Monday, September 28, 2009

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness


‘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.

- Matthew 6:25-34

Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount in this passage. Previously, he has preached against the notion of serving two masters, God and mammon, and has taught about the necessity of putting God first. In this reading, Jesus elaborates on the previous teaching.

My study bible says that these passages warn against severe anxiety, as opposed to thoughtful planning and care. It goes on to note: "physical growth and length of life is dependent upon the providence of God more than upon food, drink and clothing. Persistent anxiety over the things of this world demonstrates internal insecurity and a weak or superficial faith."

I must confess here that I am a person given to periods of bad anxiety. And I should also confess that this anxiety can be attributed, in my opinion, to a number of things that are not good for me. Internal insecurity, as the study bible points out, is one thing. But there's also anxiety over things that our social life or orientation to "the world" might cause as well.

I believe that inherent in this teaching of Jesus is the notion of humility as an important value. He notes here that 'it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things' and we also recall that elsewhere Jesus has preached, 'You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.' So, I am going to start by tying the notions of "praise of men" and this anxiety over material possessions. I think that both involve Jesus' teachings on humility. I find that my anxieties in this area often stem from the worry that I'm not making an appearance of which others will approve, or that will be judged negatively because I don't make a grand impression in a material sense. (These judgments happen in any number of ways: Do I drive the right model car? Do I have the right sort of job? etc. etc. etc.)

With the tremendous commercial and consumer drive via television and all sorts of other media to be judged by appearance and possessions, it seems to me that this social awareness has become more problematic; there is more pressure than in the past to conform to a certain standard of material possession and "achievement" by which one may be judged. Comparison of our appearances, possessions, talent, job, friends, etc. all takes place via popular entertainment. This worry and anxiety has become a part of the "shoulds" of life, by which people are falsely judged. If we put the invisible values first of cultivating the type of personal integrity and internal relationship of faith to God our Father which Jesus has preached in this sermon, then the rest of these anxieties and concerns have to take a back seat. I think that the role of the Church in preaching this message is more needed now than ever, given our tremendous capacity for material goods, wealth and technology. We must recall that the aim of a Christian life is not merely this material vision of progress. We must find a way to teach ourselves and our younger generations these values which are transcendent and should be put first. 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' is about the achievement of an internal capacity for Love and all of its expressions, the capacity for our acceptance of grace, not the achievement of a pinnacle of material success and "good image."

I also believe anxiety can be attributed to an over-burdening of guilt in some respect as well. We can also be too severe on ourselves. How do we find a middle road? I go back to Jesus invoking the image of the lilies of the field and their splendor. This passage is not a denigration of material beauty. The material beauty that we encounter via God's hand all around us in the world is part of the immanence of God. So, we walk a middle road. None of these teachings are to induce anxiety on either side of the question. But we put first things first. We remember that we cannot serve two masters. Most of all we seek for ourselves the treasures that moth and rust can't consume and thieves can't steal. Without these, we have nothing but empty images. These empty images tie us to Jesus' teaching about the Gentiles of his time, and their practice of idolatry. We are not to worship false idols; we have to choose with a depth of awareness that which we will serve. Jesus teaches us, '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.' I so often find myself quoting this statement to myself. I so believe in its message. Today's trouble is enough for today. The well-known King James translation says it thusly: Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I believe this warning about unnecessary anxiety and trouble extends in many directions. We don't need to stir up more trouble for ourselves than whatever daily burden we're carrying. We seek God's peace, God's kingdom of which Jesus has been preaching, and we put it first. To take on these burdens of anxiety (and false guilt) is no longer God-centered but self-centered. As Christians, we must remember our focus and what Jesus has preached throughout the Sermon on the Mount. We seek first the kingdom.