In some Bibles the spoken words of Jesus are in red. In the nine weeks that I have been taking services here, we have not moved from the red words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. We have been consistent in reading the whole of the passage week by week.
However today we jump a bit and skip some significant pieces that are helpful in understanding context. After Jesus has told people just who they are, as blessed children of God, he went on to empowered them to fight differently against the systems of the world they keep bumping up against.
In the piece we missed he goes on to warn about displaying ones piety before others. In other words, don’t go showing off how wonderful you think your prayers are, they are probably not, and God is not particularly interested in fancy prayers anyway. Then Jesus taught his disciples how to pray in what we now know as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus went on to remind folks that they are to fast and asks them to examine where their treasures lie.
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If we let our minds wander it is easy to fantasize about who we will be when we grow up, or what we will do when we win the lottery. Jesus reminds us to keep it real, and remember that what we think our hearts hanker for, will not be what ultimately satisfies us. This brings us to today’s reading, read by Karen.
We cannot serve God and wealth, we are also told that we cannot serve God and the Emperor even if an Emperor claims to be our benefactor. Stanley Hauerwas has written a fascinating commentary on the book of Matthew, so that is why he is often quoted. He ties the instruction about fasting with who we serve, he says that “fasting involves the discovery of who we serve.” It is not a dismal thing to be endured, and not something that we just do in Lent, we are to use it as a spiritual tool which can become a way of life and bring us joy. It helps to show us the gifts we have, the things we seem to depend on to make life liveable, and reminds us that we can actually live without the things we think we can’t live without.
Jesus is very clear that wealth is a problem, in our capitalist society, we cannot help but be surrounded by wealth, it is the soup that we swim in, and most of us in this room have no experience of the rest of the world’s poverty. Alasdair MacIntyre suggests that riches, from a biblical perspective are an affliction, virtually an insurmountable obstacle to entering the kingdom of heaven. He says that Capitalism is bad for those who succeed by its standards and those who fail by them, and if there are those out there who have recognised this and seek something else they will always be up against political and economical authorities. So who are you going to serve, who do you recognise as your master in this society?
In the rest of the passage, all of the teachings about the birds of the air not needing to store goods, not worrying about your fashion sense, and what designer is in your wardrobe are all expanded teachings on the prayer that has just been taught. We are to live not asking more than our daily bread. This echoes back to the manna in the wilderness, where there was only ever enough to eat for the day, apart for the Sabbath day where there was enough to gather for two days. Any more that was gathered and stored turned to maggots and was unusable.
Following human wisdom will not do us any good, worrying what we have or don’t have, will not add a moment to our lives, if anything worrying can diminish our lives. The conventional wisdom was that if you have these wonderful things, God is obviously blessing you and you will live long and prosper. Hauwerwas says we are possessed by possessions and we soon discover that we cannot will ourselves to be free from them. Instead what we could do is free our attention to see around us that which is true, that which is beautiful, and in doing so become dispossessed of the need to achieve while seeking what we already have in the kingdom of heaven.
We are being invited to live into a community of trust, one that is not removed from the knowledge of the presence of God in everything that we are and do. Just as all the red words of Jesus cannot be removed from the person of who Jesus is. It is Jesus alone who has the ability to dispossess us from our stuff, because Jesus re-creates all the time.
Making the statement about not worrying about tomorrow is more than just a glib comment about being a bit more carefree in life. It is about allowing Jesus to continue the creation process in each of us, every day. This lack of worry, is brought up in Paul’s letter to Corinth, Paul is not worried about being judged by you or by any human court, he knows that it is only God who can and will judge him. Paul lives with the understanding of grace, and of the abundant love of God, Jesus is the ultimate gift of abundant love.
All that is in creation is the demonstration of abundance, which is why storing up stuff does not come from an understanding of abundance, it comes from a position of scarcity. Which is again why the birds don’t build storehouses, they have enough and know that there will be enough for tomorrow. Samuel Wells, the Dean of Duke University Chapel says that “humanity does not have the imagination to take in all that God has to offer,” he goes on “God’s inexhaustable creation, limitless grace, relentless mercy, enduring purpose, fathomless love; is too much to contemplate, assimilate, understand. This is the language of abundance” and we don’t understand it.
To think what our lives would be like if we actually lived into that understanding. There would be no starving in Africa, because we would know how to share, and not be frightened to share. We would know how to care for our neighbours, because we would know that we are cared for and there is enough. It is abundance that is the mark of the kingdom, through trust in God and God’s provision we can trust each other in community to be the example of grace, abundance, mercy, and love to those around us. Jesus came to give us life in abundance, what we have to do is believe it and live into it.