Scripture | Matthew 6:25-33 | Matthew 7:7-12
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry 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? Look 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?
And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But 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 faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.
The Sermon on the Mount is a goldmine of nuggets of wisdom.
- “Blessed are the pure in heart,” Jesus teaches, “for they will see God.”
- “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he warns.
- “Love your enemies,” he tells us.
- “Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says, “and everything else will follow.”
And the Golden Rule, that’s here, too – “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.”
Of course, wise teachings aren’t unique to Christianity, and some version of the Golden Rule is found in almost every religion we know of. I found this list in one commentary:
- The Taoists taught, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
- Confucius said, “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
- The Hindu Mahabharata teaches, “[Those] gifted with intelligence and purified souls should always treat others as they themselves with to be treated.”
- And the great Rabbi Hillel, who lived a generation before Jesus, said, “What you hate, don’t do to your neighbor. This is the whole Law. The rest is commentary.” [i]
It’s pretty basic, isn’t it? You don’t need to be a person of faith to believe that. You don’t have to be a Christian to treat other people the way you want to be treated. It should be obvious, right?
So why doesn’t the world work that way? What gets in the way?
Well, there are a lot of answers, ‘sin’ being the overarching umbrella of them all. But I think this passage points at one specific factor. Even for those of us who mean well, who want to do right, who believe in treating others as we would like to be treated, our anxiety gets in the way. We worry.
In an essay on this passage, Barbara Essex explores how Jesus goes to the basic core of our human nature, “the desire for control and comfort.” She writes:
We want to believe that we are in control of our lives and that we make choices and decisions from a place of objectivity and rationality. When things get out of control, we feel overwhelmed and frustrated. These feelings lead to behaviors that are unhealthy and destructive – [like] manipulation, self-medication, greed, possessiveness, [or] depression.[ii]
When we feel out of control, we worry. We worry that we will not get what we need or want or desire or deserve. We worry that we don’t have enough, that we can’t do enough, that we won’t be enough. And our worry about all that gets in the way of how God intends us to live, how God means for us to be human.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry 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? Look 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?
Now, you know as well as I do that Jesus is not telling us, “Don’t worry; be happy.” I will tell you from experience that having no anxiety at all is about as life-giving as drowning in it. There is a sweet spot of stress that gives us energy to act without freezing us in fear. Our Stephen Ministers learn that. Simply alleviating someone else’s distress is not always helpful if it takes away any impetus to act. A little discomfort can be a great motivator.
But that’s different than the kind of anxiety that makes you try to take everything into your own hands and forget that there is a God.
Ask for what you need, Jesus tells us. Remember God? Well, God hasn’t forgotten you.
Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.
Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School and the author of the book, Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. Kate is a mainline Protestant, but in her research on the Prosperity Gospel she’s spent a lot of time with Evangelical Christians. And she will tell you that they out-pray us every time. When it comes to asking God for something, they are right out there. She learned that when she was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer. These people could pray.
And, she will tell you, it is refreshing and empowering and disarming in a way that our careful, cautious prayers rarely are.
When we ask God for something, it seems to be wrapped up in a thousand qualifiers. “If it is your will,” we demure. We hedge our bets and pray only for what seems likely, what’s in the realm of statistical possibility. Praying for miracles seems out of the question.
Maybe that just seems unsophisticated. Or maybe we don’t want to admit what we really want. Or maybe we don’t really believe there’s anyone out there, listening. Or maybe we’d still like to hold onto the illusion that we really are in control.
It’s humbling to need things. It’s humbling to need God. But that’s where we need to begin. With humility.
The Prism group has been discussing Hanna Anderson’s book Humble Roots this summer. It’s all about the gift of humility. In the very beginning, she names this need:
When we believe that we are responsible for our own existence, when we trust our ability to care for ourselves, we will have nothing but stress because we are unequal to the task. You know this. Deep inside, you know your limits even as you fight against them. You know your helplessness even as you press forward by sheer determination.
But at some point, the world becomes too much, and the largeness of life threatens to overwhelm you. and when it does, you must stop. And you must do what Jesus told His friends and followers to do on the flowered hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee:
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”[iii]
It’s not “don’t worry, be happy.” No, not at all. It’s Jesus telling us to go after the one most important thing that matters most.
Living in the kingdom of God.
As Barbara Essex writes,
Jesus is not preaching a prosperity gospel here; nor is he preaching a life of passivity, waiting for God’s blessings to shower down.
Rather, [Jesus] is inviting people into God’s realm, where priorities are clear. The focus in God’s realm is not how many toys people have, but where their hearts are. Our participation in God’s realm is not about things with their built-in obsolescence, but instead is about God and God’s vision for all of creation. In God’s community, people look out for each other and share what they have; people take what they need and leave some for others. In God’s community, people think about their neighbors, even as they think about themselves. [iv]
Isn’t that the kind of world you’d like to live in?
Isn’t that the kind of world God is inviting us into?
Isn’t that the world God wants us to imagine?
Isn’t that our gift, and our call?
Not to create the kingdom of God – God is already doing that. But to live inside of it, rest in it, enjoy it, share it, trust it. To live inside it with humility and confidence and gratitude. To live as if it has already come to life.
Because, when we do, then the rest of it is easy. That part about caring for others the way we want to be cared for? The part about asking for what we need?
It’s all part and parcel of the same thing. It’s living inside the kingdom.
God’s invitation is there for us. We don’t need to be anxious. Not because we’re in control, but because we recognize that we aren’t. It’s humbling to need God. It is humbling. But it’s so freeing… to seek first, the kingdom of God.
[i]Roger L. Shinn, The Sermon on the Mount: A Guide to Jesus’ Most Famous Sermon, [New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1962], 76-77.
[ii] Barbara J. Essex, Pastoral Perspective on Matthew 6:24-34, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 1, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, [Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010], 406.
[iii] Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, [Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2016], 28.
[iv] Essex, 406, 408.