Sunday, April 08, 2018

On the Mount (25)

As I have done repeatedly during our study of the Sermon on the Mount, I find myself attempting to sit in the place of the Lord’s original Jewish audience.

Do it with me, and picture the crowd around you, many of whom will never own a home and none of whom have ever heard of welfare, pensions, socialized medicine, public school or any other sort of government-mandated social safety net. Those here who are too old, too young, or too infirm to work are entirely dependent on their families. The women present rely on the industriousness, goodwill, fidelity, fortune and health of their husbands far more so than today. Even the working men and the few rich among us are surely far more conscious of the perils of war, famine and drought that periodically plague their nation’s economy, and the potential consequences of these on their families and dependents.

In short, everybody in the Lord’s audience has WAY more reason to be anxious than most readers of this post.

Laboring and Galloping

In working our way through the Sermon, it may occur to one or two of our readers to question the reasonableness of me laboring through a single verse in one lengthy (perhaps too lengthy) post, then turning around to gallop merrily through a dozen verses in the next.

This may be why I don’t write commentaries. If I can cop a plea for hurtling back and forth between apparent over-attentiveness and dereliction, it would be that I’m attempting to follow the natural subject divisions in these three chapters of Matthew’s gospel rather than shoot for covering a predetermined number of verses each time out.

These next ten verses are all one subject. There are probably half a dozen ways to approach them, and David Gooding could show you five before breakfast. I’ve only got one. It’s threefold, and it suggests itself from the way the Lord repeats the phrase in bold below (admittedly with very slight variations):

Do Not Be Anxious

Let us not miss the obvious theme here: anxiety, also known as worry, fretting, fussing, perturbation, unease, or excessive mental agitation about what may or may not soon transpire:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.

“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 which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious 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 arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

“For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
We have three commands not to be anxious preceded by three “therefores”. I will risk pointing out a very trite old Bible study observation passed on to me by who-knows-who: “When you see a ‘therefore’, look to see what it’s there for.” The answer is usually to be found in the previous few sentences or paragraphs.

Reasons to be Cheerful

With this in mind, we might say there are three general classes of reasons not to fret:

1.  PRINCIPLES

Having established that accumulating treasure in heaven is a wiser and more profitable course of action than attempting to accumulate it here on earth, and that it is impossible to do both (“No man can serve two masters”), the Lord now suggests a logical corollary for those who seek to keep their minds firmly focused on the kingdom of God and occupied with doing his will: Don’t worry. Life is about more than food. Anxiety is inconsistent with the kingdom mindset.

2.  OBSERVATIONS

With respect to concern for our daily bread, we are taught to consider the birds. Regarding clothing, we are taught to consider the lilies. Nature bears witness that God is capable of taking care of his creation, taking care of it abundantly, and doing it even (and especially) when his creations are incapable not only of providing for their needs but even (in the case of the lilies), of considering the question of needs in the first place. Worry is inconsistent with our observations of how God conducts himself in the world.

3.  PROMISES

“Seek first the kingdom of God … and all these things will be added to you.” God has promised, and we can rely on him to deliver accordingly. Worry is inconsistent with faith in God’s word.

Or, to put it another way, we have spiritual reasons, intellectual reasons and emotional reasons to put aside the cares of the world.

Even More Reasons

If we are attentive, we’ll notice that the words of Christ rarely organize themselves neatly into categories that please the Western mind (though that rarely stops preachers from trying to impose structure on them artificially). Within the aforementioned subsections we can locate other reasons not to worry:
  • Pragmatic reasons (“which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”). Since our concerns are outside our control, flapping about them is a waste of energy and utterly futile. It only hurts us.
  • Testimony reasons (“the Gentiles seek after all these things”). Kingdom thinkers should be different. How will the world know that we are disciples of Christ if we fret, fuss and panic when they do?
  • Relationship reasons (“your heavenly Father knows that you need them all”). Note the repeated reference not to “God” generically, but to “your heavenly Father”, which is much more personal and intimate. All men do not possess that relationship. Anxiety casts aspersions, however unconsciously, on the goodness of our Father, his love for his children and his ability to anticipate our practical needs. We wouldn’t want to do that.
  • Mental health reasons (“Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”). Since we can’t do anything about most of the circumstances we encounter on a daily basis, it makes little sense to stress ourselves out by anticipating what may happen tomorrow (most of which never does, and much of which happens differently than we might anticipate anyway).
If the presentation of these ideas appears slightly scattershot to us, the problem, I suspect, is our native intellectual rigidity rather than some indefinable defect in the Lord’s organization or preparation.

Back to the First Century

On the streets near where I work, the vagrants are numerous, but receive so much charity that they regularly discard uneaten fast food, clothes, blankets and quilted sleeping bags that generous souls have provided as they go about their business, most often in hope of acquiring alcohol or drugs. Food and clothing today are not truly first world problems.

If the Lord thought it reasonable to tell his largely hard-working, dirt-poor, frequently oppressed first century Jewish followers three times, “Do not be anxious,” whatever would he think of expressions of materialistic concern among his children in developed countries today, most of which are pointless and faithless angst?

Sometimes a mindset adjustment is in order, no? I speak to myself first and foremost …

No comments :

Post a comment