SCRIPTURE: Matthew 6:25-33
VERSES 24-34: OVERVIEW
The Thanksgiving lection omits vv 24, 34. I have included them in this exegesis, because I consider them to be an important part of this passage.
This reading forces us to go beyond "Thanks, God, for all my stuff!" as our Thanksgiving message -- and properly so. The basis for thanksgiving in this text is that the Father, who has demonstrated his generosity throughout all creation knows our needs -- and, if we will seek first God's kingdom and righteousness, "all these things will be given to you as well" (v. 33).
VERSE 24: NO ONE CAN SERVE TWO MASTERS
24"No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Greek: mamona -- property).
Jesus does not state this as a warning, but as a fact -- doesn't say that we shouldn't serve two masters, but that it just isn't possible. The attempt to serve two masters will just frustrate us and waste our time.
"Love and hate do not refer to emotions, but represent the biblical idiom for 'choose'/'not choose' (see 5:43). The point is that undivided service can be given to one master only; if there is more than one, every choice means a favoring of one and rejection of the other" (Boring, 210).
Nor is it possible to serve no master at all. Like it or not, we will follow some guiding principle -- even if that principle is nihilism (the belief that there is no objective or moral truth). If it is true that we can truly serve only one master -- and Jesus and experience tell us that it is -- then it matters greatly which master we choose to serve.
Mammon (Greek: mamona -- property, money, possessions). The NRSV translates mamona as "wealth," but the KJV transliterates it (brings it into the English language as a new word) -- Mammon -- a word that, when capitalized, sounds like the name of a pagan god. The KJV approach has much to commend it. While there was no religion in Jesus' day that worshiped a god called Mammon, people in every age worship at Mammon's altar. Today we call it Success or Promotion or Prosperity or the Good Life, and use it as a sailor uses the North Star -- to set our direction -- to guide our lives. Jesus says that we cannot steer both by that star and God's star. Those stars reside in two separate parts of the heavens. To try to tack between them will only lead us into the abyss.
There is no prohibition in this verse against possessing wealth, but a few verses earlier Jesus counseled, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where
your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (6:21).
The problem is less in having mammon than in serving it -- giving it our heart -- letting it rule our lives -- making it our top priority -- letting it stand between us and God. David counsels, "if riches increase, do not set your heart on them" (Psalm 62:10).
While wealth tempts us to selfishness, it is possible to use wealth unselfishly. Paul counsels the rich "not to be haughty," but "to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life" (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
The problem is that mammon snakes its tentacles around our hearts and chokes our relationship with God. After his encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus observed, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24).
VERSE 25: DO NOT WORRY ABOUT YOUR LIFE
25"Therefore I tell you, do not worry (Greek: merimnate -- be anxious) about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
"worry" (Greek: merimnesete -- be anxious -- be apprehensive about possible danger or misfortune). Jesus is not commending recklessness, but calls us not to be distracted by worry. Worry disables; faith enables.
Anxiety with regard to Mammon is a soul-cancer that strikes the rich, the poor, and those in the middle:
-- The rich person is anxious to invest well to get richer still – to accumulate houses, cars, art, clothing, and other possessions to advertise his/her success -- and to protect these possessions against moth, rust, embezzlement, accounting fraud, inflation, deflation, high and low interest rates, and innumerable other threats. The energy required to maximize profitability, even of a modest estate, is enormous, and there are no guarantees. And, of course, death will sooner or later take it away from us -- all of it. The more we have, the more we stand to lose, and the more we worry about losing it.
-- The middle-class person is anxious about job security, health insurance, car payments, house payments, tuition, the cost of child care, leaky roofs, worn tires, and a host of other concerns.
-- The poor person is anxious about keeping a roof overhead and food on the table. Poor people are more easily tempted by lotteries and get-rich-quick schemes, because they have such desperate needs and so little hope.
Keep in mind that Jesus, even as he counsels people not to worry, is aware of a cross in his future. He is not stoic about pain -- he will sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane -- but he will also pray, "Not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
Jesus does not counsel us to be flippant about possessions -- to be careless stewards. As his disciples, we assume a responsibility to help the hungry and the homeless. Toward the end of this Gospel he will warn that, on Judgment Day, God will count as sheep those who have taken care of the needy and will count as goats those who have failed to do so (Matt.
