When Jesus tells us something, it is never just some kind of Hallmark Card moment. It is never just pretty words with a soft focus picture. If Jesus says it, it’s because he means it. In the Sermon on the Mount is a famous promise. Jesus says that God feeds the birds and he clothes the grass. Jesus then draws a conclusion that confronts materialism head on. He says if I pursue the righteousness of God as my first priority, then I will receive the food and clothing that God knows I need.
Why would Jesus make a promise like that? Can I really believe it?
This is the second of several posts about God’s promises. Look at the first section here for a discussion of why anybody (even God) makes promises. Read the part titled God makes promises for the same reason you make promises.
There’s a lot going on in this promise – more than you might think…
Here is the entire passage:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or 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 in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil. Matthew 6:25-34
First of all, look at the examples Jesus uses. Birds. What do they do all day? They fly around eating everything they can find. When you get down to it, it’s almost all a bird does. Or flowers and grass. Just about all day they are busy with photosynthesis and whatever biochemical mystery turns dirt into leaves. If a bird reads Matthew 6 about God feeding him, and based on that verse decides to sit on a branch waiting for God to have some takeout delivered to him… well, that bird starves. Not because God welched on the promise, but because the bird did not play his part.
Jesus speaks of creatures who play their proper part in God’s creation. God plays his part, too, and his part involves feeding birds and clothing grass. There is cooperation between creature and Creator.
Second, Jesus says we are “more important” than birds and plants. We are more important because we resemble God in ways a bird or a plant does not. We are in God’s image. That means the part we play in creation differs from the part the plants and birds play. Yet, within this creation God will give us what he knows we need as creatures, provided we play our part.
Third, our proper part in creation is to pursue God. Birds get their nourishment from bugs and seed and carrion. Because I am a spiritual creature (as well as a physical one), I get part of my nourishment, the spiritual part, from God himself. If I will pursue God, if I will hunger for God and play my part to satisfy that hunger, God will do two things for me. First, he will allow me to find him, even to possess him. Second, he will tend to my physical needs.
And last, don’t be a pig. St. Timothy was St. Paul’s delegate to various places that Paul couldn’t visit personally. This is part of what Paul told Timothy to teach:
[R]eligion with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. I Timothy 6:6-8
Doesn’t that fit things together nicely? Paul tells us to be content with food and clothing, and that is precisely what Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
The part a lot of us don’t like is that last part about contentment
A fellow in Tulsa one time told me that he had more money than Donald Trump. His explanation? “I have all the money I want.” That’s a deeply Christian attitude, especially since this fellow was by no means rich.
Most people who read this post are probably middle-class Westerners. The Western media tell us consistently and repeatedly that the drive to possess physical things is not only natural, it is laudable, it is worthy of praise and something we all ought to encourage. We are told over and over again that to support the economy we should consume. That the basis of the economy is our consumption. Good grief – look at what we call ourselves. Consumers! As if our purpose is to consume.
Bacteria consume. A human’s aim should be higher than that!
And even Christians can succumb to the enchantment of owning physical things. A bigger car, a better address, a big enough retirement fund that we don’t need to depend on anything else for our security, clothes that reflect to strangers our refinement and economic success. As Christians, we are permitted to have these things, but we are forbidden to love them or use them to define our lives. We are forbidden to make these things our first priority.
Jesus says our first priority is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” This simply means that I must imitate God, which Jesus also explained in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 5 starting at verse 21. Here’s a summary
- Do not hate. Don’t live your life in anger.
- Do everything in your power to be reconciled (to live in peace) with people around you.
- Don’t have sex outside marriage and don’t fill your mind with sexual thought.
- If there are aspects of your life that cause you to sin, then get rid of them.
- Keep your marriage vows.
- Keep your promises.
- Do not take revenge.
- Respond to violence and injustice with non-violence.
- Love everybody.
Do these things – do them because of a total commitment to Jesus – add to these things the qualities Jesus lists in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5, the beginning of the chapter). And you are pursuing the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Jesus hits me between the eyes with this promise!
Look at the promise the wrong way and it could seem like what is happening is this – Jesus says I should give my life to God and what I get in return is food and clothing. Which is not all that exciting if I look at it that way, if it looks like the trade is bare necessities in return for my entire life. But the fact is, I get more. I get life itself, I get life in such abundance that existence is on a wholly different level (John 10:7ff). I get God himself and Jesus and the holy Spirit. I get life in heaven with them and the saints forever (John14:23 and Revelation 22:1-5). God freely gives everything he has if I will freely choose to love and obey him.
But here’s why he makes the promise about food and clothing, a promise that can seem to us in the Western middle class something so modest and even negligible. This modest promise simultaneously removes any excuse for not following him because I fear I would starve and at the same time it confronts me with the stark choice of whether I prefer to pursue physical possessions rather than God. This promise of God reveals me to myself, it shines a disturbing light on whether I love God or whether I love physical possessions. Here’s how Jesus puts it.
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth destroys, and where thieves do not break in and steal… No one can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches. Matthew 6:19-24
Jesus isn’t playing. He died so I can have the chance to gain God. He did not die so I can spend my life pursuing houses and Buicks and designer labels.
This promise of food and clothing is a dead-serious promise that forces me confront my own appetite for God.
God knows I have physical needs.
He promises to meet my physical needs, if I seek his kingdom and his righteousness.
If the promise is taken seriously, it reveals to me my own priorities.
NOTE: My next post will discuss how this promise can be understood when Christians die in famines. If there’s a famine and a Christian dies, has God broken his promise?