Matthew 6:19-34 and 7:7-12 – Money and Worry

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

7

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! 12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

This is a rather wonky way to break things up, but I think it is best to discuss these verses altogether, as it all boils down to worrying about what money can buy.  Everything I’ve read on these passages assumes a rather privileged position of already having that money.  I’ll admit, the first question that came to my mind was, “Is saving for retirement Christian?” What about those who aren’t able to save for anything, let alone retirement?  Those living paycheck to paycheck?  The very idea of Godly saving is kind of a moot point.  We’ll get to that.

Let’s start with the easy one.  Let’s assume that yes, you do have the money.  I know, I know, we could all use more money, but hey, if you’re able to save at all for retirement, or your kids’ college, or really for anything, that means your basic needs are being met, and you have the privilege and responsibility to wonder, “If I’m saving up my earthly treasures to buy more earthly treasures, doesn’t this mean I’m serving Money and not God?”

The answer comes down to attitudes. As discussed previously, God knows our secret hearts. The question is, do we?  I don’t think saving is inherently un-Christian.  In fact, there are other places in the Bible that praise a wise man’s stores, such as Proverbs 21:20: “In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil, but a foolish man devours all he has.”  Let’s look closer at the example of retirement, since that’s (supposed to be) our largest savings goal.  First, I see saving for retirement as an act of love towards my children: I do not want to be a financial burden unto them in my old age.  Second, I don’t plan on just kicking back on a beach and frittering the last thirty years of my life away.  Of course I want some rest, but I’m the kind of person that cannot be happy without a project.  What that project might be, I don’t know, but as retirement draws near, I’ll be looking for that thing that gives me purpose, that keeps me young.  Perhaps it will be as “small” as just being there for my family.  Perhaps it will be something “larger,” like becoming a CASA volunteer.  Whatever it is, having some money in the bank will allow me to take on a project that may be one the world needs, but not one that could pay me a living wage.  Do you want to do nothing other than drink beer and sit on a lounge chair in your retirement?  I’ll be honest, God didn’t make you for that, and the proof is in the pudding: retirees who give up “doing stuff,” if you will, lose their health, and, quite frankly, die faster.  This article sums up the myriad of studies that prove seniors with a sense of purpose live longer.  However, if you want the freedom to pursue a passion and continue making a positive impact on the world in your retirement, then no, saving for retirement is not turning away from serving God.

Now, let’s get to the real worrying.  Again, in the grand scheme of things, I’m guessing most of you, dear readers, have your basic needs being met.  Maybe not as comfortably as you might want, but they are being met.  That being said, who hasn’t worried, in a very tangible way, about having enough money?  I recognize my privilege in that.  Yes, we have debt I’d like to clear up, and I can’t make large – or really even medium – purchases without planning for them, but I can go through the grocery checkout without worrying if I need to put some things back.  You know how many people can’t do that?  But even from this place of relative privilege, I know viscerally what it feels like to not have enough.  Just this year, with the government shutdown in January, Chris and I were in very real danger of having to deplete our savings, max out our credit cards, and possibly shut down the farm.  It didn’t come to that, but we had some stark conversations about what no contract work (on which we still rely) would look like.  As it was, our finances still took a hit.  (Mom, if you’re reading this, don’t worry, we’re fine!) Our debt went up instead of down, and we had to skip a rent payment.

In trying times it is easy to forget to pray, but this is just when we need to pray the most.  And I believe God will come through for us – I have to.  It may not be as soon (or as much) as we would like, but Xe will.  We are Xyr children, and Xe wants to see us thrive.  This small slice of the Bible contains many of my favorite verses.  High on the list is this one:

“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

God wants to provide for us, but even Jesus says we need to ask.  Let’s make a parenting analogy!  I have the capacity to get my kids just about anything they want for snack.  They probably want ice cream sandwiches and gingerale.  What I’m going to give them is pita and hummus and apple juice.  And I’m going to make them say “please, Mommy” when they ask me for more.  God has the capacity to provide us with anything, but Xe’s going to provide us with what we need.  Rest assured, even if it’s not exactly what you thought you were going to to get, Xe wants to see our needs met.

