For the last two weeks, we have been discussing, in one way or another, the first half of Matthew 6. We talked about Jesus’ perspective on the three pillars of first century Jewish piety and how those practices might improve our own spiritual lives. We also sought to cultivate a biblical and pastoral understanding of forgiveness.
As we turn our attention to the second half of chapter 6, we discern an important shift in the subject matter of Jesus’ teaching. Some might say that here Jesus “has left preaching and gone to meddling,” to use an old adage. After all, he stops talking about ethereal things like prayer and fasting and starts talking about money.
In truth, however, Jesus is giving more instructions about how we are to live as subjects of God’s Kingdom, and those instructions touch on far more than just our bank accounts. Let’s look at four things that stand out to me about this section of the sermon. Then I will invite you to share your own observations about what Jesus has to say here.
The Unsettling Truth About Jesus’ Audience
The first thing that grabs my attention about this text is not what it says but to whom it was originally spoken. When Jesus says, “Do not worry” about how “you” will obtain the necessities of life, he isn’t talking to people who have stable jobs and a relatively high standard of living. When he says that we should not devote ourselves to the “treasures” of this world, he is not talking to people who have generous pensions or massive investment portfolios..
Rather, he was talking to people who had suffered greatly at the hands of Rome’s military and economic power. Many of those who listened to him did not know where their next meal was coming from, much less how they would care for themselves if they got old or sick. These are people who could be excused for seeking the safety and comfort that would ostensibly come with economic prosperity and who could hardly be blamed of they worried about what might happen in days to come.
And yet, Jesus says to these people, “Do not worry.” He says to these people, “Invest yourself in God’s Kingdom and not in the pursuit of economic resources.” His words are hard enough to hear for someone like me. I know well enough that I should be planning for retirement. I even have the skills to do it. I just lack the economic resources to start the process of saving and investing. And it worries me. If Jesus would say to the poorest of the poor, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” what do you think he would say to me? It is a humbling—and frightening—thought.
The Importance of Perception
As we turn our attention to the content of Jesus’ teachings, one thing that strikes me is the emphasis that he places on perception. The act of perceiving (here understood in a broad, epistemological, sense) is a basic function that each of us performs daily. But it isn’t just a function of the mind. Social psychologists argue that perception is one of the key outworkings of identity (along with thinking, feeling, and acting).
In other words, how we perceive is an important indicator of who we are. Jesus would have agreed with modern social psychologists on this point, and he would go a step further. After all, our text strongly implies that perception is a moral endeavor. It doesn’t just serve as an indicator of our race, our gender, our socio-economic status, our political affiliation, etc. It points directly to the condition of our soul. (This is a particularly important point since social psychologists also argue that identity is shaped by how we perceive. Hence, perception not only reflects our character, but it also has the power to shape it.)
Jesus seems to be talking first and foremost about greed here, so it is worth asking what we see when we see the wealth possessed by other people. Does our greed encourage us to see their wealth as an opportunity for our own personal gain? For that matter, does self-righteousness cause us to assume that their wealth most be ill-gotten?
There is no reason to assume, however, that Jesus’ words on perception should be limited to the issue of greed. So, we ought to ask ourselves a wide range of other questions related to perception. For example, when we see a woman, do we see a fellow image-bearer who is treasured by God and needed by those who love her? Or, as a result our our lust, do we see her as a mere vessel for the fulfillment of our desires (cf. Matthew 5:27-30)? Or perhaps, motivated by our own insecurities and need for power, we see her as a strange creature, a representative of an alien race that does not think like us and that must be suppressed at all costs? When we see a person invested with spiritual or political authority, do we see them as someone who is doing God’s work (cf. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15)? Or do we see something else, something that reveals our own fears and our own passions?
We could go on with more questions like these, but the point has already been made sufficiently for our present purpose. How we see the world has everything to do with who we are. And who we are is precisely the point of Jesus’ rather pointed remarks.
The Need for Proper Priorities
Of course, nothing gets to the heart of who we are quite like our priorities. As we have already noted, Jesus fearlessly puts his finger on the real issues at play in our striving for economic security and our worries about tomorrow, but he does so with pastoral sensitivity. He reminds us of what should be of most importance to us without denying that our present priorities reflect genuine needs.
In the language of social psychology, priorities can be relabeled as “values.” Values are simply those things that we think are good and important. What Jesus is asking us to do is to value—that is, prioritize—the Kingdom of God over everything else. Of course, if you have been following Jesus for a while, you know that prioritizing the Kingdom of God is not as easy as it sounds. For one thing, it can be difficult to know what exactly that means in a given situation. For another, even if we figure out what it means to prioritize the Kingdom in a given situation, the course of action that such a priority recommends can be difficult and/or unappealing.
Nevertheless, I have found in my own life and ministry that it is vital to keep the Kingdom front of mind at all times. When I don’t, I almost invariably swerve (or dive headlong) into moral compromise. Why? Because I have my focus in the wrong place.
The Prohibition of a Particular Emotion
Emotions are also a key component of one’s identity. And they often do not respond to directives from our brain’s logic centers. So it is not surprising that Jesus’ prohibition of worry seems so incongruous with how the world works. After all, how can Jesus tell me not to worry about whatever it is that I am clearly already worried about?
I don’t have all of this figured out yet, but I think that it is important to remember that Jesus’ discussion of worry is bracketed by a discussion of priorities. The prohibition of worry is predicated on the observation that we cannot “serve both God and money.” The practice of worry is replaced in the Christian’s life by the earnest search of God’s Kingdom and righteousness.
The way that Jesus constructs this part of the sermon suggests that avoiding worry is not, first and foremost, about controlling our emotions. It is about being a particular kind of person. It is about possessing a particular identity. It is about investing in a particular kind of life.
What kind of person does not worry, particularly about things that he or she cannot control (like the future)? The kind of person who knows deep down in her or his bones that serving God is fundamentally incompatible with the pursuit of wealth, status, pleasure, power, or other worldly priorities. These things are not bad in and of themselves. Indeed, they are good gifts of God. But, too often, we as humans make them the highest priority. We In so doing, we make them into idols. Whether we know it or now, we worship them. We may think that they are serving us, but in truth we are serving them.
It is worth reiterating that wealth, pleasure, public respect, and even power are important elements of a well-ordered life. They contribute to our happiness as corporeal and social creatures, and—as Jesus himself points out—God knows that we need them. Nevertheless, we live in a fallen world, and we live as fallen creatures. As such, we often do not have enough of the things that we need. God knows that, too. If, however, we allow these deprivations to rule our lives, we become enslaved to whim. Worry is the emotional outworking of that enslavement.
I do not write these words from some ivory tower, divorced from a realistic experience of the pain and uncertainty that saturates our world. Just yesterday, I had a good, old-fashioned fight with God about these very issues. (In case you are wondering, yes, I lost the fight—again!) But the light of a new day, and a fresh encounter with God’s Word, has helped me see my own worries for what they really are. I am right there with you, flirting with idolatry more than I am willing to admit. But it doesn’t do me any good. It only fills my heart with angst over the future and anger over God’s apparent ambivalence to my prayers. So, I’ll try again to walk away from my worries, trusting that God really is good and really does care about my well-being.
Join the Conversation
These are just some of my observations about Matthew 6:19-34. Share your own observations in the “Comments” section below. Tell us how you manage worry, how you implement Kingdom priorities in the various facets of your life, and how you monitor your perceptions to ensure that they conform to a genuinely God-centered identity.