"No Man Can Serve Two Masters", a sermon by St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost.
“No man can serve two masters.” – Matt. vi. 24.
Jesus Christ said to us, my dear friends, that we cannot serve two masters – i.e., God and the world. You cannot, He says, please both God and the world at the same time. No matter how you may try, you will never succeed. The reason is this, my good friends; they are utterly opposed to each other in their thoughts, their desires, and their actions. What God commands is the very opposite to that which the world promises; the former forbids what the latter allows and favours; the world offers you pleasure, honours, and riches; God shows you only tears, repentance, and self-denial; the one leads you upon a – in appearance at least – flowery path, the other upon a thorny path. The one, which is the world, promises to let us enjoy everything we may wish for during this life (though it generally promises more than it can give); at the same time it hides from us the sufferings which await us during eternity. The other, which is Jesus Christ, does not promise us anything of all this, but merely tells us for our consolation that He will be with us and mitigate our sufferings: “Come to me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart; and you shall find rest to your souls.”
These, then, my dear friends, are the two masters who demand our whole heart. To which of the two do you wish to belong? All that which the world offers you is only for the present time; fortune, pleasure, honours, will terminate with our life. But if we follow Jesus Christ, who heavily laden with His cross calls us, we shall soon see that the hardships in His service are not as great as we think. He will lead us, and aid us, and console us, and after our suffering, which lasts but a moment, He promises us a happiness which will last as long as He Himself. So as to let you see this clearer, I will show to you, my dear friends, that it is impossible to please God and the world. Either all for God or all for the world; there is no middle way.
It is certain, my friends, that Jesus Christ, while knowing full well that many would retire from the world to devote themselves entirely to Him, that would choose the follies of the cross to spend their life, like His, in sighs, in tears, and in penance to become worthy of the reward which He has promised them, He knew at the same time that many would desert Him to devote themselves to the world, whose promises are never fulfilled and whose misery is carefully hidden. And that is the reason why He gave us only one heart, so that we could devote ourselves to one master. He tells us expressly that it is impossible to serve God and the world. So soon as we wish to please the one we shall become an enemy to the other.
You know, my dear friends, that the spirit of Jesus Christ is a spirit of the love of God. Now, how can you preserve this spirit when you join the company of those who will speak to you only of pleasures and honours, only to laud themselves and to boast of their pretended good qualities and of all they have done or not done? If you are in the company of such a one for any length of time you will become, without noticing it, as proud as he. If you hear somebody continually talk evil of his neighbor you will yourself, without noticing it, get a wicked tongue, which carries to every place, wherever you may be, destruction of peace. You know that Jesus Christ, whom you have chosen as your Master, wishes you to keep your heart as pure as possible; but when you associate with that reprobate who does nothing but think and speak of the filthiest and most shameful things, you will become just as bad as he is. You know that your Lord wishes you to love and respect your religion and all that regards your religion, but if you have frequent intercourse with an impious person who scoffs at everything, despises and ridicules the Most Holy, how can you love your religion and fulfill her commandments if these blasphemies are ever dinned in your ears? How can we go to confession to a priest if some godless man has whispered a slander against a priest into our ear and tried to persuade us that it was true and that all priests are thus?
Ah! my good friends, woe to him who follows the world! He is lost! If you wish to be saved you must necessarily flee this world, as otherwise you would think and act like the world and find yourself among those who have been cursed by the Lord.
If you have any further doubts about it, just remember what all the saints did: they considered the world and its pleasures a plague, from which they fled. What else was the reason that the deserts became peopled with so many persons who had before lived in towns and villages, but that they dreaded the world and fled from it for fear that they might become infected and become imbued with the spirit? Yes, my friends, let us flee from the world, or else we may perish with it. We must not be in accord with the world if we want to be saved. We must wage a continuous war with it; all the saints did that. We must renounce either heaven or the world.
To show you still better to which of the two parties you should belong, we will take a closer look at this world. It consists of three classes: the first is composed of those who are entirely for the world; the second are those who are entirely for God; and the last consists of those people who would like to belong to the world without ceasing to belong to God.
I said, my dear people, that one portion, - the larger, perhaps is the one which is entirely for the world. To it belong all those who are content when they have suppressed every religious feeling and all thoughts of the life to come, who have done all they could to banish entirely from their mind the terrible thought of the judgment which will be theirs some day. They make use of their knowledge and oftentimes their wealth to draw as many people as possible to their way of thinking. They don’t believe in anything, and they glory even in making themselves appear more godless and more profane than they really are, so as to better convince others not to believe the truths, but the falsehoods they have engendered in their hearts. Like Voltaire, who, at a banquet which he gave to his friends the unbelievers, rejoiced over the fact that of all those present, none believed in religion. And yet he himself believed in it, as was proved at the hour of his death. It was then that he eagerly called for a priest to help him to reconcile himself with his God. But it was too late. The good Lord whom he had reviled with such zeal, did to him as he had done to Antioch – He delivered him to the rage of the demons. But let us leave these infidels. You, my dear people, though you are not as good Christians as you ought to be, do not at least, thanks be to the Lord, belong to them.
