Worrying has no place in God’s kingdom.

Matthew 6.25-34, Luke 12.22-32.

Right after Jesus taught we can’t make masters of both God and Mammon, he got to the core reason why we tend to slide away from God and put our trust in money: We trust our money to provide basic daily needs.

This is a harder lesson for rich countries than poor ones. In rich countries, we have crazy standards for what denotes “basic daily needs.” It’s not just food, drink, and clothing, as Jesus addresses in the following teaching. It’s having a roof over your head. A bed. Electricity and gas, for the central heat and air conditioning. Oh, and since you have electricity: A refrigerator to keep the food in. Internet and wifi. A phone. An email address. A television—’cause you can’t expect us to watch all our TV on our phones. And probably a car, ’cause you can’t expect us to walk everywhere.

Food and drink is no longer just grains, vegetables, and water: We’ve gotta have meat and dairy. We’ve gotta have coffee and beer. We expect a variety of good foods. And sometimes enough money to go out to eat sometimes.

Clothing is no longer a single loincloth, tunic, robe, and sandals, with maybe an extra just in case: We gotta have at least two weeks’ worth of outfits. Including underwear and shoes. And an extra-nice outfit for important occasions, like church or parties.

If you only have these basics, and no more, in a rich country you’d be considered not comfortable, but poor. And in a poor country, of course, wealthy.

Jesus lived in a poor country. Something to keep in mind whenever he talks about not having enough. The folks he was preaching to? They had way less than we who live in rich countries. They’d be what we consider destitute. Near-homeless. Barely getting by. They didn’t imagine themselves so, but hey: Different countries, different millennia, different standards.

And yet in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told ’em to stop worrying. Because worry wasn’t getting them anywhere.

Matthew 6.25 KWL
“This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat or drink, or what your body would wear.
Isn’t your soul more than food? your body more than clothes?”
Luke 12.22-23 KWL
22 Jesus told his students, “This is why I tell you: Stop worrying!
Stop worrying about what your soul would eat, or what your body would wear.
23 The soul is more than food. The body more than clothes.”

Try to wrap your brain around this idea: One set of clothing. Maybe three days’ worth of food in the pantry. Water comes from the creek. No electricity nor gasoline. No money; you’ve got to barter for everything. This isn’t because there’s a dire recession; this is life as you know it. Every day’s a struggle. And here Jesus is, telling you to stop worrying about food or clothing, because God has your back.

The typical American response to this? “Are you nuts, Jesus? I’m poor!

Yeah, you are. Poor in faith. That’s why it’s easier to shove camels through needles than get rich Christians into the kingdom. Mk 10.25 We just aren’t always aware Jesus was making that statement about us.

God feeds birds.

Jesus uses a rabbinical light-and-heavy argument: If God takes care of less-important, irrelevant things and creatures, it stands to reason he’d take care of us humans. Especially those of us who are in a relationship with him, who are trying to follow him. Falling back on money to care for these needs, implies we’re not falling back on our heavenly Father.

Hey Christians, look at the birds. Ever seen a starving bird?

Matthew 6.26 KWL
“Look at the birds of heaven: They neither sow, reap, nor gather into barns.
Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you far better than they?”
Luke 12.24 KWL
“Think about ravens: They neither sow nor reap; have no inner room nor barn.
God feeds them. How far better are you than birds?”

True, you might’ve seen a starving bird—if it’s flightless. Baby birds starve. Inattentive chicken, turkey, and ostrich ranchers might not give their birds enough feed. That’s why Jesus pointed to “the birds of heaven” in Matthew: These birds can fly. They’re not dependent on others to feed them. They are, however, dependent on the Father. And he appears to feed ’em.

In Luke Jesus refers to κόρακας/kórakas, “ravens.” They’re ritually unclean birds, Lv 11.15, Dt 14.14 ’cause they tend to eat the dead animals they find. And since there’s no shortage of dead animals, God definitely provides for them. Maybe a morbid example, though. But memorable.

Okay, so birds can go out and find food. What about us humans? Well… actually nowadays the parallel is a bit harder than it used to be.

