When we read today’s Gospel (from the Sermon on the Mount) we must be careful not to misinterpret its basic vision. Jesus is not telling us what to do, but rather is offering us something to receive. The wrong way to interpret this Gospel is to think that Jesus is just saying, “Stop worrying.” We all get this advice from people every day and it isn’t very helpful. This is not what Jesus is saying, for remember that in the Sermon on the Mount He is describing the transformed human person. What He is teaching us here is that as He begins to live His life in us, many of our anxieties will diminish and go away.
The transformed human person trusts God and is able to see God’s hand even in the difficulties of life. It is this trust growing in us by God’s grace that diminishes and ultimately removes fear. Trust God and fear lessens. This is the gift that Jesus offers in this Gospel.
We can distinguish three particular aspects of anxiety that Jesus sets forth: possessions, paternity, and priority. Let’s examine each and see how the Lord wants to free us from them.
I The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possessions. In an extended sense it can refer to the agenda of the world, which is focused essentially on material things, and which ties our dignity to only those things.
Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that we cannot serve mammon if we wish to serve Him. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein), which more specifically means to “serve as a slave.” We miss the strength of the text when we fail to notice the slavery aspect. It may happen in our culture that one works at a job, yet after work hours goes home and is free from obligations. Hence we tend to believe that we can serve both God and mammon. But the Greek word used here describes a slave, not a servant. A slave is wholly given over to the will of his master. The Greek word is thus more intense than the English translation.
The Lord is saying, “You’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or a slave of the world.” The honest truth is that most people are slaves of the world, of mammon; slaves to riches, greed, and the agendas associated with them. These worldly things tend to completely consume us so that when we hear of some demand from God, we feel overwhelmed—even angry—that something “more” is required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are slaves to mammon.
We are usually too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but most of us are, to a large extent. The world and its demands press on us, taking up nearly all the oxygen in our life. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and from which the Lord offers to free us. The Lord describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to mammon; to the world, its riches, and its agenda:
I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear …. Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, “What are we to eat?” or “What are we to drink?” or “What are we to wear?”
Still anxious! For us who live in the Western world, the anxiety about merely having such things has receded a bit. In general, we are well-supplied and may not worry about whether we will have clothes or food. But even though we have them in abundance, still we worry about them obsessively. For example, we may worry about whether we have the right clothes, if they are fashionable, if they look good on us. We worry about whether we have too much fat or salt in our diet. Many people are obsessed with what they eat. We have never lived so long and been so healthy, yet we have never been more anxious about our health! We have plenty of food and still we worry about it! Worry, worry, worry. Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep (Eccles 5:12).
The Lord offers to live His life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but rather slaves to Him. We may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: we are so small and powerless that we are going to be slaves of someone; it might as well be the Lord! Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases Him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, and fashion.
As the Lord’s life and His will begin to replace our own life and will, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and its power over us is broken. As we grow into a deeper relationship with the Lord, our ties with the world and concerns about worldly agendas fade. As the ties are loosened, our anxiety diminishes.
You and I, in our flesh, are not going to stop worrying, but the Lord, living His life in us, isn’t worried at all. As His power and influence over us grows, the worries lessen, and the anxiety goes away.
This is the gift that the Lord is offering us if we but let Him take greater possession of our hearts. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, the sacraments, Scripture, and spiritual reading. Gradually the Lord’s heart, mind, and will transform our heart, mind, and will to be like His.
II The Problem of Paternity – Jesus wants to draw us to a deeper relationship with His Father. A common spiritual problem, even among those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, is finding the Eternal Father to be distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures, but He is a stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of Him. This may be because they think of certain Old Testament texts, or perhaps because their earthly father was stern or remote. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus wants to lead us to His Father. Note that the phrase, “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s Gospel, and it is in Chapter 6 of Matthew that Jesus teaches us the “Our Father.”
All of these references to the Father, in close proximity to the invitation “Do not worry,” cannot be overlooked. Having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father is an antidote to anxiety. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. He cares for birds, flowers, and countless other things. Thus He is willing and able to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening of our anxiety.
Perhaps an illustration will help: When I was six years old, I had a fear that someone would break into our home, or that something bad would happen during the night. When my Father was home I didn’t worry. In 1968, he left for Vietnam and was gone for a year. During that year I had an extended bout of this fear; Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. In 1969, he returned and my fears went away. I didn’t cause them to go away; it was not an act of the will on my part. It was simply this: Daddy was home.
You and I may not be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will, but to the degree that our “Daddy-God” is near and we feel His presence, our fears just go away.
This is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep experience of, and love for, His Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. When we truly experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we find our fears melting away.
Seek this gift from Jesus: that you know and love His Father and that His presence will be close at hand. Then watch your fears dissipate. The Lord Jesus can do this for us. Read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) slowly. Understand that the parable is really about the Father more than it is about the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.”
III The Problem of Priority. The text says, But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities, and in the end, to do just one thing. This third matter (priority) is similar to the first (possessions), but it is more about choices and direction rather than things and allegiances.
The simple truth is that we have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and learning to make good decisions. This causes a lot of grief and anxiety for us. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.
What is it that you want? What is the one thing that guides every other thing that you do? You may say, “God,” or “the world,” or maybe “my career.” But the fact is, a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer. They want a lot of things and have never really sat down and determined the one overarching goal of their life. Because of this, they run about chasing this thing and that, and experiencing lots of anxiety along the way.
Imagine a man driving north to New York from Philadelphia. He knows that Philadelphia is his destination. Along the way he sees lots of signs, but is quickly able to determine which ones pertain to his journey and which ones can be ignored. If he sees an upcoming fork in the road with a sign that says, “95 South Baltimore,” he ignores it and continues on his way, experiencing no anxiety at all about doing so.
But now imagine another man, one who is not sure where he is going; it may be New York or it may be somewhere else. Frankly, he hasn’t thought about it all that much; he just lets life happen to him. Now this man sees that sign for “95 South Richmond.” He struggles to know whether he should take that fork or not. The sign makes him anxious. Should he or shouldn’t he? Then when he makes the choice, he wonders whether he did the right thing. His anxiety is even greater now. He keeps looking back, second-guessing himself, and wondering. He is anxious because he did not first determine his real destination.
Many people live this way. They have no real priority, no firm choice. Even if they have some vague direction (e.g., “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And frankly, they don’t want to know the specifics all that much. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. Strangely, though, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they are not any less anxious; in fact, they are more anxious. Every intersection is bewildering to them. “What should I do?” “Which way should I go?”
The Lord wants to save us from all this anxiety. He offers us the grace to become clear about what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live His life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer; our heart desires with greater clarity. When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. He wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves His Father and everyone and everything that His Father loves.
And so do we. By grace and by degrees, the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us. Increasingly, our life becomes about only one thing: “I want to die and leave this world loving God and His kingdom; I want to be with him forever.”
Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not merely saying to us that through our own power we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depended on us, we would never be able to do it!
No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person. He is showing us what we will experience if we let Him live His life in us and transform us. This work begins in us and continues when we get down on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, Scripture, Church teaching, the sacraments, Holy Mass, and holy fellowship.
Now if you want to stay anxious and fretful, fine; but if you seek serenity, then invite the Lord into your life every day. Stay faithful to spiritual practices. If you do, I promise (I am a witness) that you will see your anxieties lessen, your fears abate, your serenity grow, and your confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.
The clip below, from the movie City Slickers, speaks of doing just one thing. (Please pardon the slight profanity.)