“You cannot serve God and wealth.” Matthew 6:24
Jesus would have worried the people listening to him. Like most of us they will have been hard working people; like most of us, they will feel that they deserved what they had; like most of us, they would probably have been happy to have had a bit more money than they had. Jesus tells them that they should not think in this way, that they cannot serve God if they are preoccupied with material things. Then Jesus explains why they should not be worried.
Three words beginning with the letter “f” help us think about what it is that Jesus is saying: food, future and friends.
“Is not life more than food?” asks Jesus in Saint Matthew Chapter 6 Verse 25. Isn’t life more than survival, isn’t more than the basic necessities? The people who have gathered to listen to him on the hillside are people who have time to listen; they are people who have been able to come to this place to hear Jesus speak; they are people who have what they need. Yet Jesus discerns among them a feeling of worry, a feeling that they need to be concerned over whether they have enough. In Verse 26, he says to them, “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?” Jesus tries to reassure them because their concern with the every day things means they cannot serve God as well as they might. They could not serve God and worldly things.
Listening to Jesus’ words today, are we different from those to whom Jesus spoke in the Sermon on the Mount? We are abundantly more wealthy than the people in Jesus’ time, we have things that were unimaginable to people of past centuries, we have everything we need, and far more besides, yet don’t we still worry whether we have enough? Don’t we still feel that if we had more, then we would feel secure? And when we do have more, we still want to add to what we have. What would Jesus say to us about our worries? Would he not say to us that life is about more than the accumulation of things? Is not life more than food? Is not life more than stuff?
Jesus tells his listeners not to worry about material things and he tells them not to worry about the future. In Verse 27, he says, “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” The people in the crowd would have had a lot about which they had cause to worry. Life could come to sudden and unexpected ends – infant and maternal mortality rates were high, minor illnesses could prove fatal, infections could quickly spread. As well as health concerns, the society of the time was a place where violence was frequent; the Roman soldiers could be cruel and brutal and there was little protection against criminals. But the question Jesus asks about the future is an important one: everyone was aware of the realities of the world in which they lived, and those realities were not going to be changed by worry. Worry about the future would mean that they would live their life in fear and never be able to become the people God would want them to be.
When I began my ministry, more than thirty years ago, there was a man in Co Down who used to meet expressions of worry about the future with a wise response, “we die if we worry and we die if we don’t, so why worry?” It seemed trite at the time, but with the passing years, it has seemed more and more to reflect the question that Jesus asks, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Of course, the answer when Jesus asked the question was, “no;” the answer has always been “no.” All worrying about the future does is to spoil the present time. Jesus tells us not to worry, and do we listen to him?
Food, future, the third “f” is friends. In Verses 28-29, Jesus asks the crowd why they are worried about their appearance, “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.” The people listening would have probably thought that it was easy for Jesus to say such things, people would not have judged him by how he dressed, but they lived in a society where friends assessed you by what you wore. The people who wore purple and fine linen were held in high esteem, those dressed in rags were thought insignificant. Jesus warns people not to be concerned with worldly appearances, it is how they appear to God that matters. Of course, they did not listen, to be finely dressed meant one was wealthy, and wealth brought the respect of friends, and respect brought power, and power brought more wealth. Being worried about how well they were dressed, being concerned to impress their friends, meant they could not serve God as they should.
Are we different from the people of Jesus’ time? Don’t we want to appear well so that our friends think well of us? Don’t we want friends who are the sort of people that will make others think well of us? Like the people who were worried about clothing, aren’t we people who are worried about appearances? If we took Jesus’ words to heart, and became less worried with what was on the outside, and more concerned with what is on the inside, wouldn’t we be different people?
Jesus says that if we get our priorities right, if we think about food and future and friends in the right way, then everything else falls into place, he reassures the crowd in Verse 33, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” In Verse 34, he gives one of the the wisest pieces of about worry that was ever given, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Each day spent striving for the Kingdom, and not worrying about what is to come, is a day spent being the people we should be.
We cannot serve God and material things.