Sunday, April 01, 2018

On the Mount (24)

There are two kinds of hatred.

Well, okay, fine … there are probably more than that. But I’m thinking of two very different kinds. The obsessive sort of hatred is obvious: it turns the stomach sour, occupies the mind constantly and spoils the enjoyment of life. Saul’s hatred must have been something like that. He expended ridiculous amounts of emotional energy and resources in attempting to rid the world of David, very much to his own detriment.

The other kind of hatred is despite.

That Old Devil Mammon

To despise something is not necessarily to loathe it passionately and constantly mull over its bad points. It is to undervalue it so completely that you may not even think of it at all. That at least seems to be the sense of the word kataphrone┼Ź, which the Lord uses in a very familiar passage about that old devil mammon from the Sermon on the Mount:
“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.”
Two masters, two sets of responses. The “either” and “or” clauses form what appears to be a fairly standard Hebrew parallelism of the sort found all over the Psalms and Proverbs. Linguists conclude the purpose of the device was to flesh out or expand an idea by repeating it with a slight variation: “hate” and “despise” at one extreme, and “love” and “be devoted to” at the other. If this is indeed what the Lord was doing, then devotion and despite are the particular twists on love and hate to which he was drawing attention.

Undervaluing the Valuable

The Lord uses the same word a few chapters later in Matthew when he tells his disciples, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” Now, I’m sure there is a very small subset of human beings who absolutely abhor children and can’t abide their presence (“I like children,” said W.C. Fields, “if they’re properly cooked”), but Fieldsian misanthropy is surely not the attitude with which the Lord is primarily concerned here. He’s wanting to ensure that his disciples do not overlook believers who might otherwise seem insignificant to them.

The danger is not of obsessing about how perfectly horrid children are (whether we think of literal or spiritual children), but of undervaluing them — of not thinking of them appropriately or considering them at all.

That’s despite.

Blind to Their True Passion

In scripture, even “hate” is often a relative term. “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” says the Lord, and he’s not talking about emotions. He means that Jacob was (and remains) sovereignly singled out for God’s personal attention and ultimate blessing in a way that Esau was not.

So when we consider the moral danger of attempting to serve both God and money, we should probably not picture the sort of individual who actively detests God, fuming visibly at the mention of his name. Such people exist, of course, even in large numbers, but they are not really the subject matter of this verse. The temptation to order one’s life around one’s finances does not of necessity produce visceral antipathy toward Heaven, and loathing God doesn’t necessarily make one inordinately acquisitive. In fact, men and women regularly claim to love God with perfectly straight faces while remaining stone blind to their true passion.

Enslaved to the Appearance of Necessity

My experience is that few lovers of mammon are sufficiently self-aware to comprehend the nature of their chains. The mere desire for security is rarely labeled greedy, but if every financial decision you make is predicated on your own continued well-being, it’s hard to see how the two attitudes may be functionally distinguished. Many of us are unconsciously enslaved to the appearance of necessity.

The real moral danger of money is not hostility to God or even rampaging greed, but a sort of blas├ę kow-towing to perfectly ordinary consumerism that utterly fails to reckon God’s transcendent reality and desires into the equation. The spiritual peril is not in what we feel but in what we do more or less by default, for it is in those life decisions, big and small, that we give evidence of what really matters to us, and which Master it is to whom we are truly devoted.

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