But, you will ask me, who are those who belong now to God, now to the world? Let me explain, my good friends. Observe them, my dear listeners, from morning until night, from one year’s end to the other. These people consider Sunday merely as a day of rest and pleasure; they remain in bed longer than on week-days, and instead of turning their heart to God, never give Him a thought. Some think of the amusements they will have on this day – the Lord’s day; some, of the visits they will pay to friends. Some will even omit their few morning prayers, thinking it will be time enough to say them in Church before Mass. But they have so much to do before going to Mass so that they arrive at church long after the commencement of Mass. Or the meeting of a friend or anything else that might happen is sufficient to keep them away altogether. Still, to keep up the appearance and to be considered by their neighbours and friends as Christians, they do go once in a while, but with what feelings of unrest and weariness! The only thought they have is:
“Oh, Lord! How long is it going to last? It’s too long. I don’t think I can go again.”
Others, again, don’t like the Word of God as pronounced from the altar, the Word of God that has converted so many sinners. They must get out, they say, to get fresh air; they feel depressed, uneasy; and no sooner is the end of the service approaching than they eagerly make for the door even before the priest has had time to leave the altar, and they are again all smiles and merriment. They are too tired to return to Vespers and Benediction. If you ask them why they don’t go to Vespers they say:
“Oh, we can’t be in church all day. We have other things to do.”
These are the people that belong to the world without realizing the fact. But wait. Let us try to make them understand better; only, as they are deaf it is very difficult to make them listen to the Word of Life, and as they are blind too, it will be more difficult to make them see their unhappy condition. They have left off saying grace before and after meals or to say the Angelus. And if they do, they do it just as a matter of habit, without giving a thought to our dear Lord and His blessed Mother.
Do you know, my good friends, what kind of people these are? They are people who have not lost their faith altogether, who would not wish to give up everything, for they even blame those who absent themselves entirely from divine service; only they do not have courage to break with the world and turn to the good Lord. These people don’t want to be damned, but they also don’t like to be under any restriction. They hope to be saved without taking much trouble about it. They think God is merciful and certainly did not create them only to destroy them; that He will forgive them in His mercy; that it will be time enough later on to devote themselves to God alone and to rid themselves of their bad habits. If they do think once in a while of the poor use they make of their life, they sigh and maybe some of them will even shed a few tears.
Oh, my dear friends, what a miserable life do those people lead who want to belong to the world without ceasing to belong to God! Let us go into the matter a little further, and you will soon see how inconsistent their way of living is. One moment you will hear them pray to God and perhaps do an act of penance; the next moment you will hear them curse and swear and take the name of the Lord in vain if something goes against their will. This morning you saw them attend Mass and join in the praise of the Lord, and on the same day you will hear them using the most blasphemous language. The same hands which took the holy water and asked God to cleanse them from all sins are used for all kinds of sinful ways; the same eyes which have looked upon the Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament look later in the day at the most indecent objects, and with great pleasure at that. Yesterday you saw a man do an act of charity to his neighbor; today you can see him try to cheat him. A moment ago a mother prayed for all kinds of blessings for her children; now she overwhelms them with all sorts of maledictions because they have done something to displease her. One moment she sends her daughters to church to confession; the next moment she lets them go to a dance. One day she will tell her daughter to be careful and beware of bad company, and the next she will let her be together with young men for hours at a time. Oh, my poor mother, you are of the world. You think you belong to God, but you are deceived. You belong to those of whom Jesus Christ has said: “Woe unto the world!”
Oh, poor world! How unhappy thou art! Continue in this way, and nothing but hell will be thy lot. Some would like to make frequent use of the holy sacraments, or at least once a year, but they need a very easy confessor. If their confessor does not find their heart and mind in the right dispositions and refuses them absolution, oh! then they are deeply offended and nothing is too bad to say of the poor priest, and yet they know in their own hearts that he cannot give them absolution in the state of sin they are in. Live on, O world! live on in this every-day manner, and you will see what you did not want to see. As if we could divide our heart into two parts! No, my friend: you either belong wholly to God or wholly to the world. You wish to make frequent use of the sacraments? Very well. Quit gambling, keep away from indecent shows, and quit the saloon. Today you are willing to approach the sacred tribunal of penance and to receive the Blessed Eucharist, the bread of angels, and in two or three weeks you spend the night in the company of drunkards who are crazed with liquor and, worse still, commit the most abominable acts of impurity. Go on, O world, go on! You will soon be in hell. There they will teach you what you should have done to reach heaven, which you have lost through your own fault.
