We tackled that ever challenging text in Matthew 6 where Jesus tells us we can’t serve two masters. Audio below and text after the jump.
We’ve talked before about what a realist Jesus is. This passage is a prime example of that. Anxiety. How real it is! Who doesn’t struggle with it at least somewhat? In Bible study, our attention immediately gravitated to this part of the text, and we spontaneously began listing all of the things we’re anxious about.
Anxiety, at its core, is a search for security, or a flailing about when we can’t find security. And Jesus seeks to set us free from it.
He seeks to give us freedom from anxiety, no more worry, beauty and provision like only the birds of the air and the lilies of the field know. It sounds like an ad for an anti-anxiety med, doesn’t it?
Jesus isn’t selling anything, though. In fact, as is often the case, the road to freedom is paved with hard truth. We are anxious because we look for security in the wrong places. We look to things that let us down. In fact, says Jesus there is only One who can give true security, and as long as we chase after security in other forms, we’re going to be slaves of anxiety.
Jesus doesn’t hesitate to name the thing we often turn to seeking security: the translation in our bulletins uses the word wealth, but the older word in other translations, is Mammon. It’s the derivative of a greek word that meant wealth, or money, or just plain accumulation. One modern commentator uses the word Gain. I like that choice because, in addition to making the sentence alliterative, it points to both the material and nonmaterial things we try to accumulate in order to secure our futures—money, yes, but also praise, and acclaim, and consumer products, and clothes, and attention, and status, all of it seduces us. We imagine that if we can just get a little bit more we’ll have enough.
I somewhat like just using the old, obscure, mysterious word Mammon. It gives a gut-level sense that all this has power over us. Using the word Mammon reminds me that money might not be merely a tool, value-neutral and important only in its use, but that it might claim my loyalty and affections more deeply than I realize.
Regardless of the word we choose, did you notice what Jesus said? He didn’t say you shouldn’t worship God and gain. He didn’t make a moral statement. He made a truth claim. He said we can’t. As in, you can’t turn right and left. It’s one or the other. That’s just how our hearts work. We can’t love two gods.
Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it for us. It’s a choice, he says. You can serve Gain and always be running to catch up, always feel like you don’t have enough, aren’t good enough, haven’t done enough—in short, be anxious. Or you can serve God and be set free.
But even if we want to abandon gain and serve God, it’s really hard, isn’t it? We get caught up in other patterns, old habits. We look for security in other places, the anxiety creeps in, and before we know it we’re full-speed ahead chasing after things that don’t yield life.
So. What are we to do?
As always when it comes to following more faithfully, we ask for God’s help. We trust in the power of grace to do more in us than we can do on our own.
And we practice. We’re not going to get it all right. We’re not going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t life along the way. And so, we practice trusting God.
Our text offers at least three potential ways to do this.
One is right there in the beautiful passage about the birds and flowers. Look, Jesus says. Look at the birds of the air. Look at the flowers in the field. There’s tremendous power in that verb. I think it points us in the direction of more than mere sight. I think it calls us into the practice of contemplative prayer.
This can take a lot of different forms, but perhaps one of the simplest is to take five, or ten, or forty-five minutes and simply look at some part of God’s good earth—the birds flying over the water, the rain falling, the brilliantly colored leaves. Look, listen, let your breath come in and out, let the pounding in your head and your heart slow. You don’t have to think anything in particular, just attend to whatever is right in front of you.
It sounds almost stupidly simple, doesn’t it? Just look at the leaves and you’ll be free from this anxious searching for security. But contemplative prayer of this sort can do wonders for our souls when they’re trapped by anxiety. When we look, really look, at the freedom of the birds, or the beauty of leaves clothed in the bright colors of dying, we can catch a glimpse of what the world of God’s providence looks like. We can, for a moment, share that freedom, taste the beauty, rest in single-hearted devotion.
I don’t know that I’m explaining it well at all, but that’s probably as it should be. Practices are meant to be done, not explained. In the doing we learn what we need to know. So. When we are beset by anxiety, when we long to trust God but don’t know how, there is more value than we might guess in simply looking at the creatures of God.
A second, related practice, is given in those strange verses about the eye being the lamp of the body. They’re a little hard to follow, aren’t they? I think what they point at is that what we look at, what we give our attention to, has power—which is incredibly pertinent in our overwhelmingly visual society. There’s no faster way for me to want to accumulate a lot of stuff than going window shopping at the mall or browsing style blogs with lots of pictures.
