Reading Matthew 6. 25-end
Preacher Revd Neil Summers
Taking any biblical passage at face value and treating it as though it is immediately and unquestionably applicable today seems to me to be a dubious practice – and, of itself, an essentially unbiblical approach. For example, part of the creation story we read today has been routinely misappropriated by biblical literalists. ‘Subdue the earth and have dominion’ is best understood in the context in which Genesis was written down. In the sixth-century world of exile in Babylon, this was a mandate of hope. God promised the exiles not a perpetual landless existence, but their own land to subdue and care for. This was no licence to exploit the land, but a promise of a healthy and godly relationship with land which they did not then have. A genuine engagement with the Bible patently requires some appreciation of the social, cultural, historical, literary, linguistic and religious circumstances in which the texts originated: the context is always vital for understanding more fully the implications of the story or text. Also, stories often have multiple layers of meaning – historical, theological or symbolic – which can only be appreciated by looking at the context. Having said all that, though, I have to concede that if ever there was a passage of scripture that seems directly relevant to our time, and probably to every other time as well, then today’s Gospel reading would surely be it. Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink or wear; do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ Not worrying is easier said than done, of course. These words stand in stark contrast to the reality of many people’s, and communities’ lives, today. It can sometimes feel like we live in a culture that is driven by worry, anxiety or fear of one kind or another. (It is worth bearing in mind, though, that the original Greek word, translated as ‘worry’ in English, has a slightly broader connotation, which is to be absorbed or preoccupied by something.)
Many of our worries are real and are deeply rooted in our uncertainties about the future. What are you worrying about just now? On the larger scale, it may be, for example, the ever-burgeoning world population, with more and more strain on already limited resources; the potential damage of climate change; the implications of the unrest in the Ukraine; the random destruction caused by earthquakes and severe weather; the ever-present terrorist threats, nuclear plant leakage, or unstable economics. On a more personal level, what does the future hold for me? Will I still have a job and, if not, will I be able to find another? Will there be enough money to pay the mortgage and the other bills? Is my pension safe? Will my children/grandchildren/friends be all right? Will my health hold out? There is never any shortage of things to be anxious about, and I guess that applies in any age and context. I read recently of some research that revealed almost two out of three people going to see the doctor had some form of anxiety at the root of their complaint – a sobering, if not entirely surprising statistic.
Imagine reading today’s Gospel to a group of family or friends, all of whom have jobs, homes, cars, plenty of food on the table and a wardrobe groaning with clothes. Then imagine reading it to the inhabitants of today’s Syria, or those people in Haiti or the Philippines, still living in makeshift conditions long months after disaster struck. This message – don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because God will take care of you – may well be heard by the well-off audience as advice to keep focused on the things that really matter, rather than material wants. But the second group doesn’t even have that option. If you have spent the last year or so worrying every minute about feeding your children, giving them shelter at night, and perhaps someday being able to make a living again, Jesus’ message bears little or no relationship to reality. What does he mean, don’t worry? For too many, life is nothing but worry.
When Jesus tells people not to worry about their life, what they will eat or drink or wear, he isn’t saying that these things don’t matter, but he is presenting us with a challenge. These words form part of the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ teaching which has at its heart what he refers to as the kingdom of heaven. That is why the context is so crucial here. This kingdom isn’t a geographical location or a place to travel to, but rather a way of living which engages equally and realistically with life’s triumphs and failures, successes and setbacks. Jesus’ teaching challenges a link that was commonly made in his day: that those who please God have plenty and no worries, while those who have displeased God will suffer. It seems that Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond that kind of straight-line thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure. This is not the sort of God Jesus speaks of.
One of the reasons why Christianity makes sense to me is because it faces these human realities and dilemmas head-on. The Christian belief is in a God who, in the person of Jesus, has entered right into the heart of the experience of what it means to be a human in this random, often unfair and frequently messy world. Jesus’ own life story is a very human mix of, on the one hand, banging your head against a brick wall, of not being understood, of rejection, tears, failure, abandonment and fear and, on the other, of laughter, success, sociability, achievement and triumph. Sometimes we are in control of what happens to us, but that’s not always the case. In either situation, we still have to decide what our priorities and values are and, if we’re going to take Jesus seriously, then those priorities and values cannot be focused solely on ourselves or our own interests. Rather, we are encouraged to look beyond the boundaries of self-interest to a different mode of living, not least when it comes to those whose lives are blighted and immeasurably harder than our own. After all, we will have difficult things of our own to deal with in life from time to time, and we, too, will need other people to see us through.
Today’s Gospel is part of a larger message: life in the kingdom of heaven has different values, for God’s compassion, love and care embrace the poor, the suffering, the vulnerable, the ritually impure, the diseased, the outcast and those who mourn. It is often considered that the demands of Jesus are impossible and fraught with danger. No one prays for their enemies and means it, do they? No one does good towards those who hate them, do they? No one, having been hit on one cheek, offers the other cheek as well. No one gives up goods and money without expecting some return. No one walks an extra mile with someone who unreasonably demands it. No one lets go of safety and security in order to walk an unknown path. Do they? No one, that is, except those who accept Jesus’ vision of what he calls the kingdom of heaven. These, of course, are examples from the world of the New Testament, but translate them into what they imply for your approach to life, for your encounters with other people, and how, precisely, you relate to the notion of every citizen of the world as your neighbour. Worry, anxiety and fear are not absent in the kingdom of heaven that Jesus talks about. He knew that as well as anyone, and we have no right to expect a trouble-free life either. Our anxieties are put into perspective, though. This kingdom Jesus urges us to strive for insists that love, justice, peace, compassion and reconciliation are the things that really matter, and all we have to fear are those things which seek to snuff them out. And while these values certainly inform the life of prayer, I don’t think we should be waiting for divine intervention, for the Christian belief is that the divine has already intervened. It’s down to us to make sure these things happen.