Anxious or Trusting: whom do you serve?

Mt-6-24-wordwordle-cCommentary  Matthew 6:24–34 can be understood as an interweaving of commands against anxiety and materialism with commands to believe that God will meet one’s material needs. Given the recurring theme of daily sustenance throughout all of this chapter of Matthew (6:8b, 11, 25, 31) one easily recalls the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us today our daily bread” (v.11) – but is there a particular context for Matthew’s community which heightens even the daily dependence upon God? The majority of scholars places Matthew’s community in the period after the destruction of Jerusalem/the Temple when rabbinic Judaism was seeking to assert it leadership upon the standard of orthodoxy. What is less clear is the degree to which this emerging Judaic orthodoxy considered the nascent Christianity as separatist and heretics (cf. Birkath ha-Minim). Assuming the local synagogue was hostile to the Matthew’s community, that would imply a separation from the community within which the Jewish-Christians has lived – socially and economically. To suddenly be separated (if that was what happened) then the anxiety levels about “daily bread” would have been heightened. Perhaps that lays in the background of the five-fold use of merimnaō (worry, be anxious) in our passage.

Choose God  “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

The word serve (douleúō) always implies compulsory service and thus the practice of slavery or indentured servitude is the background for the statement (cf. Luke 16:13). Jesus’ point is simple: a slave/servant cannot successfully and wholeheartedly serve two masters, since slavery demands the total, undivided attention of the slave to the master. If there are two masters, their demands will be incompatible. Similarly, Jesus’ disciples cannot divide their loyalties between the reign of God and earthly treasures – one must choose.

That choice does not mean an active dislike of the one not chosen. Jesus employs a Semitic idiom opposites (hate…love…devoted…despise) whose point is to have undivided loyalties. When a person chooses God and God’s reign, that does not mean the alternative is evil and to be hated. In Jesus’ exhortation the rival to God is mammon – an Aramaic expression which simply means possessions. One can reasonably ask why Matthew does not simply use the Greek ousia = (property, money, wealth)? Perhaps it was to echo the Palestinian Targums to Deuteronomy 6:5, ‘You shall love Yahweh your God with … all your mammon’. With this as a background, a Christian need not avoid possessions, but they must avoid materialism as an idolatrous rival to the one true God. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul points out that in this text, Jesus personifies mammon “as a sort of god,” a force that is competing with God for our souls. Ellul suggests that Jesus’ choice of words “reveals something exceptional about money, for Jesus did not usually use deifications and personifications. What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power.” Something all too clear in our own day. Wealth, money, can become one’s master/lord – a breaking of the first commandment. Perhaps “MasterCard” is more prophetic with its name than they intended.

Certainly Francis of Assisi comes to mind as someone who shunned wealth and possessions in order to devoted himself wholeheartedly to God. He stands in contrast to many TV evangelists who offer a “prosperity gospel,” a kind of Christian materialism – one that assures people that God blessings are material blessings of wealth and security. But St Francis does not stand alone – many leaders in past revival movements have warned that Christians ought not to pray for conversion if they want to hold on to their money, because we cannot have both. For John Wesley, defying material prosperity was part of holiness, a movement to God away from the things the world valued. He warned that riches would increase believers’ conformity to the world and attacked those who preached in favor of the accumulation of wealth. Wesley chose to live as simply as possible so as to give all else to the poor, and called on his followers to do the same. In contrast to most contemporary Western Christians, Wesley felt that “stewardship means giving to the poor. . . . We give to God not by giving to the church, but by giving to the poor”. If one did not give all one could, Wesley taught, one was in disobedience to Jesus’ teaching and would end up lost.

What! Me Worry? Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had talked about treasures on earth (6:19). In all truth, we not only have possessions, we protect them, we even buy them their own houses (storage units). We lock our doors and windows; many families have sophisticated alarm systems to protect ourselves and our treasures. We put our money in banks. We have insurance policies on our treasures so that we can replace them. We are an anxious people.

And it is not only people with possessions. People can be anxious about what they do not have.

Merimnaō (‘to be anxious’) refers essentially to a state of mind wherein the conflict with faith arises. Worry is the antithesis of a practical trust in God – which is the meaning of faith (pistis) in Matthew’s gospel (cf. 8:10; 9:2, 22, 29; 15:28, 17:20; 21:21). Those who worry show their “lack of faith.” Matthew only uses merimnaō two other times: in 13:22 the thorns which choke the good seed represent the “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches”, while in 10:19 disciples being handed over are told not to worry as God will provide (the words they are to say).

Yet the life of a first century itinerant preacher and his disciples is somewhat distant from modern life with 9-to-5 jobs and mortgages. The concern for tomorrow – condemned in v.34 – is firmly built into our commercial and economic structures, and even with the NT we find harsh words for those who do not make appropriate provisions: “And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8). But sensible provision and worry are not the same thing. The focus of our gospel passage is on faith and its opposite rather than on the specifics of economic planning – it is worry about tomorrow, not provisioning for tomorrow which v.34 condemns. To forbid ‘anxiety’ does not rule out a responsible concern and provision for one’s own and others’ material needs, nor does Jesus here forbid us to work (see tomorrow). As before, the concern is with losing one’s priorities

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