What we gaze upon shapes our desires, our love. And so, as we seek to love God first, we might want to pay attention to what we’re looking at—whether it’s commercials or magazines or the cool kids in school. What if, instead of gazing at those things, we spent time feasting our eyes on what God has already given us. What if we searched for God’s presence in people society calls ugly, either because of their physical appearance or because of their economic condition? Might it change our hearts in the process? Could it help us love God who is present in so much that cannot be bought or sold?
And then, the final practice, as we work our way backward through this passage: Jesus tells us to store up treasures in heaven. Which is an awfully abstract concept. What does that look like? One clue comes later in the book of Matthew, in chapter 19 when a rich young man comes to Jesus looking for life. Jesus tells him to give away what he owns to the poor and then he will have treasure in heaven. To store up treasure in heaven, then, we have to loosen our grip on the treasures here.
I think more than any other practice this gets at the root of our search for security. That’s what so much of our accumulation is about, isn’t it? If I just earned a little bit more, then I’d be secure. If people thought just a little bit more of me, then I’d be safe. If we just had this, or that, we wouldn’t have to worry. The problem is, Jesus-the-realist reminds us, it’s a losing game. All this treasure—whether it be money or human praise or just stuff—is subject to decay. None of it can give us true safety. The only solid ground, the only true security, Jesus says, is with the Lord of Life.
We might know that in our heads, but it’s so hard to really trust that on a gut level. We always want to hedge our bets, don’t we? But, Jesus reminds us, it’s not a game where we can play both sides.
How can we get free of this inclination to try to store up security by accumulating more and more and more? Jesus’ advice is to give some of what we think is treasure away, and see if we find life in the process.
I ran across a great illustration this week from one of my favorite college professors.*
It’s like holding your breath in an effort to hold onto the life carried in that breath. The problem here is obvious, isn’t it? When held, that life turns to death as our body steadily converts oxygen to carbon dioxide which poisons us. Our breath is only life when it is exhaled, given away, so that we are free to receive our next breath.
So, too, with stuff. If we hold tight, hoping against hope that it will be a source of security, it will poison our souls. But if we give it away, practicing, bit by bit, week by week, little by little, Jesus says we will come to know life.
This is a big reason why I, personally, give. It’s a spiritual practice. I like having stuff, nice stuff, and some parts of me believe that I can insure my future if I have enough money. Tithing, for me, is a reminder, every two weeks, that true life comes not in what I earn in dollars, but from God. Truth be told, some weeks I resent the reminder. I have other things I’d like to spend my money on. And sometimes I get off track, for sure. But I try to stay faithful because I need the reminder. I need the practice of storing up treasures somewhere other than in my bank account.
To put it in terms of consecration, as we’ve been talking about these last five weeks—giving away a portion of what we have can change all that we have. Just like setting aside some of our time, say, this hour right now for worship can affect how our whole week flows, so too with money.
The amount, or percentage, will be different for each of us. The way we practice this alternate allegiance will vary. Jesus asked some people to give away everything they owned. Others he asked to give away a half, or a quarter. Others it seems he simply asked for their hospitality. For most of us today, a faithful relationship with money will continue to include a savings account here on earth, maybe a mortgage, maybe a retirement account.
What Jesus counsels, though, is that we are fooling ourselves if we think that those things, our savings and equity and retirement accounts are security. True security comes only from God. To believe anything else is to enslave ourselves to never-ending anxiety.
The good news is that we are not ultimately citizens of this world where moths and rust consume and thieves break in to steal. We don’t have to place our trust in just what we can store up. We have the choice to place our trust in the good and powerful giver of life.
And when we do, little by little, day by day, practice by practice, we find peace deeper than our understanding.
It doesn’t make all things perfect. There will still be months where there are more days than money. We will still face sadness and hardship, loss and death. Remember? We follow the crucified one—the one who entered fully into the suffering of this mortal life. And if we are to follow, we too will have to face hard days.
But. But we do so with a peace that passes understanding and a hope that is stronger than the grave, because, what we have met in Christ is life that endures, life that is stronger and more true than the decay of this world. What we find in the presence of the Holy Spirit is life that disbelieves the claims of this world and instead stakes itself on the one true foundation—the Love that created this world, the Giver of Life.
Jesus calls us to step away from all the other gods the world offers, and to step into reality, to step into the kingdom of God—here, now, in our midst. We answer, step by step, day by day, staking our lives on the One who created, who redeems, and who even now sustains us. This is the solid rock on which we stand. Thanks be to God.* Stephen P. Boyd, Feasting on the Word, vol A.3. pg. 70.
by Sarah W. Wiles November 13, 2011 Bethany Presbyterian Church Tacoma, WA