< May 25, 2008 >

Commentary on Matthew 6:24-34

 

Society has changed a great deal since the time of Jesus. Definitions of poverty, wealth, and the good life are much different today than they were then.

For example, we are constantly being bombarded with images and messages from advertisers, media, and sometimes even friends and family, that encourage us to consume. Further, such messages can make us feel unhappy with what we have in the hope that we will buy and consume more. The other side of this equation includes the harsh reality of economic failure. Media reports are replete with sad stories of homes being foreclosed upon, and financial tragedy striking both individuals and businesses. The heart-rending effects of poverty and homelessness still affect our society. We have constructed a world economy that is dependent upon the American consumer to keep it afloat. As a result, we live with conflicting messages and concerns that distract us and divide our loyalties. We seek security and stability and are appropriately worried about our future.

This current state of affairs causes a degree of pause when we read a passage like this one from Matthew. Of all Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, this is one of the more difficult sections to understand. Jesus' words seem out of step with our society and on the surface they lack coherence with the lives we are living. As Ulrich Luz has put it, when interpreted in a superficial manner, this statement could only have been written by a single guy living a carefree life on the beach in sunny Galilee. The implication of Jesus' message here is that much of what matters to us today, the material aspects of our lives, ought not to be taken seriously and can be completely entrusted to a God who cares for us. The posture in this text is passive, which stands in contrast to Proverbs' "study the ant you sluggard". Here one is encouraged to live by faith, trusting God to provide all material needs. It seems to suggest that one does not need to work or prepare for the future at all; we can simply relax knowing that God will take care of our needs. But as most of us know, this does not seem to match what we know of life on this planet.

The close of the preceding section (v. 24) reminds us that we cannot serve God and wealth. Jesus intends us to understand that discipleship, which is not a special calling for an elite group like the Navy Seals but includes anyone who desires to be Christian, must be singularly focused upon a life devoted to God and his teachings. But does this mean that the pursuit of wealth through hard work and investment is wrong? Or that people should not enjoy the fruit of their labor? One would be forgiven for thinking that this is a passage for the truly devoted disciples, the original twelve who followed Jesus, or for missionaries in today's world, but not for those of us in the real world. This leaves us all a bit baffled, wondering how we should live in regards to the text.

As we shall see, Jesus is not calling us all to abandon our lives and move to the desert to join a monastery or to empty our savings accounts and 401(k)s. Rather, he is addressing the basis for excessive worry and anxiety that can result from a life separated from God. The text calls us to a different set of values, different priorities. The Gentiles, those who are outside the community of faith, both seek after these things and worry about their life, their physical possessions and the accompanying social status. A life devoted to God, lived under the reign of God, is lived according to the values of the Kingdom of God. But what does all this mean? In this text, vv. 31-33 provide the interpretive clue for what precedes. The emphasis of the text is upon excessive worrying or anxiety about our needs in life. The paragraph that precedes this text (6.19-24) poses the ultimate question. Is our allegiance solely to God or is our loyalty divided in some way? True discipleship, by which we mean anyone who desires to be a follower of Jesus and thus Christian, involves being resolute in a wholehearted devotion to God. One cannot serve two masters. Matt. 6.25-34 then answers the potential objections to this notion of thoroughgoing devotion to God as it pertains to our physical needs. Jesus places the discussion within the context of anxiety and faith and trust. Do we trust in ourselves, our power, our ability to get things done? Are we excessively anxious about our physical needs?

The text is balanced in three sections. The first opens with an admonition and has the feel of a fairly strong command. We are not to worry about our lives, namely, what we eat, drink or how we clothe ourselves. In a world much more familiar with abject poverty than what most of us currently experience in the West, these are basic but very real worries. Jesus' list, however, is only illustrative; anything pertaining to life could be included on it. Two challenges, each illustrated by a scene from nature, follow, and a conclusion balances the passage.

The first admonishment is not to worry about food or drink. Inspiration for it was derived from observing the habits of birds. Birds do not worry, nor do they store up for the winter, yet they are cared for by their heavenly father. The image of God is particularly instructive at this point. God is the compassionate, good father caring for his birds, feeding them as they have need. In the same way, the life of the disciple is not lived in isolation but under the watchful care of a father who attends to their needs. In a harsh world that does not seem to care, this comes as good news.

The second admonishment is to not worry about what they will wear. Now for most of us this is not a problem. I suspect the text is not referring to a bulging wardrobe and the high-anxiety moment faced each morning when trying to decide appropriate attire for the day in colors that actually match. Rather, it is the basic need of clothing, which for many in the culture of first-century Palestine was a concern. Jesus' response is that the flowers of the field grow and bloom with ease and astonishing beauty. If this is true for mere flowers under the care of God, how much more will God take care of his people.

This paragraph closes with a summary and concluding statement. The life of discipleship is characterized by a life that is singular in its pursuit of God. It does not mean that we will not (or should not) acquire possessions, wealth, or need food, clothing and other necessities. Rather, once one is devoted to God, one adopts the values, behaviors and priorities that God affirms. To live in accordance with God's reign--the Kingdom of God--means that as Christians we are a community within broader society that is aligned with a different values system. We do not strive or worry endlessly about our needs. Rather, in entrusting our life to God, we look to our good heavenly father to provide them for us, as he does for all of his creation.