The other night, I was reading Matthew 6:25-34 with my wife and we were discussing the passage when we came to some new understandings. As my wife has been growing in her experience with walking through a passage, tracing an argument and noticing important components, she made a some good observations that ended up in some light bulbs going on for both of us. Here’s the text in the ESV:
25 “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? 26 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? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 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? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Here are some observations that came out of our discussion:
1. The “therefore” points back to 6:19-23, which discusses money. In 6:19-21 Jesus warns his audience against pursuing earthly treasure and admonishes them to pursue heavenly treasure (in other words, chase righteousness instead of riches). In 6:22-23 Jesus warns his audience about the dangers of covetousness, and in 6:24 Jesus drops the hammer on his audience and informs them that people who live for money cannot live for God; it’s one or the other.
So, when Jesus says “therefore I tell you…”, the instruction that follows is not occurring in a vacuum. We tend to disconnect scripture far too much just because English editors placed chapter headings in the translation.
2. The passage starts with “do not be anxious about your life”, which is a command. It’s so easy to pretend that a command is a recommendation or a “in an ideal world you should…” sort of statement, but there’s a clear imperative there. Now, an imperative suggests that people are not doing it and it’s not a club to beat ourselves up with, but it is something that Christ tells us to do.
3. The passage isn’t talking about having any clothes at all; it’s rather talking about pursuing clothes for the sake of beautiful adornment. Notice the contrast between the lilies of the field and King Solomon “in all his glory”? The thrust there isn’t just daily provision, but it’s also one of beauty. I’d dare suggest that even the homeless in Christ’s day had clothes and Christ isn’t talking about people who get anxious over the possibility of some sort of poverty-induced-nudity. The idea seems to be something a little higher than that; chasing after clothes (i.e. seeking to be clothed in a like manner of a king, like Solomon). Also, the idea of “seek first the kingdom”, when contrasted with the idea of seeking clothes, gives the impression of an orientation of lifestyle.
4. Likewise, the passage isn’t talking about having enough food to eat (on a basic level); it’s rather talking about pursuing food in the form of wealth/security. Notice how the contrast is between birds of the air who “neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns” and the one who sows, reaps and stores thinking that he can “add a single hour to his span of life”. Now the idea of sowing and reaping and having barns isn’t one of struggling to get your next meal, is it? Not at all. It’s an idea of extending your life. I’d dare suggest that I’ve generally thought of this passage as talking about some sort of “city under siege/we’re about to die” poverty-induced-starvation. After studying it a little more and thinking about it, I don’t think that’s what Jesus was getting at. I’d suggest it’s more about an orientation of life that places one’s security in health/wealth rather than an imperative regarding extreme circumstances.
5. Notice how in vs. 32, the contrast is between the Gentiles and Christ’s audience. Jesus says “For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.” I’d dare suggest that Jesus isn’t saying “don’t be like the pagans who labour and toil to eat and be clothed; sit around and let God provide those things!” Not at all. Rather, Jesus is warning his audience about the dangers of seeking after those things in the manner of the Gentiles; the Gentiles are consumed by them. Their lives are oriented around them. They place their personal value in their beauty and their security in their riches, but their beauty and riches will both rot given sufficient time (or the coming judgment of God against sin). Again, I’d suggest this is talking more about regular life than extreme circumstances.
6. This passage is far more applicable to us than we realize, especially given our rampant fascination with diets, health and culinary gnosticism. Our society is consumed with healthfulness, dieting, and extending our own lifespans by a decade or two (or three at the best). In evangelical churches, dietary fads and food-worship is equally as bad as it is outside the church. Some of most quickly heated discussions I’ve ever had in church have been with people I know regarding GMO’s or gluten or cod liver oil pills. Christians, just like non-Christians, are suckers for pesudo-science (see if you can find Pat Robertson’s 1,000 pound leg press video online…it’s a keeper) and tend to hop on every single health–fad bandwagon that rolls through town…
…and why? Unto what end? And what is an extra three decades when compared to the never-ending life in glorified bodies that Christ has in store for believers? Is it honestly worth looking down on and judging as unspiritual (or otherwise inferior) the “fools” in your church who don’t follow your version of the food pyramid?
The more I reflect on Matthew 6, the more I am becoming convicted that we’ve completely missed the whole point of the passage. Our attitudes towards food and clothing (and all the other trivial things that we pursue in life) are often indistinguishable from the attitudes of the world. We eat as if this world is all there is and treat those who disagree with us as if they’ve missed out on the secret knowledge handed down from the Lord himself (hence I use the phrase “culinary gnosticism”).
The very attitudes that we attempt to enforce with judgement and shame are the attitudes that Christ will condemn as “disobedience”. The very ideas that we use as a standard by which we judge our brothers and sisters will be the standards that will be used to condemn us when we stand before the Lord, since our standards are so clearly not his.
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 14:17.
Now the clever folks out there will start talking about 1 Corinthians 6:19 and pull out the whole “your body is a temple” line with any number of silly logical arguments like “if you wouldn’t smash the windows in church, why would you smash your immune system with GMO’s?”.
First Cor. 6:19 is set in the context of 6:12-20, and that’s talking specifically and exclusively about sexual immorality. Theology built on analogies forced outside their scriptural point simply doesn’t stand up for very long. You build theology primarily from passages that directly address the question at hand.
I’ve anticipated and responded to one objection, but I’m sure there will be many more I have not foreseen (or didn’t want to categorize and spend 20 paragraphs responding to). Feel free to light me up in the comment thread and give me a lashing.
Until Next Time,
Lyndon “am I kicking the beehive or what?” Unger