8th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 49:8-16, Matthew 6:24-34
“So do not start worrying: ‘Where will my food come from? Or my drink? Or my clothes?’… Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things. Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you…”
The Sermon on the Mount is full of difficult teaching, and today’s gospel passage is no exception. We cannot help but be deeply challenged by Jesus’ words. On one hand we hear Jesus’ saying ‘don’t worry’ and we think, c’mon Jesus, it was so easy for you. No wife and no kids to worry about, no office hours to keep, no mortgage to pay. A carefree life wandering through the beautiful Galilean countryside… and a heck of a lot warmer than here.
But on the other hand, isn’t there something deeply attractive here: an invitation to a life that is not filled with unnecessary anxiety and fruitless worry?
Dan Clendenin writes:
“I don’t know if I worry too much, but I will say this — the very familiar words of Jesus in this week’s Gospel resonate with something deep in my soul. I wish that I could live in the way that he describes.” (1)
What do you worry about?
There’s plenty in the news to stoke up our anxieties.
We worry about:
The state of the economy
Paying the bills
Whether my job is safe
Getting into debt
And if we don’t worry about big things we have plenty of small things to worry about:
Which shirt should I wear today?
Am I going to be late for church?
Should I have that difficult conversation that I have been avoiding?
Did I lock the door on the way out?
Does my bottom look big in this?
If we’re not worrying about ourselves we’re worrying about our children. Or our parents. Or our friends and neighbours.
It seems that human beings are, by our very nature, worriers. Whether it’s those big, global things; the basic, personal things or even things we consider to be important but other people would consider silly – we worry.
And if that wasn’t enough, we even worry about worrying. And Jesus doesn’t help much. Don’t worry? Now that’s got me worrying – does my fear and anxiety demonstrate a lack of faith? A failure to trust in my heavenly father? Am I going to be judged for this? More worry.
Doesn’t it seem odd that we take up so much time and energy with worry and anxiety? When we step back and think with our heads rather than our hearts, we know that worrying is futile. But worry/anxiety is an emotion closely related to fear, a basic survival instinct. Fear can be a good thing; it is right to fear fire or a speeding car or a bare electrical cable or the smell of gas. The problem is that fear can easily turn into persistent and unfocused worry. The sort that keeps us awake at night, brings on stress and can even make us ill.
Again, to quote Dan Clendenin (2):
“No one should imagine that they’ll ever be entirely free of worry… But there comes a tipping point when normal worries become unhealthy anxieties. There comes a time when you ought to worry about your worry…”
Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite so bad if it were not for the fact that worry is often misdirected, wasteful and unfounded.
It has been suggested that an average person’s anxiety is focused:
40% on things that will never happen
30% on things about the past that can’t be changed
12% on things about criticism by others, mostly untrue
10% on health, which gets worse with stress
And only 8% about real problems that will be faced.
As Jesus observed, we have a perennial tendency to worry not just about today, but tomorrow as well. Mark Twain said, “I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened”
For the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard ‘the next day’ was the very source of anxiety. Not knowing what will happen tomorrow creates anxiety today. Therefore, as John Petty comments, “we are consumed on this day with trying to anticipate future calamities against which to protect ourselves. Since there is no end to the calamities we can anticipate, we’re always uncertain and constantly chasing after something which, we hope, will decrease our level of uncertainty.” (3)
What is this ‘something’ we chase after to insulate our lives from uncertainty, anxiety and fear?
Jesus says it is mamona, or mammon, as we often write it in English. That’s the word he uses in verse 24: “you cannot serve God and mammon”. In our Good News Bible it is translated ‘money’; other versions use the word ‘wealth’ or ‘riches’. Mammon is wealth personified, as if it were an idol or false God. This is wealth with a capital W, as if it has a force and personality of its own.
For Jesus, our worry and anxiety betrays an idolatrous pursuit of wealth and material possessions which displaces God. For there’s a basic choice to be made, says Jesus:
“No one can be a slave of two masters; he will hate one and love the other; he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)
The problem with money, apart from the fact that it is not God, is that ultimately it lets us down; it betrays the confidence and trust we invest in it. We only have to look at the deepening financial crisis about us to know that this is true. For we see jobs, homes and livelihoods sacrificed on the altar of the Market, which is little more than mammon writ large.