No, my dear friends, do not let us deceive ourselves. We must sacrifice the world for Jesus Christ or we must sacrifice Jesus Christ for all that which we consider dearest on earth. Besides, there is not one among those attached to the world and who have tried to gain satisfaction from their animal and corrupt instincts – I say there is not one who has not been deceived and who did not regret at the hour of his death to have loved the world. Yes, my friends, that is the time when we recognize the vanity and perishableness of all things. We would recognize it now if we would only reflect upon our past life; we would see of how little value life is.
And you, my dear people, you whose growing years are already beginning to bend your heads upon your breasts, you who in your young days chased after the pleasures of this world and thought you would never become tired of them; you have spent many years in the pursuit of these pleasures: dances, gambling, saloons, vanity formed your whole occupation. You put off the return to God again and again. Then when you reached a maturer age you thought of nothing but of accumulating a fortune. And so you have reached old age without having done anything for your salvation. And now, when you have returned from the follies of your youth, when you have ceased your efforts to make a fortune – now, you think, is the time to do better. Don’t believe it, my friends. The infirmities of age which are bending you down, your children who despise you - all that will be a new obstacle to your salvation. You thought you belonged to God, and you find out now that you belong to the world, that is, to those who belong now to God and now to the world and who receive their final reward from the latter. You know well enough now that you are deceived if you follow the world. Now, my friends, if somebody deceives us we do not trust him anymore, and we are right; but the world deceives us all the time and yet we love it.
If we would only meditate a little more upon what this world really is, we would spend our life in keeping away from it as much as possible.
At the age of fifteen we say farewell to the pleasures of childhood; we stop running after butterflies and building houses of cards. At the age of thirty we say farewell to the boisterous pleasures of impetuous young manhood; what we delighted in so much begins to weary us. Yes, my friends, we say daily farewell to something in this world. We are like the traveller who delights in the beauties of the landscape through which he passes: as soon as he sees it he must leave it. It is the same with all our possessions and our friends to whom we have such an attachment. And finally we reach the shore of eternity, into which everything passes like into an abyss. Then, my friends, the world disappears forever from our sight, and it is then that we shall recognize how foolish we were in following it. And all that has been told us about sins we will then recognize as being only too true.
“Oh,” we shall say, “I have only lived for the world. I have in all my actions only sought the approval of the world, and now all my possessions and my friends of the world are nothing to me! Everything has passed away from my hands. And now I must return to my Creator.”
Oh, my dear people, how consoling is this thought for those who have during their life only sought their God ! And what despair does it bring to those who have lost sight of their God and the salvation of their souls!
No, my friends, do not let us deceive ourselves. Let us flee, or else we may run the danger of being lost. All our saints have fled and despised the world all their lives. Those who were obliged to live in it lived as if they were not in it. How many of the real great ones have left this world to live in solitude! Let us look at St. Arsenius, who was struck with the idea how difficult it was to obtain salvation in this world, and forthwith left the Emperor’s court to spend his life in the woods, to repent of his sins and do penance. Yes, my dear friends, if we flee from this world, at least as much as it is possible for us to do, we cannot perish in this world.
St. Augustine gives us a good example of this. He tells us that he once had a friend, a young man, who led a perfectly good life. One day he was in the company of his fellow-students, who did not like it that he always lived and acted differently from them. They urged him to go with them to the amphitheatre, where there was a prize-fight among men. As our young friend detested such shows, he resisted with all his might. Finally they urged him so much, that he consented with the words:
“Very well. I will go with you, but only my body will be there standing among you. My mind and my eyes will not partake in this horrible spectacle.”
So they led him forth, and, while the whole multitude went wild with barbarous delight, the young man took no part and kept his eyes shut. Would that he had also stopped his ears, for at a certain great noise curiosity got the better of him and he opened his eyes. That was sufficient to ruin him. The more he saw the more delighted was he, and after that there was no need of urging him to visit the place. He was only too eager to go there and to induce others to go with him.
“Oh, my Lord!” exclaimed St. Augustine, “who will lead him away from this abyss? The grace of God alone can do it!”
In conclusion, my dear friends, let me say to you: If we do not flee from the world and its pleasures, if we do not hide ourselves away as much as possible, then we run into our ruin and will be lost forever. If you want to belong entirely to God you must be prepared to be despised and rejected by the world. Blessed is he, my friends, who belongs to these, and who follows in the footsteps of the Lord with courage and carries his cross with patience. It is only by doing so that we may obtain the happiness of reaching heaven. Amen.