“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” … sunset at Skerries Harbour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)
The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings for Sunday week, 27 February 2011 (the Second Sunday before Lent) are: Genesis 1: 1 to 2: 3; Psalm 136; Romans 8: 18-25; Matthew 6: 25-34.
This morning we are looking at the Gospel reading for that Sunday.
Matthew 6: 25-34
25 Διὰ τοῦτο λέγω ὑμῖν, μὴ μεριμνᾶτε τῇ ψυχῇ ὑμῶν τί φάγητε [ἢ τί πίητε,] μηδὲ τῷ σώματι ὑμῶν τί ἐνδύσησθε: οὐχὶ ἡ ψυχὴ πλεῖόν ἐστιν τῆς τροφῆς καὶ τὸ σῶμα τοῦ ἐνδύματος; 26 ἐμβλέψατε εἰς τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ὅτι οὐ σπείρουσιν οὐδὲ θερίζουσιν οὐδὲ συνάγουσιν εἰς ἀποθήκας, καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος τρέφει αὐτά: οὐχ ὑμεῖς μᾶλλον διαφέρετε αὐτῶν; 27 τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν μεριμνῶν δύναται προσθεῖναι ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλικίαν αὐτοῦ πῆχυν ἕνα; 28 καὶ περὶ ἐνδύματος τί μεριμνᾶτε; καταμάθετε τὰ κρίνα τοῦ ἀγροῦ πῶς αὐξάνουσιν: οὐ κοπιῶσιν οὐδὲ νήθουσιν: 29 λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδὲ Σολομὼν ἐν πάσῃ τῇ δόξῃ αὐτοῦ περιεβάλετο ὡς ἓν τούτων. 30 εἰ δὲ τὸν χόρτον τοῦ ἀγροῦ σήμερον ὄντα καὶ αὔριον εἰς κλίβανον βαλλόμενον ὁ θεὸς οὕτως ἀμφιέννυσιν, οὐ πολλῷ μᾶλλον ὑμᾶς, ὀλιγόπιστοι; 31 μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε λέγοντες, Τί φάγωμεν; ἤ, Τί πίωμεν; ἤ, Τί περιβαλώμεθα; 32 πάντα γὰρ ταῦτα τὰ ἔθνη ἐπιζητοῦσιν: οἶδεν γὰρ ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν ὁ οὐράνιος ὅτι χρῄζετε τούτων ἁπάντων. 33 ζητεῖτε δὲ πρῶτον τὴν βασιλείαν [τοῦ θεοῦ] καὶ τὴν δικαιοσύνην αὐτοῦ, καὶ ταῦτα πάντα προστεθήσεται ὑμῖν.
34 μὴ οὖν μεριμνήσητε εἰς τὴν αὔριον, ἡ γὰρ αὔριον μεριμνήσει ἑαυτῆς: ἀρκετὸν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ ἡ κακία αὐτῆς.
The NRSV translation:
[Jesus said:] ‘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.
‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’
Do not worry about tomorrow?
Do not worry about tomorrow?
Imagine two different ways of reading this Gospel passage.
The first is if you have a respectable and well-paying job, a good house in suburbia, a decent car, adult children who have good prospects too, you have regular holidays, and can change your car every two or three years.
The second way to read it is to imagine yourself living in a deprived urban area, a single parent with a mortgaged house in negative equity, unemployed, and facing severe cuts in your welfare payments, an adult child with special needs, and an ageing parent who needs residential care that you cannot afford.
How then do you then receive the message, do not worry about what you will eat or drink or wear (verse 25), because God will take care of you? Today’s trouble is certainly more than enough for today.
For the first group, this is irrelevant, meaningless. You may be worried about higher taxes, winding down and preparing for retirement, that children marry the right sort of people. If you have worries, they are hidden from the neighbours, perhaps even hidden from yourself. Would you want them exposed and discussed in the pulpit?
For the second group it verges on the absurd. If you have spent the last few years worrying about the roof your head, unable to afford and prepare adequate meals, worried about the friends and dangers your children meet, the future they face, then this is no easy message to hear. What does Christ mean, “do not worry”? Life is full of worries, every single waking day.
But is Christ really saying that the basic necessities of life do not matter. Is he really saying that the basic necessities of life will appear miraculously if only we believe in him correctly?
Let us first put this reading in context – Christ is talking to people who have enough, it seems. Otherwise, his encouragement not to worry would simply be cruel.
But, what about those who truly do not have enough?
How are they going to hear good news in this Gospel reading?
Though the message is going to be heard differently by those who have enough and those who do not, the message is really the same: do not fret.
If you have enough, be thankful, but beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need.
If you do not have enough, it is not because God does not love you. Christ is working to break the connection that was commonly made in his day: those who please God are rewarded with plenty, while those suffer have earned God’s displeasure.
We still make that connection. How often we have an inner feeling of glee when we think people get what they deserve. How often we think people have brought about their own downfall. How often we think people could improve their lot if only they were not indolent, if only they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.
Were we not warned about this in our Epistle reading for Evening Prayer yesterday (15 February) evening (James 2: 1-13)?:
“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonoured the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?
“You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’, also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgement.”
We are a nation of begrudgers, too often, and too often we want grace for ourselves but law for others.
Christ encourages us to look beyond the narrow perspectives that attach virtue to success and vice to failure.
We sang about that challenge at Evening Prayer in the words of Frederick Faber’s Hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy) (Irish Church Hymnal # 9):
For the love of God is broader
than the measure of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.
If our love were but more simple,
we should take him at his word,
and our lives would be gladness
in the presence of the Lord.
God’s desire for us is that we all have enough, rather than calculating the degree to which each of us should be blessed or cursed.
That does not change the circumstances today for the single mother in Ballyogan or the unemployed father in Tallaght. But neither do present circumstances justify making political, economic and social decisions based on self-interest and selfishness.
In the Anglicanism module, in Year II, over the past few weeks I hope we have gained an appreciation of Thomas Cranmer’s role in compiling the Book of Common Prayer and the collects. Perhaps it is relevant this morning to recall the Collect for Peace, which is the Second Collect at Morning Prayer. This collect originated in the Sacramentary of Gelasius and was incorporated in the Sarum Breviary, from which Cranmer translated it in 1549:
O God, who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Kingdom of God has different values from life in the empire, or life in a profit-based society. The kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. The kingdom of God calls us to bring light to the darkest parts of the world, to be salt in the world, to be signs and sacraments of mercy and justice.
God is not promising to meet all our needs, like some shopping list brought to the Kingdom-value-supermarket, if we pay up with the right kind of prayers. Tomorrow is going to bring its worries: “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own” (verse 34). But God does not bargain with us. God expects us to serve him through living out the kingdom values, and in that we find perfect freedom.
As we seek first the Kingdom of God we come to accept with joy the things God adds to us. Our trials and troubles remain real, but that reality can be transformed and made glorious as we serve God and seek to do God’s will.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 16 February 2011.