“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. “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? 26Look 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? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But 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? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
It would seem this passage has two very distinct parts. There is v. 24 which is an explicit call to worship God not wealth (mammon), and then there is vv. 25-34 which touches on a number of topics but seems to focus on ultimate trust in God and putting money in its correct position. However, if we look closely, we see that vv. 25-34 provides a commentary to v. 24 and, set within the context of Jesus’ ongoing sermon on the mount, continues to proclaim the radical message of God’s Kingdom come.
Society in 1st century Palestine could not be more different than 21st century America. Aside from obvious things like geography and language, 1st century Palestine had a completely different economic system, socio-economic landscape, and what we might call “shared cultural values.” In short, they operated largely on a barter/trade system rather than a capitalist system and there were clear and accepted divisions among socio-economic groups without much hope of moving. All of this was unofficially governed by a mutually held cultural ideal of honor and shame. In other words, a person’s word meant everything (honor) and if you lied you were subject to deep ridicule on a level we might think is overly harsh (shame).
There was one particular aspect in which people in biblical times were very similar to us living 2,000 years later and it has to do with money. You see, in their time like ours, the thinking was that having more money would mean less problems. This is a universal human fallacy echoing the hubris that led to the original fall. We think that if we can hoard all of our money and toys, that we will be happy; and not only that, but find fulfillment and meaning. We’d like to say money doesn’t rule as our master, but to many times it does. We’d like to give to the poor more but we cannot because we need so much stuff ourselves. We have created the cruel irony of working 2nd jobs and overtime instead of sending more time with our kids so that we can buy them more stuff that we won’t have time for! For those 2,000 years ago and for us, the problem arises in what we have to sacrifice to obtain that “stuff.” In the face of these errant fantasies, Jesus reminds us that we cannot simultaneously serve the two masters of God and wealth (mammon). We cannot render undivided service to both “mammon” and God and the scriptures are clear to which Jesus calls those who would be called disciples. Christian discipleship is not a dualistic venture but a call for our entire selves (not part of it) to be devoted to God and God’s causes.
It is with this understanding, that Jesus then calls us to the radical (radical is a good Sermon on the Mount word) understanding of God’s sovereignty and our trust in it. We are invited to look at something as simple as the lilies of the fields and birds in the air and note that since God cares for them, he certainly cares for us. However, using “the lilies in the fields” and “birds of the air” as metaphors should not mean to us that we should all quit our jobs and be lazy under the banner of “trust that God will provide for us.” Read 2 Thessalonians 3 and see how that worked out for them! If that was how we should understand this passage, my first question would be, “What about all the lilies of the field and the birds of the air along with human beings around the world that die from drought and starvation every year? Why didn’t God provide for them? It would be a severe offense to the scripture to assume that people who annually die from natural disasters did so because 1) they didn’t trust in God and 2) God didn’t care for them. Given that this passage is within the context of passages about the correct way to view money and material possessions, the proper understanding of this passage has to do with how we prioritize money and other material things. As one commentator writes, “We assess its usefulness in relation to other and more serious matters such as the plight of the poor and marginalized.” So it’s not that we shouldn’t have money – just that we shouldn’t worship it. Use it for what it is and do not idolize it. Giving it away is not as hard when you realize it isn’t your to begin with.
It is interesting that after some verses about not worshipping money there is a passage about not worrying. To many times in our lives our worries and anxieties are based on and around money; something, as we have just learned, we are not supposed to worship. Jesus’ words about not worrying are much easier to hear when we have quit worshipping mammon and begun to worship God. More mammon. More problems.
Blessings for the journey,