When we read today’s Gospel we must be careful not to misinterpret its basic vision. Jesus is not telling us what to do, but offering us something to receive. The wrong way to interpret this gospel is to simply hear Jesus say, “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, in the Sermon of the Mount which we are reading, Jesus is describing what a transformed human person is like. And 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 even able to see God’s hand in the difficulties of life. It is this trust growing in us by God’s grace that ultimately diminishes and removes fear. Trust God and fear diminishes. This is the gift that Jesus offers in this Gospel.
We can distinguish three particular aspects of anxiety that Jesus sets forth: The Problem of Possessions, the Problem of Paternity, and the Problem of Priority. Let’s look at each and see how the Lord want to free us from them.
1. 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 possession. 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 only to those things.
Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that we cannot serve mammon if we wish to serve God. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein) which more specifically means to “serve as a slave.” We tend to miss the strength of the text when we miss the slavery aspect. For it may happen in our culture that one serves in a job or some capacity yet, after work hours, goes home and is free of obligations. Hence we tend to figure we CAN serve God and mammon. But the Greek here speaks, not of a mere servant, but a slave. And a slave is wholly given over to the will of another. The Greek thus is more intense than the English.
What the Lord is saying is, Look, you’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or you’re going to be a slave of the world.” And the honest truth is that most people are a slave of the world, a slave of mammon, riches, greed and the agendas associated with it. These worldly things tend to completely overwhelm us and then, when we hear of some demand of God, we feel overwhelmed, even angry that something “more” is required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.
We are usually too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is most of us are, to a large extent. The world and its demands press on us, and take 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’s describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to Mammon, to the world, it’s riches and 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 anxieties about merely HAVING such things may have receded a bit. We are well supplied and may not worry IF we will have clothes, food etc. But even having them in abundance, still we obsessively worry them. For example, we worry if we have the right clothes, if they are in fashion, if they look good on us, etc. We worry that we eat too much salt, too much fat, indeed, many are quite obsessed about what they eat. We have never lived so long, and so healthy, and yet we have never been so anxious about our health! It’s amazing when you think of it, we have plenty of food and still we worry about food! 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)
What the Lord offers us here to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but slaves to him. We may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: We are so small and powerless, 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, fashion and the like.
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 it’s power is broken. As we grow in to a deeper relationship with the Lord, our ties and concerns with worldly agendas fade. And as the ties are broken the 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. And as His power and influence over us grows, the worries lessen, the anxiety goes.
This is the gift the Lord is offering if we but let him take greater possession of our hearts. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, daily doses of scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually the Lord’s heart, mind, and will transform our heart, mind and will to be like his own.
2. The Problem of Paternity – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us to deeper relationship with his Father. It remains a common spiritual problem that, even those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, still find 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 stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of him. There are Old Testament texts that may come to mind, or perhaps some people struggle because their earthly Father was either stern or remote. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus want to lead to us 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.”
Now all of these references to the Father, in close proximity to the invitation, “do not worry,” cannot be overlooked. There is a to be seen here an antidote to anxiety in having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need. He cares for birds and flowers and countless other things, and thus he is able and willing to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.
Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I had something of a fear that someone would break in to our home, or that perhaps something bad would happen in the night. But when my Father was home I did not have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone a year. In that year I had an extended bout of on-going fear that something bad might happen in the night. Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. But in 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I did not cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part, that was able to dismiss my fears. It was simply this, Daddy was home.
And thus, you and I may not simply 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.
Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for his Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.
Seek this gift from Jesus that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand. And then, watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us. Take time and slowly read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), and realize that the parable is really about the Father, more than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.”
3. 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 is not unlike the first but it is more about choices and directions rather than things and allegiances.
The simple truth is that we have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how 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 really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say “God.” You may say “the world” or “the career.” But the fact is, a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things, and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And thus they run about, chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.
Imagine a man driving north to New York from Philadelphia. And he knows this is his destination. Along the way he sees lots of signs but is able to quickly determine which ones pertain to his journey, and which ones are to be ignored. If he sees a sign that says, 95 South Baltimore, he is able to simply ignore the sign and experiences no anxiety about it at all.
But now imagine another man who is not sure where he is going. It may be New York, or maybe somewhere else. He just isn’t all that sure. Frankly, he hasn’t thought about it all that much and just sort of lets life happen. Now HE sees the sign 95 South Richmond and struggles to know if he should take it or not. The sign makes him anxious. It is a fork in the road and he is not sure what to do. Should he take it, or not? And even if he does finally make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. His choice only heightens his anxiety. He made a choice but keeps looking back, second-guessing and wondering. Yes, he is anxious, for he has not sought first to determine his real destination.
Many live this way today. They have no real priority, no definite choice. And 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. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they are not less anxious, they are more anxious. Every intersection is bewildering: “What should I do?”
Now the Lord wants to save us all this anxiety and thus 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. And he wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves his Father and everyone and everything His Father loves.
And so do we. By grace and by degrees the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us and increasingly our life becomes about only one thing: “That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom….That I want to be him forever.”
Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not merely saying to us that, by our own flesh power, we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depends on us, it will last twenty minutes (max).
No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and what we will increasingly experience if we let him live his life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins in us and continues when we get 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, Sacraments, Holy Mass and holy fellowship.
Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine, you can have all my turns. But, if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life, re-invite him every day. Stay faithful to spiritual practices. And if you do, I promise you (I am a witness), you will see anxieties lessen, fears abate, serenity grow and confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.
This video illustrates the Scripture: but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:12)
And this Video speaks of the doing just one thing (pardon the slight profanity):