This Sunday’s lectionary gospel reading, for the Second Sunday before Lent in Year A, is Matthew 6.25–34, a section of the so-called Sermon on the Mount. It appears to argue that the followers of Jesus should live a carefree life as they seek the kingdom of God, not being concerned with future provision, but living day to day in simple trust. It thus raises significant questions about whether this is realistic teaching, or an unrealistic aspiration—since even Jesus’ first listeners needed to plan ahead if they were to live and thrive, in the seasons of planting, growth and harvesting of an agricultural economy, still more for us in a post-industrial context. And the illustrations Jesus uses might seem to lack credibility; should we really seek to learn from the birds, who die by the thousand in the winter because of shortage of food? A careful reading of the text might help us answer some of these questions.
This section of the Sermon consists of a number of sayings, some of which appear to have only a loose connection with each other, though the teaching from Matt 6.25–33 appears to function as a coherent unit, with a logical shape and flow to it. Around it we have sayings about not laying up treasures (v 19), the eye as the lamp of the body (v 22), the two masters, God and mammon (v 24), on not being anxious (v 34), and on not judging (Matt 7.1). Their discontinuity, and the fact that they come in different places in Luke (Luke 12.33, 11.34, 16.13, 12.22, and 6.37) demonstrate that Matthew has brought these teachings together in one place, but that they were not necessarily taught together by Jesus originally.
However, Jesus is likely to have repeated these pithy apothegms, summarising key spiritual principle, more than once, and the ‘Therefore…’ that begins our reading links what follows, for Matthew or Jesus or both, with the teaching about the ‘two masters’ of God and ‘mammon’, a personified term for wealth and riches as a spiritual force. Thus the whole discussion about trust in God for provision is set in the context of the worship of our lives: do we really trust in God, or do we really, in practice, trust for our security in material wealth?
It quickly becomes clear that the focus of Jesus’ teaching here isn’t sensible planning for the future, but ‘anxiety’ or ‘worry’ about our provision. The word translated ‘be anxious’, μεριμνάω, merimnao, occurs six times in this passage out of the seven times that it comes in Matthew in total (the seventh is in Matt 10.19, in the instruction to trust that the Spirit will supply our words when we are on trial for being followers of Jesus). A similar concern not be anxious is expressed by Paul, using the same word, in Phil 4.6:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Jesus uses dual language of psyche and soma, ‘soul’ or ‘life, and ‘body’, in contrast to food and drink, and clothing, to highlight what really matters. This pair has found its way into our language as ‘body and soul’ to describe the whole person, and is often consider to represent a kind of dualistic anthropology, referring to the inner and outer reality of human existence. But it is striking that Jesus here uses the relationship between food/drink and the psyche, and clothing and the soma, in parallel, so that both the terms actually refer to the whole person. This is in keeping with outlook of both Second Temple Judaism and New Testament Christianity that the person consists of a body-soul unity, rather than a duality. The emphasis here is the importance of human life being so much ‘more’ than mere material preoccupations.
The emphatic term emblepo ‘look at’, ‘consider’, refers to a careful and deliberate study of what we might learn from the ‘birds of the air’, leading to evangelical leader John Stott (with whom I once went bird-spotting in Attenborough Nature Reserve) to write his book The Birds Our Teachers. The description of God as ‘your heavenly Father’ is characteristic of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching, emphasising as it does both God’s sovereignty in his heavenly rule alongside his personal care for us, who as members of the kingdom are his precious children. Although a contrast is drawn with the birds ‘who neither sow, reap nor gather into barns’, Jesus is not here saying that we should do none of these things. Despite not doing this, God still ‘feeds them’, though (as Luther notes) he does not drop it into their beaks! Just as the creation narrative in Genesis 1 places humanity as the crown and climax of God’s creative activity (to care for, not to exploit, the rest of creation), so Jesus here emphasises, with another ‘how much more’ the importance of humanity before God within creation. As far as he is concerned, and contrary to some climate activists, it would matter very much if humanity became extinct!
There is some ambiguity in Jesus saying about extending our lives by worrying, since the term of extension he uses is literally a ‘cubit’ (πῆχυς), the distance from the elbow to the tips of the fingers. To add such a half-meter to our height would not be trivial—in fact, it would be both alarming and absurd! But using a measure of distance to refer to time, in this case the length of our life, is no different from the English expression ‘the span of life’, where ‘span’ is literally the distance across the hand from thumb to little finger. Linking anxiety to length of life has a sharp relevance to contemporary life and its pressures; the latest edition of the BBC show ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ demonstrated scientifically that reducing anxiety through the use of relaxing mediations exercises actually reduced blood pressure as much as doing regular exercise—and so would prolong life!
