Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
“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? Look 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? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But 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? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:25-34 – NRSV)
Luke has a similar text – see 12:22-31.
Matthew’s text is part of the section of his Gospel known as The Sermon on the Mount – see 5:1 – 7:29.
The general tone of The Sermon on the Mount is set by its opening verses – 5:1-12 – known as The Beatitudes.
Do not worry about your life: The English word “life” here in the NRSV, translates the Greek word psyche. This is a common translation of the Greek word which can also mean “soul” or “spirit”. The unity of the body-person is central to Hebrew and early Christian thinking in a way that is often not appreciated by contemporary writers. We must be aware of this when we read translations of the Bible as Aelred Squire reminds u: “With a subtlety that does no less justice to the body’s complexity, the great seventh-century master, Maximus the Confessor, thinks of the soul as endlessly transmigrating into the body, and the body endlessly transmigrating into the soul. For the body simply as an idea or an abstraction the Bible equally has no place. With the vitality of the living whole the Hebrew of the Old Testament is so impressed that it had no proper word for the body, except when it is a corpse, something which is empty or hollow. It is what is left when the life is gone. When I am alive, my body is quite properly me, or, as Wheeler Robinson says, ‘the Hebrew idea of personality is an animated body, and not an incarnate soul’. The situation for the New Testament in general, and in particular for St Paul, is more developed and presents the greatest difficulties for the translator, as those who have to depend on translations have to be aware. Contrary to the impression that many people form on the basis of translations alone, St Paul has the very greatest respect for the body as essential to man’s dignity. In order to grasp this point it is necessary to appreciate his use of the word ‘flesh’, which is not equal to that of the body, as his list of ‘sins of the flesh’ makes clear enough, including as it does things like idolatry, jealousy and strife – see Galatians 5:19-21. For him, the essential contrast between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ is not straightforward one as between something material and something spiritual. St Paul’s ‘flesh’ is not a physical substance such as one can cut with a knife. When in his Letter to the Romans St Paul says that ‘the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God’, and that ‘those who are in the flesh cannot please God’, the contrast makes it evident that he does not mean that those who still lead a bodily life are necessarily hostile to God. The kind of fleshiness of which he is speaking is plainly what we would call a state of mind. By changing one’s state of mind one could be ‘in the spirit’. …. This the New Testament leaves us with our attention focused on man as a vital whole, in whom body and spirit interpenetrate. The true sense of this elusive complexity, in which nothing is a matter of indifference, is one to which the great teachers must constantly help us to return. Without it the very conception of fasting and mortification as a part of Christian training, or indeed of any sane human living, is virtually unintelligible” (Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers: The Art of Meditation and Prayer, SPCK, 1973, 53-54).
Gentiles: The Greek word used by Matthew is ethnē. It is a general term for “nations” or even “people” and is employed in the Bible to refer to those who are not Jews. Given that the Jews believed themselves to be God’s chosen people, it is not surprising to find the term used in a more or less pejorative way. It is also not surprising to discover that the concept of God’s choice extending to the “nations” was a difficult concept for the first Jewish Christians to comprehend. St Paul describes himself more than once as “an apostle to the Gentiles” (e.g. Romans 11:13).
his righteousness: This is a critical concept in Matthew. We have already seen it appear twice in The Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (5:6) ….. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10). It appears again a few lines later in 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”.
Today’s Gospel – Matthew 6:25-34 – seems like a call to mobilize our willpower and strive not to worry. That would be a formula for worry! Add Jesus’ authority and the worry will be intensified by false guilt. This text needs careful interpretation.
A key to the interpretation is found near the end: “Strive first for the kingdom of God”. Focus on God, not yourself. God is everywhere. In all people, events and things. The kingdom is the state of being where God’s presence is acknowledged, welcomed and allowed to completely shape our lives. That is “the Good news of the kingdom” proclaimed by Jesus – see Matthew 4:23. It is not an imperative to set about a moral program but rather an invitation to allow God to love us into freedom. The moral life flows from – and can only flow from – that freedom that is the gift of God’s love. One particular manifestation of this is the disposition that increasingly trusts God and therefore does not “worry”. This is grace!
There are some people who have shown extraordinary commitment in allowing God to love them into freedom. Over time they develop more and more a God-shaped life. They are many in number. Some, like Mary MacKillop, have been formally acknowledged by the Church. We celebrate and remember these people. The celebrating and the remembering can inspire us to the necessary work that, slowly but surely, enables the letting go that allows the Good News of the kingdom to take hold in our hearts.
The commitment, endurance and generous sacrifice Mary MacKillop and so many of her sisters have exhibited over the past 150 years, reminds us of both the work that must be done and the manner of that work. It is a gradual, shifting centre of gravity, from self towards God, from control towards letting go, from me-and-my-efforts towards God-and God’s-unmerited gift, from wilful effort towards graced emergence.
The God-shaped life – which is also paradoxically but pre-eminently a this-world-life – will be manifest in our capacity to live in the present moment. Thus, Mary MacKillop writes: “Do all you can with the means at your disposal and calmly leave the rest to God”. St Teresa of Avila shows the same God-shaped disposition. The following reflection was found in Teresa’s prayer book after her death: “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. All things pass away. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Those who have God find they lack nothing. God alone suffices”.
If you want to be someone like Mary and Teresa, seek to know God in all things, everywhere, at all times. God comes to us as the truth of our experience, as the kindness of a neighbour, the challenge in our moments of pain and frustration and disappointment, as the tedium of repetitive tasks, as the joy in a child’s presence, as the delight of the embrace of your beloved. “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”.