Also, not worrying does not mean we can just sit back and wait for the free blessings to rain down upon us.  “Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus tells us.  “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”  True, but they also spend their whole day in search of seed.  The birds are working, but in an in-the-moment sort of way.  One of my other favorite passages (one I need to remind myself of often) is this one:

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Jesus isn’t telling us to not worry at all, but just to not worry needlessly.  Perhaps this whole passage could be summed up as: Do what work is in your power, pray for God to fill in the rest, and all will be well.  Simple to say, hard to do, but I have to believe it’s true.  Let’s look at my own personal example again, of how the government shutdown effected us.  Our debt went up, but now the farm is doing better than ever before, and we are slowly working it back down.  My side hustles look like they might start making some money in the not-too-distant future, too, something I never would have expected in January, so relief is on the horizon.  As for skipping a rent payment, we are fortunate enough to live in a house owned by my very generous father in law, and he made it clear to us that he did not expect rent that month.  Now, is any of this how I would have chosen to be provided for?  No, I would have had that money and then some in the bank so I could pay down the debt right then and not have to worry about relying upon the generosity of family, but that is how God chose to provide for me.  Who knows, maybe Xe did it exactly so I could write this blog post – to testify how I know what it’s like to have to pick which bills to pay, to worry about the money running out, to have to humble myself and ask for help from family.  And how even from that low point,  I was able to trust that God would provide for me, and that you can, too.

I can hear the doubters now: “So what about all the untold millions who have died throughout history waiting for God’s mercy, for God’s provision? Did they not pray hard enough? Did God not love them?” To be honest I don’t have a good answer, and it troubles me, deeply.  The only thing I can say to that is I believe this life is only temporary, and perhaps God provided for those mentioned in ways that we cannot see or comprehend – maybe even beyond the bounds of this life and this world.  This in no way excuses the evils that mankind can visit upon each other, or grants us immunity from trying to rectify those evils, but I must believe that there is something greater at work, and that those who have suffered have not suffered in vain, but are now with God, who wipes every tear away.

My closing plea is this: Just try it.  Try turning to God with your needs.  What can it possibly hurt?  I’m not asking you to stop working, saving, paying off your debt, or even to stop wanting the things you want. Really the only thing I’m asking you is to stop worrying, and that’s behavior that even non-religious people would agree is detrimental to one’s mental and even physical health.  I know it’s hard, and the results may not be exactly what you’d thought, but try praying for what you want, what you need.  Do it with an open heart, and with patience.  Seek God first, and the rest will fall into place.

Matthew 6:1-18 – Secret Hearts

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’

14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

We’re going to pick up the pace (a little) for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, as some broader thematic topics are being addressed now.  In study Bibles, the passage above is often broken into three headings: “Giving to the Needy,” “Prayer,” and “Fasting.” And those are good headings, but I want to focus on the broader message here, which is how God knows our secret hearts.

Having a private relationship with God means that we have one that is more real.  If the Pharisees were around today, they might be part some of the worst of the Selfie generation:  posing outside the synagogue with ashes on their head, or a shot of them ladling something onto a plate at the soup kitchen from an up-high angle while the people in the background are serving people three times as fast.  In modern terms, they’re just there for the photo op.  Any accolades they receive are their just reward, and nothing deeper is going to come from it.

This doesn’t mean we can’t share about our Faith, it just means don’t be an ass about it.  If you’re just out there virtue signalling, you have some spiritual growing up to do.  The “likes and comments” test, if you will, is actually a pretty good one.  Are you just doing this for the attention, to belittle someone, or make yourself look better? Then keep it to yourself.  Are you doing this because you genuinely want to share something you think might make a difference?  Are you raising awareness for a worthy cause? Do you want to share your joy over God’s creation?  Go for it.