In verse 28, Jesus again returns to examples from the natural world. In doing so, he locates his teaching within the genre of Wisdom literature, and we can see parallels in, for example, Job 12.7–10, as well as the long ‘answer from the whirlwind’ near the end of the book, Prov 6.6–11 and elsewhere in Proverbs, as well as parallels in other Second Temple Jewish literature. The difference is that, where elsewhere ‘wisdom’ is contrasted with eschatological language of the kingdom of God, Jesus combines them.
The illustration of the beauty of wild flowers (traditionally ‘lily’, though the word krinon used is uncertain) contrast with the illustration of the birds. The first emphasises God’s sustaining provision, but the second emphasises how temporary is the passing beauty of flowers. For the proverbial splendour of Solomon and his court, see 1 Kings 10.1–15; for the proverbial passing of wild flowers and grass, see Ps 103.15–16 and especially Is 40.6–8. But the spiritual lesson is the same; if God provides for the birds, how much more… and if God adorns the passing flowers with beauty, how much more… In this case (and contrast to other examples), the burning of the flowers in the oven has no metaphorical sense of judgement, but is just a reference to domestic reality.
The language of ‘you of little faith’ (oligopistoi) is characteristically Matthean in his rendering of Jesus’ teaching, and really amounts to no faith at all; in Matt 17.20 ‘little faith’ means less faith even than the tiny mustard seed. Just as ‘righteousness’ in Matthew has a different sense from its use in Paul, so ‘faith’ in Matthew has a more direct and practical sense. It is the simply and practical trust that God will act and will provide for his people, in all sorts of circumstances, and is the antithesis of the ‘worry’ that is mentioned here. For Jesus in Matthew, it is perfectly possible to both understand and articulate theological truths about God, but still lack ‘faith’.
The contrast between the trust of faith and the anxiety that otherwise grips us is summarised by the Jewish Matthew as the contrast between the Israel of God in their proper vocation and the ‘Gentiles’ (ethne, ‘peoples’). Reading from a post-resurrection perspective, we need to see ourselves as incorporated into Israel, and though ethnically Gentiles (pun intended!) we are now spiritual part of those who know God’s loving provision. Once again we see the emphasis on God as ‘your heavenly Father, who knows what you need’. But there is a second contrast as well, which takes us back to the beginning. And anxious, worried, restlessness of the ‘Gentiles’, those who do not yet know the Father’s loving care and provision, is described as ‘seeking’; since they have no confidence in a loving one who provides for them, they must devote their energy, their priorities, and bend their strength to providing for themselves. by contrast, those who know God personally as Father are set free from the need to make this kind of devotion. They no longer serve Mammon, but serve this loving God. So they are free to ‘seek first’, that is, as their first priority, ‘the kingdom of God’. It is striking that this is one of the few occasions where Matthew describes the kingdom as ‘of God’ and not ‘of heaven’; our seeking springs from personal knowledge of a personal God, and it is his reign and rule that is our number one priority, just has his provision for us is his priority. As part of that we seek ‘his righteousness’, in Matthew the seven occurrences of this term denoting the righteous action and living that signifies submission and obedience to God’s rule in our lives.
The final saying in this passage appears to stand separately, though connected in its though and thus collected here by Matthew. It’s pithy essence, in a vivid personalised metaphor, is captured well in the word-for-word emphasis of the Authorised Version:
Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
We don’t need to worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow is already sitting there doing its own worrying!
Far from being the unrealistic and unhelpful, idealistic aspirations that we first thought, it turns out that Jesus’ teaching here both connects with his teaching elsewhere, and speaks into contemporary aspects of culture as well as our own personal concerns. A few examples bear noting.
‘Worry’ is one of the three things that prevents fruitful growth for the word of God in the lives of those who hear it in the Parable of the Sower in Matt 13.22. ‘The deceitfulness of wealth chokes the word, making it unfruitful’; is it a coincidence that Church attendance and discipleship is declining most in the wealthy, neo-liberal West?
The themes of seeking the kingdom first, and trusting God in simple faith for our provision are found together in the Lord’s Prayer, where we first pray ‘Your kingdom come’ and only then petition ‘Give us today our daily bread…’
Refusing to worry is not the same as refusing to plan and to work; Paul is ruthlessly clear that ‘those who don’t work should not eat’ (2 Thess 3.10) and that failure to make provision for member of the family is a grave sin (1 Tim 5.8).
Jesus’ teaching here is a clarion call to a simplicity of life for his disciples, in stark contrast to the acquisitiveness of our consumer culture. It offers a direct challenge both to the way we shop and eat, and the destruction and superficiality of much of the fashion industry.
There is also much to learn here for preachers and other communicators. Jesus’ teaching here uses concrete metaphors, vivid, everyday examples that can be understood by anyone (since they require no exclusive or specialist experience), and is drawn together with pithy and memorable summary sayings. Truly, Jesus is our teacher at every level.
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