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
Let me offer an example for your consideration—something we might not have previously been able to see. There’s an odd word choice in verse 27 of this passage. Our English translation has Matthew quoting Jesus as saying, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” The word we translate as “hour” is actually the Greek word pēchys, which means “cubit.” So, to be clear, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your life?” A cubit was an ancient standard of measurement that was roughly 18 inches—or the average length of an adult forearm. It’s a word that’s used throughout the Hebrew Bible. In fact, depending on the translation, there are over 160 verses in the Bible that use the word cubit. Now, while there are scholars who justify interpreting the word cubit in Matthew 6 as an hour by indicating that it could describe a “span of time” in the same way it describes a “span of distance,” an overwhelming majority of the biblical uses of cubit deal with distance…not time. For that matter, it would have been much less confusing to simply say, “Can any of you by worrying add a single day to your life?”—using the Greek word hēmera, which gets used over 40 times in Matthew’s gospel. Cubit, on the other hand, is only used once in the entire Gospel—right here.
“Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your life?”
What if the choice of cubit is a remez? What if that word was chosen as a hint—a directional arrow to point toward another scripture or scriptures that will provide interpretation? Try this hermeneutic on for size. Of the 162 cubit-containing verses in the NIV translation of the Bible, at least 126 of those verses are actually detailed instructions on how to build the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the ark of the Covenant—all structures built by humans to house and contain and preserve—their relationship with God. So when Matthew’s original audience—refugees who have fled Jerusalem to Antioch on the Orontes—people who have lost everything including, once again, the Temple their tribe had built and rebuilt cubit by cubit according to the specifications found hundreds of times in their scripture, where do we think their minds went when Jesus asked, “Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your life?”
to the Temple
I think it’s safe to say that you could not use the word cubit with an ancient Israelite without summoning up the lens of the Temple. Even King Solomon—the king who completed the first Temple—gets a mention to make sure hearers of Matthew’s Gospel connect the dots. In speaking of the lilies of the field in verse 29, Jesus says, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” At the very least, it’s a possibility that the mention of Solomon and the peculiar usage of the word cubit here are meant to be a remez—an interpretive hint and hermeneutic offering—to help Matthew’s audience wrestle with meaning and their anxiety in the face of the temple ruins behind them. I don’t know about you, but I can relate to watching temples fall—to looking out over ruins. I can relate to the anxiety such visions produce—to the worry of not knowing what comes next. Since the times of King Solomon, the Temple Matthew’s audience now anxiously mourns had been built and sacked…fixed up and stripped…rebuilt and completely destroyed…remolded and ultimately razed to the ground. A thousand years of generations had labored in building it, worried over maintaining it, and anxiously rebuilt it—habitually, addictively—cubit by cubit by cubit. The temple is a hermeneutic they know in their bones. Our hermeneutic matters. Within his interpretations of the Gospel of Matthew, theologian and scholar Alexander John Shaia writes:
“Sometimes our 'temples' are inherited, easily becoming family traditions. Sometimes we build them. We count on them. No matter what they are, we consider them central, solid, and sacred. We yearn to make them secure and expend great effort in attempts to make them so. They have genuine roles in our lives—but we are sometimes forced to discover that they have no real permanence."
No matter how we got them, when our temples come under attack, it can be terrifying. And when our temples are destroyed, it’s devastating. We are afraid. We are anxious. We are unsure about what comes next. We worry about what caused this chaos. And we are desperate to once again rebuild our temple. But is that what we are called to do? Will it add even an hour to our lives? Matthew’s audience in Antioch on the Orontes must not have thought so; they did not rebuild their temple. They laid down that anxiety, followed the Christ, and built something new. We, too, are invited to follow. As we find ourselves looking out over the ruins of our fallen temples, may we hear these words from the Creator of all things:
Do not worry. You are more beautiful and treasured than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field—and even Solomon in all of his glory does not compare to them.
If we are anxiously and addictively tempted to rebuild our temples without facing the reality that they failed to contain or preserve that which they were built to bless, may we heed these instructions from the Christ:
Do not worry. Instead, seek first the reality of God and the right-relationship that comes with it.
And should the rubble and debris around us cause us to feed our fear and believe we cannot possibly survive without the temples behind us, may the whisper and power of the spirit that dwells within all of us cause us to rest and remember:
This God does not dwell in a temple. This God dwells with us. This God knows exactly what we need.
Our hermeneutic matters
because cubit by cubit
it will reveal
that which we could not see before.
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