God knows our intentions, and if our intentions are good, then our actions will be also.  This is why it is so important to keep coming back to love.  Are our actions coming from a place of love?  It sounds so simple, but it’s really very divisive.  In fact, I think this may be my biggest beef with much of Conservative Christianity.  They say that their beliefs, their actions, come from a love of Jesus, and a want to uphold his teachings.  But Jesus taught us, above all, to love our neighbors, love our enemies. So if we love Jesus, then we should be focused on that, right?  And loving someone does not included forced conversion therapy, denying services to someone who isn’t the right religion or sexual orientation, or a paranoid guarding of this country’s borders.  Loving means making sure everyone has enough to eat, and a safe place to live, access to care, the ability to work and to love and to build a family unmolested, regardless of how different they are from us.  Actions creating that kind of world speak to loving intentions.  If we build our walls, deny our brothers and sisters their rights because they are “other,” we will get accolades from like-minded (small-minded) people.  And that is all that we’ll deserve.  But, if we help lift up everyone, even if it means working quietly and in small ways that only God may see, then we will be rewarded by God.

Matthew 5:43-48 – Love Your Enemies

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

And now we come to the crowd-control portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s really quite a brilliant speech, structurally, let alone it’s actual message.  Jesus just spent over 40 verses (I know, he didn’t actually talk in verses, but that’s how they’ve since been recorded) recognizing those who have traditionally lacked agency in society:  The poor and meek, those that hunger for righteousness, women, slaves, anyone who has taken issue with the Pharisees.  By acknowledging them and their plight Jesus got their attention.  They’re probably getting a little riled up, seeing a Rabbi (a person of some position) who is willing to take up for them, and beginning to ponder the possibilities of what that might mean.  I’d be like, yes, finally, here’s a guy who gets it.  Now, what establishment are we going to go tear down first?

Then this pivot to love your enemies.  It makes the crowd a little more introspective, turns their attentions to their own hearts and calms some of the “let’s-go-show-’em” attitude that might have been building up.  And it sets an introspective mood for the second half of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ll start examining next post, which deals more with one’s secret heart only God can see.

But this well-placed crowd control isn’t without its virtues.  It is a reminder we still need to hear today, perhaps particularly today.  It would be really easy to write a blog post today validating my own viewpoint, spending 500 words or so bashing conservative viewpoints and admonishing them to love their enemy. While I think those people definitely need a reminder about loving their enemies, Jesus is asking me to love my enemies, not go out and convince my enemies to love me.  Over the past two weeks, I’ve been harboring a lot of anger over the restrictive abortion bills that have been passed, as have a lot of us.  And yes, I do feel under attack, and like these lawmakers are my enemy.  I don’t really feel like loving any of them.  I’m guessing you don’t either.  So don’t worry, no one, least of all Jesus, is asking you to go give them a hug.  What he is asking for is a peaceful, constructive way forward.

A word or two on translation may help, here.  Again, I’m no ancient language scholar, so I’m taking this on faith in others’ translations:  There are two particular words that make a difference here.  First, the word for “love” used here is “agape,” which if you are a church going person, you may have heard before.  Agape is different than “philios” (which, as you might have guessed, means brotherly love) and certainly isn’t “eros” (romantic love).  “Agape” love is an all-inclusive love.  A love of everything, if you will.  It is an overarching wish for benevolence and goodwill.  That sounds super hard to attain, but I think it’s actually something we’ve all experienced.  Have you ever just had a really good day?  It might be hard to pinpoint what exactly makes it so great, but you’re just really happy and feel like spreading that happy around?  Perhaps you’re extra-smiley to people in cross-traffic, chat with the checkout clerk, and give you’re partner an extra kiss because you’re just happy that you all are both there in the same place at the same time.  I think this is Agape love.  Now, holding onto that feeling may be hard, because there is a lot that can come in and derail it (like a speeding ticket, or an obnoxious customer in front of you, or your partner bringing up *that* sore subject again), but you know the feeling I’m talking about, right?

