How we look at something going in will often determine our experience as we go through it. Growing up, my parents always talked positively about school. When I started kindergarten I expected that it would be a positive experience – and it was. The expectation continued throughout my school years. When I started music lessons or sports teams, my parents gently coached me ahead of time. They cautioned that it would take a lot of work over a long time to become good (be it violin, piano, swimming, soccer or baseball). They emphasized other positive aspects of the activity if they suspected that I might not be ‘a natural’ (I wasn’t in sports, I did alright in music). As a result, while I still had unrealistically high hopes, I was able to persevere and enjoy the overall experience even when I was clearly not the best midfielder, shortstop, freestyler. In his introduction to the Kingdom of Heaven, Matthew records several cautions throughout the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ designed to help give his readers a proper perspective as they look upon the dawn of a New Age. We’ve looked at some of these cautions already (the expectation of persecution, for example, at the end of the Beatitudes). But here we find two sets of instruction that help re-direct our perspective on the practical concerns of life and the character God.
Perspectives on the Practical Concerns of Life (Worry): The end of ch 6 relates Jesus’ famous teaching on worry. Most seem to recognize the “Wisdom Literature” approach to this teaching, especially in light of the number of Proverbs that relate the importance of planning, saving, hard work. Clearly (hopefully), Jesus is not negating his own Scriptures here – although one might well see an implied criticism of the hyper-valuation of work in America’s famous Protestant work ethic, just a thought… What should be clear, though, is a correction to the constant hopelessness and worry that SHOULD NOT mark those who in theory are placing their trust in the God of all Creation – a God who is truly crazy about them, and generously cares for that which is His. Also note that the passage also follows naturally from elements of Jesus’ earlier teaching on prayer (give us this day…) coupled with a warning against verbally twisting God’s arm with our prayerful arguments and abundance of words.
What might not be so obvious is the real tie of this passage as it relates to the overall theme of this sermon – an announcement of the Kingdom of Heaven. The temptation to worry about the things of life is common enough in the world – which Jesus himself clearly acknowledges (vs 32). However, Jesus’ primary concern in relating this passage is to be found in vs 33 & 34. These passages tie into the concerns found at the end of the Beatitudes and the discourse on salt & light (back in ch 5) where Jesus indicates the reality of hardship for citizens of the new Kingdom of Heaven (that exists concurrently with the kingdoms of the world – whenever two kingdoms simultaneously exist in close proximity, a clash is inevitable). What Jesus seems to be saying is something like: Trying to earn a living as a citizen of this new Kingdom while living within reach of the old (and concurrent) kingdom may tempt one to hide one’s new allegiance in order to blend in and not ‘lose out’ on what one has; don’t give in to this temptation. Even though you live in constant interaction with the world’s passing kingdom (which at times can present you with danger and uncertainty), pursue the interests and agendas of the Kingdom of Heaven and trust that the Lord of your New Kingdom is able to take care of his own – including you.
Perspectives on the Character of God: I want to jump down a few verses to 7:7-11 which forms a thematic parallel to the passage on worry at the end of ch 6. Perhaps the greatest reason one might succumb to worry revolves around a single issue – the misinformation we believe about God. From the days of Eden to the present, it seems God suffers from a bit of a PR problem. People are convinced that He is capricious, distant, and more than a little stingy. This passage reasserts what is emphasized in Eden about God – all the plants in the garden … rather than did God really say not to eat of any … God can be found by those who seek, He gives to those who ask and welcomes all who knock. Moreover, He doesn’t engage in the old ‘bait and switch.’ He doesn’t answer our prayers with something bad, just to teach us a lesson (God certainly can instruct us through the difficulties of life, but that’s NOT what’s in view here). As this teaching also takes the form of wisdom instruction, one should not expect that EVERY prayer will be answered EXACTLY as we want WHENEVER it is we want it – it is simply a corrected view of God’s character, the abundantly generous God who views us as His beloved children.
While vs 12 is part of the other thematic parallel in view of this section, it bears noting here. Not only does the verse tie this portion of the sermon to the initial discussion of law, righteousness, and Pharisees back in ch 5 (I did not come to abolish…), I think it’s also a subtle reference to God’s purpose for mankind in the great realm of His Creation. As mentioned above, much of the overall passage here corrects the accusation made against God – much as Gen 1:29 (I now give you every seed-bearing plant… NET) and Gen 2:16 (You may freely eat fruit from every tree… NET) should establish God’s character as generous against the serpent’s questioning of His character (Is it really true that God said ‘You must not eat fruit from any tree’… NET). Verse 12 serves as a subtle reminder by tying into the same story – Gen 1:26 (Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, NET. If the Kingdom of Heaven is about re-establishing the place of humankind as God’s image-bearers in His creation, then those who become citizens of this Kingdom are to act like God toward ALL other people and whatever portion of His Creation they engage. They are to be generous, accessible, welcoming, kind, and purveyors of life as representatives of God Himself to both those within and outside of the new kingdom.
There’s enough here to chew on for now. Next time we’ll look at the other thematic parallel in this section – Judging and the Narrow Gate.
– Pastor Jim Kushner