“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 its 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.”
Matthew 6:25-34 (NRSV)
When I was a child, the part about the lilies not spinning seemed weird to me. I imagined flowers spinning around in fields in wild abandon. It was only later that I put two and two together and realized Jesus was talking about the lilies spinning thread. Incidentally, they don’t do that, either.
This admonition comes to us after a long contrast between the hypocrites who strive after the rewards the world offers versus the humble faithful who, instead, serve God. Here, Jesus is setting minds at rest that pursuing faithfulness to God instead of pursuing worldly gain means God will provide for their needs. One almost wonders if, “What will we eat?” and “What will we wear?” were questions being shouted up at Jesus as his sermon was progressing. Indeed, if one turns away from the pursuit of wealth and instead throws one’s lot in with the poor and oppressed of Israel, and one pursues faithfulness to God instead of compromise with the Empire, then it’s virtually a given that you’ll be poor, yourself, with very little prospect of earning any money. These would be natural objections.
If I refuse to bow to guild idols and lose my job, what will I eat? If I will no longer be a tax collector, what will I wear? If I proclaim that God’s kingdom has come and Jesus is the king, and I go to prison for insurrection, who will take care of me, then? Who will take care of my family?
In the first century, the pressure to conform to Empire is overwhelming. It affects all aspects of life. Following Jesus is not just a private spiritual decision that means you treat other people more nicely. In the first century, it is more or less a declaration of rebellion and sedition against both the religious authorities and the civil ones. Faithfulness will cost them all – their wealth, their livelihoods, their families, their homes, even their own lives. These are all very valid concerns, and Jesus elsewhere will even advise potential followers to consider the cost of beginning this project, lest they find that they cannot pay it and fall away.
But it is not merely the present situation Jesus is talking about. The Sermon is eschatological. There is coming very soon a great tribulation upon Jerusalem like nothing before. Jesus-followers will need to flee the city. They will have no homes, no income, no stored up food or drink.
So when you see the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; the one on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; the one in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.
Matthew 24:15-22 (NRSV)
We’ve seen this all throughout the Sermon. The listeners sit at the crossroads of crisis. The coming judgement and deliverance is at hand. A new age awaits the faithful on the other side, but what dangers and suffering they must experience to get there. What paths of suffering must they tread awaiting glorification.
Here, Jesus offers a comfort, but it is a comfort based on faith. He tells the anxious would-be followers that if one pursues the faithfulness of the kingdom, God will take care of the rest.
In the modern West, we tend to think of faith as “belief” or even “assent to unproven propositions.” This seems to fit our fascination with propositions, but it seems distant from the ancient Semitic world. Faith is trust. Faith is reliance. The demons have beliefs, but they do not have faith. Faith is a movement beyond assent into practical, concrete reliance on the object of your faith. It is trust in God.
This is the faith Jesus calls for in his Sermon. He does not tell them things will all be fine. He does not tell them things will be ok in the long run. He does not give them a theodicy where he explains how a good God could allow them to suffer. No, instead he tells them to trust – pursue the faithfulness of the kingdom and take whatever consequences that brings, and God will take care of you.
But this is not a blind faith. Jesus does not ask them to trust in a stranger or an untested or unknown quantity. Great crowds are around Jesus, and he appeals to the environment around them – how the birds and the plants survive even without wealth or jobs or guaranteed means of food or income. God, who is the Father of the listeners, knows they need food, shelter, and clothing, and would see to it they had what they needed just as He provides for birds and flowers.
If Josephus and Eusebius are to be believed, the believers fled the city prior to its destruction after selling all they had. Some fled to distant cities. Others formed communities nearby. They cared for one another, and the good news of the kingdom spread.
It would be risky to lift this (or any) portion out of the Sermon and apply it generically to all situations assuming that, if we do the right thing, everything else will be fine. Jesus was the most faithful person there was, and although God certainly took care of his food and shelter, he endured much suffering and, ultimately, execution. And whom among the Apostles led comfy lives? And even those Christians who fled Jerusalem in the first century, it’s hard to imagine that every individual in that group led lives of comfort and died naturally of old age.
But that doesn’t change the fact that God’s answer to starvation, deprivation, and persecution is ultimately a new creation. The story of those people listening to Jesus’ Sermon is a keystone point in that larger story. What is even death itself on the day when death is defeated?
You and I do not have a guarantee that faithfulness means everything else in our lives will fall into place. Perhaps faithfulness will mean taking a place with the starving or the homeless. Perhaps it will mean torture. Perhaps it will mean exile. Perhaps it will mean waking up in the morning and not knowing if you’ll survive to see another sunrise.
But every day of faithfulness proclaims to all creation that new creation has begun, and that you are a part of it, and that you know the destiny that awaits it. And that same deity that led our forefathers through the desert extends His hand through all the suffering and asks you, “Do you trust me?”
- What parts of being a faithful follower of Christ are uncomfortable for you? Are there any that make you feel afraid?
- Do you trust God? Do you have trust issues with God? Are there things in your past or things in the world at large that make it difficult to trust God? In what ways has He proven Himself trustworthy?