Don’t you worry ’bout a thing.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January 2021

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 humans tend to slide away from trusting God, and instead put our trust in money: When it comes to basic daily needs, we don’t look to God first. We look to our wallets. Can we afford it? If not, then we might call out to God… but too often we don’t.

This is a much harder lesson to learn for rich Christians 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. If we’ve learned about some special diet we really oughta be on—whether our doctors tell us so or not—we want that accommodated too: Gluten-free grains, keto-friendly vegetables, vegan dairy products. Oh, and we gotta have coffee and beer and candy and salty snacks. 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. And they gotta be fashionable, so we don’t just fit in, but stand out as especially good-looking. Plus an extra-nice outfit for important occasions, like church or parties.

If you only have the basics and no more, in a rich country you’d be considered poor. Not comfortable; not okay; poor. But in a poor country, like ancient Judea… wealthy.

That’s something to keep in mind whenever Jesus talks about not having enough. Judea, where he lived, would be what we’d nowadays call a third-world country. Or a “less developed country,” or what Donald Trump would call a s---hole country. It was poor. The largest part of the population survived on less than $2 a day. The families who ran the Judean senate had money, but that was old-family wealth, or they got it by collaborating with the Romans like the taxmen. The rest of them were subsistence farmers, or day laborers like Jesus’s dad and later Jesus himself: Scratching to get by. Legitimately concerned about daily needs.

The folks Jesus preached to? They had way less than we who live in rich countries. They’d be what we consider destitute. Near-homeless. 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 gotta barter for everything. This isn’t because there’s a dire recession: This is life. This has always been life, as far as you or your parents or grandparents knew. 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 God’s kingdom. Mk 10.25 We just aren’t always aware Jesus was making that statement about us.

God feeds birds.

Stevie Wonder singing “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing.” Just ’cause I love this song. YouTube

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 make the effort to follow him. Falling back on money to care for our 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. This is why Jesus pointed to “the birds of heaven” in Matthew: “Birds of heaven” can fly; other birds can’t. Flightless birds are dependent on others to feed them. Flying birds aren’t—but they are dependent on the Father, and he appears to feed ’em.

In Luke Jesus refers to κόρακας/kórakas, “ravens.” I remind you ravens are 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, but it’s quite memorable.

Okay, so birds can go out and find food. What about us humans? Well… nowadays the parallel is actually 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 LORD was complaining about 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, you didn’t have to starve. There was food out there to forage. God provides.

And then there’s our culture: Gleaning is theft. Hunting, even hunting pigeons, without a license is poaching. Some churches have storehouses; many are too small to sustain one, and some of the large ones think their money is better spent on other forms of outreach. Sometimes the government gives vouchers so needy families can buy food—although Congress continually threatens to cut that program, to appease their Mammonist donors who hate the idea of their money helping “the lazy.”

Our laws were written by Mammonists, not God. Stands to reason our culture reflects our laws.

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 literally 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 can afford better diet and exercise regimens would beg to differ: They were worried about their lifestyles, so 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 “add a single hour” 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. Often you can tell which group is 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 you measure cubits with your forearm: 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 has gotta mean “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. 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?”

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; this is a comment about fashion. When people fuss about clothing, it’s seldom because 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’re tired of patching the soles with duct tape, 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 a short lifespan. (Arguably because the instant people realize, “Y’know, this looks stupid,” that’s the end of that fad.) Though Jesus singles out clothing, there are all sorts of 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 trends. Like whether we’re keeping up, for that matter. All this stuff fades away, same as grass. Makes more sense to put our efforts into something permanent, like God’s kingdom. Or his word. Is 40.8 Or human beings.

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.

This is 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 this isn’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 the Christian experience. Because our Father knows we have these needs. He built us to have ’em. And if we’re rightly 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 awesome), 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. Eventually they’ll answer to Jesus. 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.