25:31-46). He commands us "to take our eyes off our selves, off our lives, off our own selfish anxiety with our desires for good things for ourselves, and to look around God's world for a place where we can throw ourselves into the cause of God's righteousness" (Bruner, 266). And, even when helping the poor and vulnerable, we need not be anxious about the potentially overwhelming scope of the task, but need only to walk in faith, doing what we can and trusting God to do the rest.
"Unfortunately, covetousness (materialism) has achieved nearly cultic status as a traditional American value, .under such euphemisms as 'the good life' and 'getting ahead.. As Craig Blomberg.laments, . 'The greatest danger to Western Christianity is not, as is sometimes alleged, prevailing ideologies such as Marxism, Islam, the New Age movement or humanism, but rather the all-pervasive materialism of our affluent culture' " (Keener, 151).
VERSES 26-30: LOOK AT THE BIRDS OF THE AIR
26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour (Greek: pechun -- cubit) to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies (Greek: krina -- wildflowers) of the field,
how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little
Jesus first tells us not to be anxious, and then provides the rationale:
-- God, who gave us life, will provide for our needs.
-- God provides for the sparrow, who works but does not worry.
-- Our worry is futile; it does not accomplish anything.
-- God clothes the flowers beautifully, even though they are of minor importance compared with humans -- God's sons and daughters created in God's image. Jesus argues from lesser to greater -- a common type of reasoning among the Jews of his day.
-- Worry is the mark of a heathen.
It is true that birds "neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns," but that hardly makes them slothful or careless creatures. They build nests, forage for food, and care for their young. We have an obligation to do the same: to work -- to produce -- to avoid idleness and dependency (2 Thess. 3:6-13). Jesus "does not mean.that food, drink, clothing, and
other such necessities will come to the disciple automatically without work or foresight. (He) addresses only the problem of anxiety about these things" (Hagner).
Speaking of birds, "Jesus does not say that 'their' heavenly Father feeds them, but 'your' heavenly Father; the very Father in whom the anxious have ceased to trust provides even for improvident birds" (Morris, 158).
Jesus does not promise affluence, but promises only that the Father will provide for such basic needs as food and clothing.
"And can any of you by worrying add a single hour (Greek: pechun -- cubit) to your span of life?" (v. 27). A cubit is a measure of distance rather than time -- the distance from fingertip to elbow -- roughly a foot and a half (half a meter). In this context, however, it clearly refers to time -- to lifespan. The irony, of course, is that anxiety does not lengthen life but shortens it. Worry is a killer! It clogs arteries and stops hearts!
"Consider the lilies (Greek: krina) of the field.. Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these" (vv. 28-29). God does not clothe his creatures in plain, unadorned, shapeless garments. Jesus uses Solomon's glory to illustrate lavish, sumptuous dress. God created krina to be even more lavish and sumptuous than even Solomon's Sunday best.
Krina can refer to any one of several wildflowers, including lilies, anemones, poppies, and daisies. Krina are beautiful. In clothing them, God used every color, texture, and shape, weaving them together to be immensely pleasing to the eye. Not only are krina beautifully clothed, but trees too -- and birds -- and butterflies -- and lions, leopards, panthers, and cheetahs -- and horses and cows -- and koalas and kangaroos -- and zebras and giraffes -- and tropical fish. God obviously enjoys beauty, and expects us to enjoy it too.
The call here is not to forego beauty in clothing (or anything else), but to forego anxiety about clothing (or anything else). It is good to enjoy God's beautiful gifts, but it is not good to worry about them. Again Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If God takes care of
wildflowers and grass, won't he also take care of his children.
VERSES 31-33: STRIVE FIRST FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD
31Therefore do not worry (Greek: merimnesete -- be anxious), saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given
to you as well.
"Therefore do not worry" (merimnesete -- be anxious). The KJV says, "Therefore take no thought," which sounds as if Jesus is prohibiting planning, but that is not the case. The subject here is worry -- anxiety.
Jesus does not say that food and clothing are unimportant but, to the contrary, reminds us that the Father -- the one who created us to be human -- knows full well our need for food, clothing, and "all these things." We don't have to persuade the Father about this, because the Father has known it all along. We can take comfort in that fact, because the Father
is capable of meeting our needs.
The star toward which the Christian is to navigate is God -- God's kingdom and God's righteousness. The promise is that the person who steers in that direction will find blessings along the way. The promise is not wealth, but essentials -- food and clothing. These two, food and clothing, serve as a metaphor for all the essentials: air to breathe,
medical care, shelter, and all the rest.