Y’see in Jesus’s day, God had mandated a welfare system for the needy. The Law required farmers to tithe their crops, and every third year this went into a storehouse for the Levites and the poor. Dt 14.28-29 This—not giving to your church to keep it running—is what the LORD objected to in Malachi, when he told the Judeans to bring their tithes to the storehouse and “let there be food in my house.” Ml 3.10

Besides that, the Law ordered farmers to leave the edges of their fields for the needy Lv 19.10 and not take a second pass through their fields and vineyards when they harvested. Lv 19.9-10, Dt 24.19 Thus any hungry poor person could pick the grain from the edge of any field and eat it. Or pick the flax from the edge of any field and weave it into linen. And of course hunt pigeons for food. When things were dire, God provided.

And then there’s our culture: Gleaning is theft. Hunting without a license is poaching. Some churches have storehouses. And sometimes the government gives vouchers so needy families can buy food—although Congress continually threatens to cut that program, on the grounds people need to earn their own money, and buy their own food. They want us dependent upon Mammon.

Can you worry yourself taller?

To use another example of why worry is futile, Jesus mentioned the universal experience of people who wished they were taller. Some of us grow out of it (and even wish we were shorter), but every kid has been there at some point.

Matthew 6.27 KWL
“Who among you worriers can add one cubit to their height?”
Luke 12.25-26 KWL
25 “Who among you worriers can add a cubit to their height?
26 If you can’t do at least that, why worry about the rest?”

Other bibles tend to translate this, “add a single hour to [their] life?” Mt 6.27, Lk 12.25 NIV And since our culture recognizes that worry and stress are more likely to shorten life then extend it, most of us respond, “Well of course we can’t worry ourselves into longer lifespans.” Although those people who’ve adopted better diet and exercise regimens would beg to differ: Because they were worried about their lifestyles, they made changes which should definitely extend their lives. So… maybe Jesus wasn’t all that accurate, was he?

No, Jesus is fine. It’s the translation which sucks.

Jesus used the word ἡλικίαν/ilikían, which can either mean “age” or “height.” It comes from the word ἧλιξ/ílix, “age-group,” which refers to how ancient Greeks bunched their kids together by age, much as we do in elementary school. But you can often tell which group was which, by how tall they were.

So which did Jesus mean, age or height? Well, you figure it by context. Jesus also used the word πῆχυν/píhyn, “forearm,” to indicate how we’re to measure one’s ilikían. I translated it “cubit” because a forearm is how long a cubit is: Specificially it’s the length from your elbow to your middle finger. Do you measure lifespans in cubits? No; you measure height. Ergo Jesus meant height.

Unless you figure “cubit” is a metaphor for “hour”… based on nothing more than your insistence ilikía can’t mean anything other than “age.”

But then we slam into the fact Jesus was trying to make a provable point. Can you worry yourself taller? Well, his audience had tried and failed, so no. Now, can you worry yourself into living longer? Well… yes. Eat healthier, get exercise, get regular checkups, avoid things which make you sick or injured, and barring accidents, you likely will extend your lifespan. And this being the case, why would Jesus go for the possible idea instead of the impossible?

Well anyway.

God clothes the flowers.

For those who fuss about what to wear, Jesus points out the flowers which grow wild in the fields look better than the best of the best-dressed.

Matthew 6.28-30 KWL
28 “Why worry about clothing? Study lilies in the field: How do they grow?
They don’t work, nor spin thread, 29 and I tell you what:
Even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t clothed like them.
30 If God clothes grass of the field—here today, thrown in the oven tomorrow—
won’t he much more you, despite your little faith?”
Luke 12.27-28 KWL
27 “Think about lilies. How does it grow?
It doesn’t work, nor spin thread, and I tell you:
Even Solomon in all his splendor wasn’t clothed like them.
28 If God clothes grass in the field—here today, thrown in the oven tomorrow—
how much more you, despite your little faith?”

And to horrify my Sunday-school teachers, I had a lot of fun pointing out the lilies of the field were buck naked. So is that what Jesus is trying to teach? Ditch the clothes; you’ll look better naked?

No; it’s a comment about fashion.

When people worry about clothing, it’s seldom that they don’t have clothing. It might be: You might lack a warm coat for the winter, or your shoes are wearing out and you want new soles, or the kids are growing out of everything and you can’t bring yourself to cut off their vitamins.

Still, clothing isn’t impossible to come by. It’s just that people don’t want most of the donated or thrift-store clothing. It’s free or affordable, but it’s not fashionable, and they’re too proud to look out-of-date. Or poor.