Second, “perfect.”  The word is “teleios,” and can also be translated to “whole,” or “complete,” which I think is a much better translation.  Jesus isn’t asking us to be perfect, because come on, he knows we’re human, right? He’s asking us to be all-inclusive.  We need to love everyone.  That means people that aren’t our race, or religion, or nationality.  That means sexual minorities, poor people, that annoying coworker who just won’t stop talking and that nosey neighbor who let’s you know the minute your grass gets above two inches high….and the Alabama congressmen who passed the abortion law last week.

So how do we “agape” in a “teleios” manner?  How do we hold a benevolent wish of goodwill for all of mankind?  Practice.  I think agape love is a practice kind of like forgiveness: it’s an ongoing learning process in which we might sometimes fall of the wagon, but we have to keep trying, we can’t just one-and-done it.  Just keep practicing, and we’ll get better at it.

But what TF to practice?  “Love thy enemies” is ripe for saccharine platitudes that just paper over the hurts caused by said enemies, allowing those that hold the power to keep trampling over the rights of those that don’t.  Unfortunately nothing is nearly as satisfying as the realization that Jesus is actually telling us to take a stand when he says to turn the other cheek, but there are a few things that we can do that will help.

Praying, for one.  I know, that sounds like the most saccharine of all. “Thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers” are the empty words used after every school shooting that just make my blood boil.  But again, if we view agape love like we view forgiveness, it is just as much (if not more so) for ourselves as it is for our enemies.  When we pray for our enemies, we change ourselves into better people, not to mention set a good example for our kids, our enemies’ kids, and anyone else who might be watching.  Make it a selfish prayer: “God, I hate this person and I do not want to.  Please help me find a way to find love in my heart for them.”

Also, remembering them as human helps, too.  Actually, I’ve become a lot better at this part since becoming a mom.  Remember that even the most abhorrent person was once a child, once a baby, helps frame them as just another part of the system that raised them, not an evil monster.  That doesn’t mean we can’t vehemently oppose whatever heinous things they do, or even advocate for fair retributions, but realizing that they are human, too, helps in our own practice of agape love.

Pivoting the focus away from a person and back towards the issue can take a lot of heat out of things.  This is tricky, and I’ll be honest, as a middle-class white woman I’m uncomfortable writing about it.  So let me just come out and say, I’m not telling anyone not to be angry.  I’m not telling anyone to “calm down.”  There is a time and place for anger, for strong language, for sweeping movements and statements.  If you are oppressed, use those tools.  But if you’re just angry, especially if you’re in a place of privilege, leave those tools for those who really need it.  As my mama always taught me, you’ll catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.  Whenever possible, focus on the issue and don’t make things personal.  You’ll look like the bigger person and I guarantee that will win you points in the long run.

Finally, show compassion. To your friends, to you enemies, to everyone you possibly can.  It’s the best way to lead by example and help be a positive change in the world.  It is  hard to hate someone offering only love.  Sure, there will be people that manage to harbor that hate, but there will be others who let it go.  Again, think of your enemies’ kids:  What better victory would it be to win them over?  And it’s happening.  Take acceptance of gay marriage for example.  According to the Pew Research Center, in 2004, 60% of Americans disapproved of gay marriage.  In 2019, 61% now approve of gay marriage.  In the time it takes for one generation to come of age, that flip has happened.  Yes, there were people who fought vehemently for that change, but you know what I think was the most deciding factor in this change of opinion?  Compassion, or lack thereof.  I think people, particularly young people, saw the nasty vitriol with which many conservative leaders were attacking gay rights (mostly in words, but sometimes in deeds), and saw the love and acceptance that gay rights advocates were upholding, and the choice was clear – go with the love.

It is hard, and even disheartening, to be asked to love our enemies when they are spewing so much hatred.  But their hatred is exactly why we have to keep loving them.  We will “win” in the long run if we do so, as I hope the example above illustrated.  Keep protesting, keep speaking your truth, keep advocating for those who can’t.  But remember that the world is watching, and will judge our actions towards our enemies just as much as they judge our enemies’ actions.  Let’s make those actions compassionate and loving.  Doing so, we will win.