Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness

Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)

Matthew 6: 19-34

Parallel Luke 12: 33-34, Luke 11: 34-36, Luke 16: 13, Luke 12: 22-32

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “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? 26 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? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 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? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Following three practices of righteousness (acts of mercy or giving alms, prayer and fasting) we encounter a set of interconnecting proverbs connecting the relationship of the disciple to wealth and the anxiety encountered around possessions. From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve seen an emphasis on possessions, giving to those who beg and not refusing those who want to borrow and doing acts of mercy in this kingdom of heaven where the poor in spirit can be blessed. This kingdom of God that the disciple is to seek depends upon the abundance of God’s provisions rather than the disciple’s ability to accumulate wealth, power and property to secure their own future. Their treasure rests with the God they serve and their trust in God’s provision frees them from the anxiety produced by the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.

Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment where the disciple is to, “fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1978, p. 13) taps into the same wisdom as these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Love and trust in God are bound together and placing trust in something other than God, like wealth, interferes not only with the trust in God but also the disciples’ ability to love God. If the kingdom of heaven is approaching, like the Sermon on the Mount assumes and Jesus’ practice of sharing the table anticipates, then images like the image of the banquet in Isaiah 55 probably shape the imagination of Jesus’ hearers. As Isaiah can state:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2

I’m convinced that the great idol in the United States is security. People are told to attempt to secure the future for their retirement, for their health, and entire industries are engaged in helping people achieve this illusory security they seek. Yet this displacement of joy and happiness to a future time, or the inability to secure one’s own security is a source of anxiety for many people. The accumulation of wealth on earth can provide moments of happiness and treasures and wealth are not bad things, unless they are placed in a position of prominence where they become the meaning of our life, the thing that we serve. Yet, there is a note of hope in this passage because how we use our wealth can help lead us to the life we desire to live. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

Jesus does not want us to give from the heart. He wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure and let your heart catch up. (Powell, 2004, p. 140)

The proverb about the eye being the lamp of the body may seem out of place in between two proverbs talking about treasures or wealth, but when paired with the other two proverbs (and the longer saying about anxiety and possessions) we can see the orientation of the eye towards wealth or possessions is the darkness spoken of here. The culminative effect of this group of sayings is to encourage the disciple to make the wise choice of looking (or seeking) first for the kingdom of God. In contrast to the kingdom of God which is light, seeking the ways of this world is the unwise way of darkness.

Jesus is calling his disciples to trust in God and not to have divided loyalties. As he will later share in the Parable of the Sower those who are ensnared by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth will choke the word that has been sowed among them and make them yield nothing. (Matthew 13: 22) One can trust in wealth or one can trust in God. The NRSV translates mammon as wealth, and while this is correct it misses the way in which the text personifies wealth into an entity which is able to possess and demand allegiance. Mammon becomes an alternative, and an attractive one for many people, to trusting in God to provide security.

After these three proverbs which point to the wisdom of trusting and serving God rather than attempting to secure our own security by hoarding or serving ‘wealth’ we are told therefore not to be anxious about our life and the things we need.  The Greek merimnao which is translated worry by the NRSV has the meaning of anxiety or even obsession about the object of concern. (Allen, 2013, p. 77)  Food, drink and clothing can become objects of this anxiety when one begins to adopt the worldview of providing one’s own security and provision. God takes care of the birds of the air, the grass of the field and the righteous will be provided for as well. In a world which seeks to ensnare the righteous in its snares and the lure of mammon the disciple of God is called to trust that God has given them enough, that God will provide daily bread and drink and clothing. They are to be different than the nations, to embody a different relationship with the fruit of their labor. The disciples do not abandon sowing or working, but instead this sowing and working is a part of their life before God instead of their own struggle to secure their own future. The future will bring worries of its own, but the God who is faithful today will also be faithful in the future. They live seeking righteousness knowing that they will be filled with the bread and drink of the banquet of God’s kingdom. They seek the security and wealth of the kingdom of God even though they may be the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness sake.

One final translation note that I think is important to hearing Matthew in a less judgmental way. In verse thirty we have the first use of the Greek word oligopistos which is almost universally translated ‘You of little faith’ which is a proper English rendering of this adjective which always appears in the second person form (mostly plural but once as a singular form because it is addressing Peter). This term occurs four additional times throughout Matthew[1], always addressing either a disciple or disciples. My struggle with the traditional translation is the statement, ‘You of little faith’ in English implies a biting and condescending tone. The more I’ve listened to Matthew’s gospel, the more I’ve read this term as ‘little faith ones,’ a term of endearment or compassion. Instead of upbraiding the disciples who are listening for not having enough faith or trusting enough, perhaps Jesus here, and throughout the gospel is encouraging his little faith ones who are gathered around him, encountering the struggle of seeking the kingdom of God while the snares of the world are still present.

A part of this translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way the Sermon on the Mount is often presented. If Jesus is the embodiment of the judgmental God who is setting an unrealistic perfectionistic standard, then being derided as ‘You of little faith’ makes sense within this context. Yet, I am an heir of the Lutheran reformation which began with one man’s search for a gracious God, and I know that informs my view of Jesus who we meet in the scriptures. It is a part of my search for a way of reading the Sermon in a way that goes beyond an individualistic and moralistically perfectionist reading. I understand this reading is going against the grain of established scholarship, but it is also done for the little faith ones, like myself, who go to the scriptures seeking wisdom and seek the kingdom while still struggling with: the anxieties of the world, having both treasures and hearts in the right place, having eyes turned toward the kingdom of heaven and feeling the pull of two opposing masters.

[1] Matthew 8: 23-26; 14: 28-31; 16: 5-10; 17: 18-20

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1 Response to Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness

  1. Pingback: Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7 | Sign of the Rose

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