almost always translated as “wealth” or “money,” it means something more than that. One of the frustrations in trying to learn some of these ancient languages is that there are so many different words which the Lexicon translates in the same way, because each of them connotes something unique. So, in your Bible the word reads as “money,” and in English money is money. But in Aramaic you may have 12 different words that mean money, and each one says something different about it or the person who owns it or uses it. Mammon is wealth or money, but with a certain quality of personification. When it’s used as the object of a sentence, it implies some kind of reciprocal human-like relationship to the subject of the sentence. So when one possesses mammon, one not only possesses money but is also possessed by it.
Which kind of sums up our Lord’s whole point, doesn’t it? St. John Chrysostom explains for us exactly how the choice of this word defines the whole meaning of our Lord’s narrative. It’s not the possession of the wealth that’s the problem; it’s the possession that the wealth holds over us that’s the problem. The Greek and Aramaic languages give you the option of speaking about inanimate objects as persons because it is a fact of life that such objects can become virtual “persons” to those who desire them. Money becomes mammon when obtaining or preserving it becomes the focus of your life, a relationship which should exist only with another human being. It’s all right to focus on your husband or your wife, it’s all right to focus on your children, it’s all right to focus on God, but to focus on something that is not a person is wrong. It robs all the other “persons” in your life of their humanity. You end up giving human dedication to something that is not human, thus making all the other people in your life less than human by subordinating them to an inanimate object.
And this, I think, is a very good way to understand the point our Lord is making. There are all kinds of things we need to fulfill our obligations to the people whom we love. One of them is money. You can’t feed a family or put a roof over their heads without it. But every month you’re handed that pay check, as abundant or as meager it may be, it isn’t the number of digits on the check that should give you satisfaction; it’s what that number should represent to the person who has his life well-ordered: the meeting of his responsibilities to those who depend on him.
The ancient Desert Fathers we remember as the supreme teachers of holiness. But in another sense we have to recognize that, spiritually speaking, they took the easy way out. By forsaking all material possessions and retreating into the solitude of the desert, they isolated themselves from everything that could possibly come between God and themselves. We don’t have that luxury. We depend on others and others depend on us, in marriage, in the priesthood, in any number of situations in which we may find ourselves. They were like alcoholics who completely gave up drink; we are more like compulsive over-eaters who can’t give up food, but must try somehow to live with it in a modified and detached way—which, when you think about it, is a much more difficult thing.
We can, therefore, presume that our Lord used the word that he used very deliberately. It isn’t a question of how much, but a question of why? When two people get married and look forward to a family, they’re concerned with creating a home and an environment in which a family can flourish. But as the years pass that focus can get lost. We can become so immersed in the various activities that keep the check coming in, that we can forget the reason for it all. Work and job, then, become goals in themselves; not that we consciously make them so, but that through years of going through the motions we have forgotten what it’s all for.
And this is true not only in reference to our families but most especially in reference to God. After all, just as material wealth exists for the benefit of our families, so our families are really nothing more than a means to bring ourselves and others closer to Christ. That’s why marriage is a sacrament: it is a way to God. One gets married precisely because two souls seeking perfection have a much better chance of success than one soul alone, because they temper each other, and limit each other, and motivate each other to do what is right. Otherwise, she exists only to please me, and I exist only to please her, when the reality should be that we both exist to help one another please God. And this is self-evident: how many people are there in our own parish who would not be here except for the fact that, somewhere along the line, they married someone who went to church on Sunday? How many couples are there who honestly know that they would not be here were it not for the fact that they needed a baby baptized, or felt guilty about not raising a child in a religious environment. And while some might question the purity of such motives, the fact is that it’s exactly this sort of thing that marriage and family are for.
The longer I live the more I’m convinced that everything we do has some kind of ulterior motive, but that’s OK just so long as that ulterior motive is a positive one, and not mammon. In the end, no matter what we do, no matter what reason we think we have for doing it, it must be something that will lead us to God. And it will be, as long as it’s not mammon, as long as we can see the will of God in every task of life. And that happens when we train ourselves to see, in everyone who depends on us, the face of Christ.
Father Michael Venditti
* This statement is not held by those who continue to accept the now discredited "two source theory," which posits that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were compiled using material from Mark's
Gospel and some unknown document which they can only identify as "Q". This over-intellectualized theory is based solely on the presumption that the Gospel which appears to be the shortest and most primitive, i.e., Mark, must be the first, and whatever is common in Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark must come from some source not yet discovered. By the same reasoning, an archeologist a thousand years from now, finding both a copy of Gone with the Wind and a "Reader's Digest" version of the same, would have to assume that the condensed version was the original, and the longer, more embellished one was a later redaction.
Among those trained in the 1970s and early '80s, any challenge to the two source theory is intellectual heresy, and any suggestion the Matthew's Gospel was actually written first is pious pap. They dismiss
out-of-hand the testimony of Papias, in the Second Century, that "Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could," as well as that of Irenaeus, who says: "Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church." The pseudo-intellectual sophistry offered by these slaves to source criticism to discredit these statements is nothing more than a symptom of the post-conciliar desacralizing of the Word of God that is still popular in some quarters, not to mention an insult to two great Fathers of the Church.
The bottom line is that the Gospels were written in the order in which they appear in your grandmother's Bible, and the two source theory is nothing more than a relic from the '70s that ought to be buried with Sister Peggy's post-conciliar neon pink pants suit.