In any case, do you think that rich people never worry? Of course they do, about their security, their stocks and shares and whether they might lose their riches.
Ultimately wealth will not save us or give meaning and purpose to life. And worrying about it is giving it a priority which rightly belongs to God, his kingdom and a lifestyle characterised by justice.
“This is why I tell you not to be worried about the food and drink you need in order to stay alive,” says Jesus, “or about clothes for your body. After all, isn’t life worth more than food? And isn’t the body worth more than clothes?”
Speaking to the ordinary working people of his day, Jesus mentions those material things which were of greatest concern to them: food, drink and clothes. But this is not an exhaustive list. If he were talking to us today, I suspect he would speak of cars, homes and electronic goods. The pursuit of these, to the exclusion of all else, reduces life to a mere commodity measured in pounds and pence, or the acquisition of more and more stuff.
But, as John Petty points out:
“This never works. Acquiring things doesn’t reduce anxiety. It generates anxiety. You buy some kind of insurance to protect you against some kind of risk, which means that you now have one more bill to worry about paying, as well as worry about the loopholes your new insurance policy doesn’t cover.” (4)
So the message is: “with “mammon” as our “treasure,” we’ll never have a moment’s rest. We’ll always be worrying about holding on to what we have or trying to get more.” (GBOD)
Now let’s be clear – Jesus isn’t saying that food, drink and clothes are unimportant. He is not encouraging irresponsibility or suggesting that we ought not work for these things. He is not calling us “to abandon our lives and move to the desert to join a monastery or to empty our savings accounts.”(5)
Rather, in the words of Richard Beaton, “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.”(6)
What are these different priorities that Jesus sets before us?
First, put your trust not in mammon/wealth/money/ material possessions, but in God. God, who is presented in our scriptures today as a loving father and a devoted mother; God who cannot help caring and providing for his children.
Remember the promise of our Old Testament reading:
“I will show you favour and answer your cries for help. I will guard and protect you.”
“Can a woman forget her own baby and not love the child she bore? Even if a mother should forget her child, I will never forget you.”
To decide to serve God rather than money is a declaration that life is more than the pursuit of material things and the acquisition of more and more stuff. To serve God rather than money is a leap of faith that ultimately life does have meaning and purpose and direction. To serve God rather than money is an affirmation of Jesus’ words “Your Father in heaven knows what you need”.
Second, faith in God and his loving provision should lead to a reorientation in the way we live our lives. “Be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what he requires of you” says Jesus. Or, in the familiar version we shall sing later, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”
Only – ‘righteousness’ is a bit of an airy fairy religious word. It could just as readily be translated with that more familiar and down to earth word ‘justice’. In other words, Jesus is saying: you are kingdom people; live accordingly; put justice into practice. Remember all that time and energy you used to expend on worry and anxiety for yourself and your needs? That is now available for others.
And finally – be real. The problems and struggles of everyday living haven’t gone away, but are still there and still need to be lived. Jesus is not a prosperity gospel preacher. He is not saying that when we trust in God, seek his kingdom and live rightly that we will suddenly get rich quick or find all our difficulties disappear. He knows that many who hear his words are genuinely struggling. So he ends on a realistic note:
“Do not worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. There is no need to add to the troubles each day brings.”
Here are words for us to take to heart, as individual Christians and as a church with hopes and fears for the future. Plan for the future certainly, but don’t try to control tomorrow, which can only bring further anxiety. Focus on the present task; let today be today and tomorrow be tomorrow.
And don’t worry.
(1) Dan Clendenin, ‘Listening to the Birds, Looking at the Flowers‘
(2) Dan Clendenin, ‘Listening to the Birds, Looking at the Flowers‘
(3) John Petty, ‘Lectionary blogging: Matthew 6: 24-34‘
(4) John Petty, ‘Lectionary blogging: Matthew 6: 24-34‘
(5) Richard Beaton, ‘Commentary on Gospel: Matthew 6:24-34‘
(6) Richard Beaton, ‘Commentary on Gospel: Matthew 6:24-34‘