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.
Isaiah 40-66 uses female images for God more frequently than any other Old Testament body of literature.
The image used is always maternal. For example, Isaiah 42:14 presents God as pregnant and giving birth; 66:12-13 portrays God as nursing and comforting the newborn. The metaphor of God as mother is also basic to understanding the text we are considering. Such an image invites modern preachers and teachers to make more common use of this image of God that is so often neglected.
The historical context is Israel in exile, or shortly thereafter, and the people are presented as “barren” (49:21; see 54:1), that is, unable to bring about their own future. Only God can make that future possible and the image of God as mother is used to emphasize the point. The result is described in the larger context of this passage (49:21): “I was bereaved and barren, exiled and put away–so who has reared these? I was left all alone–where then have these [children] come from?” And the point is that God is the one who is responsible for birthing all these children and, as a result, the land is full of them. God has enabled Israel to thrive.
All metaphors used for God have their “yes” and their “no.” The “no” in the mother metaphor is lifted up especially in 49:14-15. It is possible for the actual mother of a child to forget her child, even her nursing child. It is possible for the literal mother of the child to show no compassion for a child she has borne. But it is not possible for God: “Even these may forget, yet I [God] will not forget you.” Yes, something is not possible for God. God is faithful and this means that God’s options are limited–God will not, indeed cannot forget Israel. This is an act of divine self-limitation. In fact, Israel is “inscribed” (or tattooed!) “on the palms of [God’s] hands” (see 44:5). Israel has thereby become part of the very identity of God. God will forever be known as the God of Israel, come what may. Israel can count on God, not only to bring its future to birth, but to sustain its ongoing life. God is mother in a way that no earthly mother can be.
The Exodus from Egypt and, especially, the wilderness wanderings inform the imagery used in 49:8-13 (as also in 35:1-10; 40:3-4, 11; 41:17-20; 42:16; 43:16-21; 48:20-22; 51:9-10). It is these historical traditions, especially the exodus through water and the feeding in the wilderness, that probably give birth to the maternal images for God.
The “time of favor” and “day of salvation” in 49:8 have reference to the deliverance of Israel from Babylonian exile (see 55:6-7 and its usage in 2 Cor 6:2) and their being returned to their land. God calls the people out of the darkness of exile and invites them to a journey back home, a journey through the wilderness wherein they shall not want for food or water or protection. God himself will be their guide and prepare the way in the wilderness (see 40:3-5).
The people of Israel, who have been scattered across the landscape of the Middle East, shall come from all directions (Syene is a place in Upper Egypt) and be settled in their own land once again. Even more, their cities will be rebuilt and repopulated (49:16b-21) and their enemies shall oppress them no more (49:22-26; see Jer 31:15-17, 38). The chapter concludes with a ringing testimony to God as the “Savior” and “Redeemer” and “Mighty One of Jacob.” It is notable that the language of salvation used here for God’s deliverance is much more than spiritual in nature. God’s salvation includes very earthly realities, as was also the case in the Exodus from Egypt (see Exod 15:2).
God is the subject of the key verbs here and God’s actions are repeatedly stated in personal terms: I have answered you; I have helped you; I have kept you; I have given you. See the similar language in Isa 42:6-7. The latter text also spells out the theme of mission that is only alluded to in 49:8: To be given as a “covenant to the people” is to be “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
A hymnic verse (49:13) gathers the import of what God will do, calling upon various elements of the natural order to sing in praise to God (cf. 44:23; Jer 51:48; Rev 18:20). All creation is invited to join in this song. Such natural imagery should not be dismissed as hyperbolic or simply poetic imagination, but a lively recognition that God’s deliverance of Israel has cosmic effects. Heavens and earth, mountains and forests will become more attuned to what God created them to be.
These elements of God’s creation are invited to praise God for the comfort that God has already brought the people of Israel (see 40:1; 66:13 for this theme) and the compassion God will show forth in the journey that lies ahead. There is explicit reference to Israelites as those who have been suffering through the time of exile; this reality is not papered over or thought to need no further consideration. The suffering of the people remains an integral part of who they are and will continue to be. God’s “compassion” signals a genuine entering into this suffering situation of the people rather than remaining distant and aloof to what they have been through (see Exod 3:7, “I know their sufferings”).
This divine comfort of the people and compassion for them is illustrated by what follows in 49:14-16a. Zion is imaged as a mother (as in 66:6-16; cf. 50:1; 54:6) and, for all the comfort that this earthly mother of Israel can bring to the people, God’s comfort and compassion is unsurpassable and ongoing.