Also true in Jesus’s day. The question, “What to wear?” wasn’t about not having any tunic at all, but about which tunic. Or about getting a new tunic even though your current one was fine. It was about being dissatisfied with what you had, and worrying about getting more. It was about covetousness, and distracting ourselves with the accumulation of wealth instead of focusing on the truly important stuff in life.

Because no matter how fancy your clothes are, you’re not gonna look better than flowers.

Bread hanging (and baking) on the inside of a tannúr. Biblical Archaeology Society

And flowers have an awfully short lifespan. Really, all the grass in the field did. The poor of Jesus’s day would use dry grass and dead flowers as kindling for the תַּנּוּר/tannúr (Greek κλίβανος/klívanos, but you might be more familiar with the Hindi word tandoor), a clay oven in which they’d start a fire, slap dough on the inside wall so it’d stick there, and bake it into bread. Or hang their other cookpots over.

Fashion often has an equally short lifespan. (Arguably because the instant people realize, “This looks really stupid,” that’s the end of that fashion.) Fads do too. And though Jesus singles out clothing, there are all sorts of other fads we’d do well to ignore, ’cause they’re just as fleeting. Like whether our churches worship with the very latest and coolest music. Like whether our pastors are keeping up with the latest books and trends and charismatic fads. Like whether we are, for that matter. All that stuff fades away, same as the grass. Makes more sense to put our efforts into something permanent, like God’s kingdom. Or his word. Is 40.8

Same with any other possessions we own. How many things do we own solely because it was fashionable to own ’em at the time? How many albums have we bought because everybody was humming that tune that year? How many of us had to have the latest video game system, and now we don’t even use it? Dig through your memory enough; you’ll find a lot of the things of this world in your life.

Prioritize the kingdom.

That’s why Jesus caps off his lesson with a reminder God comes first. Or should.

Matthew 6.31-34 KWL
31 “So stop worrying. Stop saying, ‘What can we eat? Drink? Wear?
32 Every nation seeks them. Your heavenly Father knows these are all your needs.
33 First seek God’s kingdom, God’s righteousness,
and all these things will be handed to you.
34 So stop worrying about tomorrow: Tomorrow has its own worries.
The evils of the day are plenty.”
Luke 12.29-32 KWL
29 “Stop searching for what to eat and drink. Stop fretting.
30 Every nation of the world seeks them. Your Father knows these are your needs.
31 First seek God’s kingdom, and these things will be handed to you.
32 Don’t fear, little flock: Your Father is thrilled to give you the kingdom.”

Most translations render Matthew’s verse 32 and Luke’s verse 30 as “The gentiles seek these things” (ESV, KJV NASB) or “the pagans” (NIV) or “the unbelievers” (NLT). Problem is, many a Christian has leapt to the conclusion that gentiles, pagans, and unbelievers are bad people. Therefore worrying about where your next meal is coming from, where you’re gonna find new shoes, are evil things. ’Cause evildoers do ’em.

I would argue that wasn’t Jesus’s intent at all. He used the word ἔθνοι/éthni, “ethnics,” which can mean gentile, pagan, foreigner, or outsider. But it’s more likely he just meant every nation does this. Worry about food and clothing isn’t just a Jewish or Christian experience. It’s universal.

It’s just it shouldn’t be a Christian experience. Because our Father knows we have these needs. He built us to have ’em. And if we’re plugged in to his kingdom, he’s taken care of them.

If you’re short on food and clothing, and you have a church family, and they know you’re needy (’cause you’re not pretending everything is just peachy), they’ll help. They’ll point you to resources. Some of ’em will even feed and clothe you themselves, ’cause they’re just looking for people to help. Unless of course your church is full of cold-hearted bastards who are only faking their relationship with Jesus. The United States has got a lot of those, and not only are they no help; they drive many a Christian to quit church in despair, and sometimes quit Jesus too. They’ll answer to Jesus eventually. Mt 25.41-46 Meanwhile if that’s what your church is like, go find a better one, with people who do follow Jesus.

Depending on the gospel, Jesus taught either to deal with life one day at a time, Mt 6.34 or that we have one extra reason to stop worrying: God definitely wants to give us his kingdom. Lk 12.32 Both good instructions.

So take a mental inventory. Are there things in your life which are stressing you out? Seriously consider whether to get rid of them altogether. These so-called “needs” in our lives are frequently things we can do without. Things God never put there, so it means they’re all optional. You’ll be a lot happier once they’re gone.

And be a lot happier once you take the time and worry you wasted on those things, and now apply it to his kingdom instead.