The Christian who puts Jesus' counsel into practice can have a tremendous witness. So many people are so worried about such petty things – even the brand names on clothing and cars. People who live prudently and trust God to meet their needs stand in contrast to such anxious people. Their peaceful demeanor draws people to them, allowing them to point those people to Christ. Putting this passage into practice can be life-saving, both for the person who does so -- and for those to whom he/she bears witness.
"Gentiles" in this verse means "pagans" -- people outside the community of faith -- people who know nothing of God -- people whose actions stem from impure motives and thoughts. It is people such as this who ask "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?"
"strive first for the kingdom of God" does not mean first in sequence but first in priority. It isn't that we are to strive for the kingdom of God for awhile so that we may then be free to strive for other things, but that we should keep the kingdom in the forefront of our concerns always.
VERSE 34: SO DO NOT WORRY ABOUT TOMORROW
34"So do not worry (Greek: merimnesete -- be anxious) about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble (Greek: kakia) is enough for today."
As noted above, this is intended to prohibit, not planning or preparation, but anxiety. In the Parable of the Bridesmaids (25:1-13), Jesus makes it clear that preparation is essential -- although the preparation called for in that parable is spiritual in nature, and is not intended to secure the cradle-to-grave physical security that we crave.
While planning and preparing, we can be sure that God is for us, so we have no need to be anxious (Rom. 8:31). That does not constitute a guarantee that God will endorse all our plans or open all the doors that we want opened, but it is a guarantee that God will open the right doors at the right times. Nor is it a guarantee that we will not suffer. Christ calls us to cross-bearing discipleship (8:34), and many Christians have suffered and even died for their faith. However, it is a promise that, in life and death, we belong to God and, in life and death, God provides for our needs.
"Today's trouble" (kakia -- evil, bad things, difficulties, troubles, hardships) is enough for today." "Some scholars propose a soft or optimistic interpretation of the verse: Tomorrow's concerns will take care of themselves; today is all you need to deal with. Other
interpreters, however, find a cynical or pessimistic tone in Jesus' words: It is bad enough dealing with today's problems; don't add on tomorrow's before they get here! One way or another, the text advises us to live one day at a time, and not to succumb to anxiety about the future" (Gardner).
This is a call to live in the present. While it might be important to know our history so that we can learn from it -- and to plan for the future so that we are not simply adrift on the sea of life -- we can be sure that the Father who provided for us yesterday will also provide for
us tomorrow. We can be confident there is not something "out there in the future that can destroy our basic worth as a human being, something finally stronger than God's care, some silent killer shark swimming toward us from the future" (Long, 76).
A TRUE STORY:
James Cash Penney, the founder of the J.C. Penney department store chain, was a religious man. His stores were very successful during the 1920s, and even after the Great Depression hit, he was doing better than most.
Nevertheless, the strain of managing a whole chain of stores during that difficult decade took its toll. Penney was worried about paying for merchandise, meeting payroll, keeping the lights burning, and a host of other concerns at a time when few people had money to spend in a retail establishment.
Penney not only worried, but his worry distracted him from taking care of himself properly. As a result, he developed herpes zoster -- the very painful disease that we know as shingles. One day, his pain was so intense that he was sure that he was going to die. He didn't believe that he would live to see the light of another day.
But the next day, he awoke and realized that he had survived the night. More significantly, he was awakened by singing in the hospital chapel. The hymn, a favorite in those days, was "God Will Take Care of You." Later, Penney described that moment in these words:
"Suddenly, something happened. I can't explain it. I can only call it a miracle.
I felt as if I had been instantly lifted out of the darkness of a dungeon into warm, brilliant sunlight. I felt as if I had been transported from hell to paradise. I felt the power of God as I had never felt it before.... I knew that God with His love was there to help me. From that day to this, my life has been free from worry."
Come Ye Thankful People Come (BH #637; CH #718; CO #626; GC #564; JS #359;
LBW #407; LW #495; PH #551; TH #290; TNCH #422; UMH #694; VU 516)
For the Beauty of the Earth (BH #44; CH #56; CO #562; GC #572; JS #464;
LBW #561; PH #473; TH #416; TNCH #28; UMH #92; VU #226)
Thank You, Lord (CH #531; TNCH #559; UMH #84)
We Gather Together (BH #636; CH #276; CO #558; GC #571; JS #344; PH #559;
TH #433; TNCH #421; UMH #131)
similar hymn We Praise You O God (LBW # 241; LW #494; VU #866)