What irritates our sensibilities more? The claim that we are accountable to God, and therefore God will judge us? Or, the insistence that people not judge one another because judgment is God’s prerogative?
The notion of divine judgment carries more than its share of religious baggage, thanks to those who enjoy using it to break the backs of prospective converts. At the same time, many of us consider it our inalienable right to judge others, to be the arbiters of commendation and degradation–especially when we can find a chance to approve ourselves and reprehend our neighbors.
In this passage full of judicial language, Paul speaks positively abut God’s judgment and warns those who would judge others within the Christian community. Behind Paul’s comments lies a strong concern for unity. Paul emphasizes that Christian ministry and corporate existence must reflect a unity formed by the gospel, a unity threatened by an atmosphere in which people usurp or deny God’s right to judge. Keep in mind that Paul’s comments come in a letter that tries to mend divisions and call Christians back to a proper understanding of their place in God’s scheme. The Corinthian church was beset by petty rivalries and widening divisions (see 1:10–11; 3:1–4), and one of the ways in which disunity manifested itself was through the distinctions that the Corinthians were drawing among themselves. Moreover, from 1 Corinthians 4:1–5 it also seems that some in Corinth were dismissive toward Paul and all too eager to make judgments of their worth relative to him (see also 9:3). In response, Paul defends himself from their attacks and also attempts to reorient the Corinthians’ views of themselves.
Although Paul expresses palpable frustration with the Corinthians in the rest of this chapter, restraint characterizes the first five verses. In naming his and Apollos’s identity as “servants” (hypēretēs) and “stewards” (oikonomos), he avoids more forceful terminology that might have reasserted their authority. Paul regards himself and Apollos as models or exemplars for the Corinthians (see 4:6, 15b–16); by extension, then, he declares all Christians to be in the service of another. A hypēretēs was a general term designating one who assisted or provided service to someone else. The word oikonomos usually referred to the top-ranking slave (in some cases, a freedman) in a Greco-Roman household, one typically responsible for such administrative matters as managing finances, procuring goods, and overseeing the work of other slaves. Both words imply a subordinate role, and Paul understands them specifically to indicate service provided in relationship to Christ and “God’s mysteries” (by this he means what God has disclosed, generally speaking, through Christ and the message of the gospel; see 2:1, 7; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51).
Life as a servant or steward implies accountability, and such people are measured by the degree to which they are “trustworthy” (or “faithful,” translating the adjective pistos) in carrying out their responsibilities. Responsibilities can be executed in a variety of ways according to one’s creativity and capacities, but faithfulness stands as the only basis or criterion for assessing it. The only judgment that matters is that which is given by the master whom a servant serves. Paul expresses confidence in his own fidelity to God as a laborer for the sake of the gospel. Such confidence leaves him relatively impervious to the Corinthians’ personal attacks, but it does not allow him to presume God’s prerogative to judge him. Paul accepts only God’s judgment.
Paul’s primary points, then, are these:
It is important that we hear these words in their context, as part of Paul’s attempt to reign in the striving, self-promotion, and backbiting that plagued the Corinthian church and hindered its ability to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. We do well to keep in mind that Paul was addressing a fellowship of believers and attempting to get them to re-embrace their understanding of themselves as a community bearing a unified witness. His comments do not offer a comprehensive account of God’s judgment or the means by which God calls people to become servants of Christ.
This passage continues to speak to churches that have lost sight of their purpose and whose members have turned against themselves. Those congregations do well to note that Paul roots what he says, not in a belief that judging other people is not a nice thing to do, but in the theological conviction that we all belong to God through Christ and share a unified, corporate existence as Christ’s body. This idea weaves its way throughout 1 Corinthians and is what makes Paul’s comments here distinctively Christian. (For more on the theological foundation of Paul’s appeals for unity among the Corinthians, see my commentary on this website from two weeks ago, the Day of Pentecost, on 1 Corinthians 12:3b–13.)
This passage also has implications for others in the audience. Even as Paul directed admonishments toward many in Corinth, certainly others in that church needed words of comfort. When people create hierarchies, others end up at the bottom. When people engage in wars of judgment, some end up being judged and diminished. Paul’s words imply good news for those people, the ones who have been the targets of attacks. A sermon on this passage can remind them that God sees, and that God’s judgment is about disclosing the truth, shining a light that executes justice for those who will be found faithful, no matter what the degree of that faithfulness.