Writing against the background of czarist Russia, Leo Tolstoy's last play makes for a difficult read. The unfinished work, The Light Shines In Darkness, owes not only its title but its principal themes to the Sermon on the Mount, the focus of our reflection at the Mass each Sunday for the last number of weeks.
It was Tolstoy's firm conviction that the Russian Orthodox Church of his time had sought to dilute the candour of the Lord's teachings. He vociferously advocated a more literal, absolutist approach to the teachings of Christ, most particularly those addressed in the Sermon on the Mount. The hero of Tolstoy's last work is a man called Nicholas, who holds many of the views held by Tolstoy himself. Throughout the work, the generally negative reactions of family and friends, authorities of Church and State are presented. In the final act, Tolstoy dramatizes the negative effects visited upon some people who have accepted and acted upon the views of Nicholas and on the way that these views have destroyed Nicholas himself.
The Lord teaches us that we cannot serve two masters, lest we hate one and love the other, respect one and scorn the other. But we are presented with a simple choice - to be the slave of God or to be the slave of mammon. Jesus presents the case for slavery to God. It's very simple: God will provide, so we don't need to worry about anything. All our needs are provided by God.
Of course this truth is challenging. In everyday life people are faced with loss of earnings, financial uncertainty, and economic gloom. For some, this results in the firm tightening of belts. For many, there is real poverty, hunger and homelessness. Faced with this, the knowledge that God will provide is surely little comfort.
The Lord warns against slavery to mammon. Mammon is a Semitic loan-word, often left untranslated. The purpose of this may be to allow the word to function not just for money but for the name of any idol. Calvin defined an idol as anything that came between us and the vision of God. If we wish to see God, we must do so through the lens of the Gospel. In the Gospel, God demands charity, specifically defined as the gracious sharing of the goodness of creation in its bounty. To be enslaved to mammon is to misappropriate this goodness, through the obsessive, excessive accumulation of possessions that serves only the self and refuses to look upwards and beyond to the love and mercy promised by Christ. The result of this self-deception is to place our trust in something other than God.
It is in this context that the Lord counsels those who trust in him that there is no need to worry. But those who do not store up for themselves treasures from the earth, those who are generous with what they have, and those who serve God rather than mammon; surely it is they who invite upon themselves anxiety? Life in the world demands that we have things and use them. The Lord allays such anxiety by pointing out that God sustains creation with his never-ending love. He points to the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. The flowers have a beauty greater than that which Solomon sought to acquire for himself when wearing fine and elaborate robes. The simplicity of the beauty of flowers is the work of God's hand.
It cannot be denied that hardship and poverty will cause suffering and pain. Our duty as Christians is to fight this suffering as a token of the life of the Gospel. We must allow nothing to distract us from our unity with God in Christ. If we are to live in Christ, we must do so through the Law of the Gospel. Above this we should place nothing: neither mammon nor money, status nor vainglory. We must not seek any interpretation of God's Law other than the one given to us by Jesus Christ, that which lives in the life of the Church in the hearts of her faithful people. We must learn the lesson taught us by Tolstoy's Nicholas, and not allow our religious belief or practice to become an idol in itself; that would draw us away from the true and authentic freedom that slavery to God can bring.
We must be slaves to God, and we must show others that this slavery is our salvation. Slaves we must be, for everything we have and do must be ordered towards God and the gift of himself that is ours in Christ Jesus. Have your eyes fixed on the Head.