Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. There is far more to life than food, and far more to the body than clothing. Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. They are free and unfettered—careless in the care of God. And you count far more to God than birds. Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they never primp or shop, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and kindling for the oven tomorrow, how much more will you be clothed—you of little faith? Therefore, do not consume yourselves with questions: What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear? For it is the Gentiles who make themselves frantic over such questions. God knows exactly what you need. Instead, seek first the reality of God and the right-relationship that comes with it. You will find that you have everything you need. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. Matthew 6:25-34
In the last several weeks, I have been exposed to a number of well-meaning Christians quoting and reducing this very passage from Matthew just like I did. If you have been on social media recently, you may have even come across one of these spiritual McNuggets on Instagram and Facebook. The general conclusion is that our fear and anxiety can and should be turned off like a switch by a sheer act of our will…and that if we don’t turn our anxiety off, then we don’t have faith. I’ve had conversations with earnest disciples in the last month who, because of this kind social media spirituality, were fearful that the very real presence of anxiety and worry in their lives meant that they were somehow failing G-d. They were worried about their worry—anxious about their anxiety.
Friends, McNuggets may be easy and tasty, but they’re not good for us.
This teaching from Jesus should not be reduced to “If you’re afraid, you don’t trust G-d.
Jesus is not offering his followers an equation to balance.
This is not a transaction.
Our hermeneutic matters. If we are not aware of our hermeneutics—aware of the lenses through which we examine and engage the scripture, we can almost be guaranteed that we are going to misread, mishear, misunderstand, and misapply it. For example, the entirety of the biblical canon is written by the small minority tribe living under the boot of imperial oppression. Not one book in the Bible is written by the ancient Egyptians. Not one verse from the ancient Assyrians or Babylonians. Not one word comes to us from the pen of Caesar and Rome. As Walter Brueggemann teaches, the Bible does not contain the voice of the empire. It’s the minority report. It’s the voice of the small, fledgling tribe that somehow survived the slavery of ancient Egypt, the exile and oppression of Assyria and Babylon, and the murder and torture of Rome. If nothing else, when I pick up the Bible, one of my hermeneutics needs to be to remind myself that as a well-fed, well-clothed, non-disabled, educated, empowered, resourced, white, cisgender, straight, male, middle-class American, I have some work to do to engage and wrestle with the voice of the oppressed minority found within its pages.
Which brings me back to this passage.
How does this rabbi, Jesus, teach his followers—the oppressed minority under the boot of Rome—not to worry? He’s asking these people—many of whom Rome would eventually kill—to consider birds and flowers? Seriously? That sounds like one of those spiritual McNuggets for Instagram. It just doesn’t add up. Something tells me that there is still work to do with this passage—that the lens through which I am looking still needs adjustment. Our hermeneutic matters. As a first-century Jew and rabbinical student of Jesus, Matthew no doubt studied and wrestled with the scripture.
What sort of hermeneutic tools did he use?
What do we know about his consciousness—his worldview?
As he recounts these teachings of Jesus, through what interpretive lense is Matthew writing?
Biblical scholars such as Robin Griffith Jones and Alexander John Shaia have helped us recover much of the historical context for Matthew’s Gospel. To begin, it was most likely written to the Jewish community in Antioch on the Orontes—in the mid 70’s CE—some 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The city of Antioch on the Orontes was about a week’s walk due north of Jerusalem. Throughout the centuries, that proximity to Jerusalem meant that any time things became dangerous in Jerusalem, Jews would escape to Antioch. Antioch’s Jewish population eventually grew to the point that its synagogue was referred to as “the second temple.” In fact, the synagogue in Antioch even housed items from Solomon’s Temple—items that had been smuggled out of Jerusalem when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE. It is important to remember that the besiegement of Jerusalem, the desecration or destruction of the Temple, the escape of some of the Jews to Antioch on the Orontes, the eventual return of the exiled and the rebuilding of the Temple—these were not one-time events. This cycle happened repeatedly with the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks, and—just before the writing of Matthew’s Gospel—the Romans. In the summer of 70 CE, under orders from the Roman Emperor Vespasian to annihilate the Temple and end the biological line of the Jewish priesthood by murdering all the Temple priests, the Roman army laid siege to Jerusalem in an attempt to bring about the end of the Jewish faith. The Jews who were able to escape fled to Antioch on the Orontes. Their priests had been murdered, their holy city had been razed, and the Temple—the structure built to house the presence of G-d—had been destroyed. It’s to these circumstances and these people—the refugee inhabitants of Antioch who have just lost everything—that Matthew writes his Gospel.
These people had plenty to worry about.
And just that little bit of context changes my hermeneutic. Considering the circumstances and people to which Matthew writes shifts the lens through which I can wrestle with this passage about worrying.
Our hermeneutic matters.
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