Brief Notes on the Sermon on the Mount: The priority of God’s empire and justice

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August 15, 2012 by jmar198013

It’s just impossible for someone to serve two masters. They’ll always pay attention to one and ignore the other, or spend all their time with one and push the other away. You are not able to serve God and material security. So I have this to tell you: don’t panic over how you’re going to make a living, how you’re going to get food and drink, or about how you’re going to get clothes for your body. God gave you life, so why wouldn’t he give you food to sustain it? He gave you your body, so won’t he also give you clothes to protect it and keep it warm? Look at those birds in the sky: they don’t plant or harvest or stockpile food in barns. But your heavenly Father feeds them, and surely you’re more important to him than birds. Besides, has anyone ever added a single hour to their life by worrying? And why would you work yourselves up over clothes? Look at those lilies in the valley over there, how they grow up so beautiful. They aren’t slaves in anybody’s sweatshop but I promise you that King Solomon, filthy rich as he was, never did dress himself as well as those lilies. Now if God clothes the grass like that—grass that you’re looking at now but tomorrow will be mowed down and used for compost—won’t he make sure that you have clothes to wear, you doubters? So don’t fuss and fret and wring your hands, whining, ‘How are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘Where will we get clothes?’ Those are the top priorities of people who don’t believe in God, and your heavenly Father is fully aware that you need those things to live. Your top priority is seeing to it that God’s empire is established with justice. Do that and God will see to it that those other things will be made available to you. With that in mind, stop worrying about how to secure tomorrow; let tomorrow worry about itself. Each day has enough distractions of its own. (Matt. 6.24-34)

In Matt. 6.19-23, Jesus warns disciples not to gather earthly treasure, but to gather heavenly treasure through generosity. Matt. 6.24-34 is a word of assurance to those who would accept Jesus’ invitation to so live.

Previously it was noted that while Matt. 5.21-48 dealt with the teachings of the Torah and 6.1-18 commented on traditional practices of piety, Matt. 6.19-7.12 takes up the conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day. Hence, Jesus will begin each new teaching with a pithy, proverbial statement. The tight symmetry of Matt. 6.24 mirrors in this regard Matt. 6.19.

A No one can serve two masters

    B For he will either hate one and love the other

    B’ or cling to one and despise the other.

A’ You aren’t able to serve both God and mammon.

The letter of James restates Jesus’ teaching about not being able to serve two masters when it says, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4.4). James calls those who would serve both God and mammon “double-minded” (James 1.7, 4.8). “Mammon” names the pursuit of material security. It is what we place our trust in that is not God.

Matt. 6.25 describes the life lived in anxious pursuit of material security. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is concerned with the character of the church. He wills that we model God’s character (Matt. 5.48). Those who cling to material security push God away. They are not capable of participating in God’s dynamic, delivering, transforming presence. If we are the sort of people who would rather serve mammon than trust God for our daily bread (Matt. 6.11), we will not be at home in the life of a generous Father. We will not be interested in reconciliation (Matt. 5.21-26), our marriage covenants (5.27-32), telling the truth (5.33-37), not taking vengeance (5.38-42), or loving our enemies (5.43-48). Those practices require God’s gracious, transforming presence, but those who cling to mammon push God away. The opposite of double-minded is pure in heart (James 4.8). The pure in heart are blessed by God’s presence (Matt. 5.8). That presence animates their obedience.

Jesus’ word to those tempted by material security is to watch the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, who rely on the Father’s generosity for their daily bread (Matt. 6.26-30; cf. 6.11). The birds and the lilies serve as a commentary of the petition of the Lord’s Prayer that our Father would give us our daily bread. The humorous picture of birds stockpiling in barns may also provide a humorous commentary on Jesus’ call not to stockpile treasures on earth (6.19). The figure of “Solomon in all his glory” (6.29) provides a tragic foil for those who would, like the birds, depend on God’s generosity for their survival. Warren Carter and Walter Brueggemann have both pondered over the function of the figure of Solomon in this passage. 1 Kings 10.1-11.8 tells the story of how Solomon sought to secure his own existence by acquiring wives, horses, chariots, gold, and silver. It is also interesting to note that while God clothes the lilies of the field, Solomon was said to clothe himself (6.29-30). So Brueggemann:

Solomon is singled out as a cipher for failed wealth and for futile, empty self-securing … Solomon’s glory is an emptiness that should not be replicated … Jesus calls for a radical act of trust that calls disciples to a deep either/or. Any attempt to choose God and wealth eventually cannot be sustained … Solomon wanted to choose both/and but eventually he could not … and in practice he abandoned God.

Jesus tells the church to pursue first God’s kingdom and justice/righteousness (6.33). We must be very careful that we do not attempt to serve first our own vision of righteousness. Jesus will deal with that in his next teaching, Matt. 7.1-5.

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