MATTHEW 6. THE CONTEXT
In chapter 6, Jesus calls for simple piety and secrecy in almsgiving (6:1-4), prayer (6:5-15), and fasting (6:16-18). The purpose of these spiritual endeavors is to do God’s will. We are to be concerned to please God rather than to win human approval. Jesus counsels his disciples to store up treasure in heaven rather than on earth (6:19-21) and then says, “The eye is the lamp of the body,” (6:22)—using the eye as a metaphor for spiritual vision. These verses are related to our text, because they emphasize living a life focused on God—seeking Godly rather than human approval—and seeking spiritual rather than material rewards.
In verses 19-21 (about storing up treasure in heaven rather than on earth), Jesus is talking about material possessions in excess of our needs. In verses 25-33, he is talking about essentials—food, water, and clothing.
This reading forces us to go beyond “Thanks, God, for all my stuff!” or “Help me to get more stuff!” in our prayers—and properly so. It emphasizes that the Father, who has demonstrated his generosity throughout all creation knows our needs—and, if we will seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33).
MATTHEW 6:24. NO ONE CAN SERVE TWO MASTERS
24“No one can serve two masters (Greek: kuriois), for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon (Greek: mamona—property, money, possessions).
“No one can serve two masters“ (kuriois). Kurios is a word often used in the New Testament for Jesus, and on those occasions is usually translated “Lord.” In this verse, it refers to a different kind of master—a slave owner.
“No one can serve two masters.“ Jesus doesn’t state this as a warning, but as a fact. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t serve two masters, but that it isn’t possible. The attempt to serve two masters will just frustrate us and waste our time.
“for either he will hate the one and love the other.” It isn’t possible for us to balance two loves for any length of time, because one will bubble to the top and squash the other. When we really love one, we will resent the claims the other tries to make on our lives and will begin to hate/despise that one. That’s simply how we are wired—how God made us.
Nor is it possible to serve no master at all. Like it or not, we will follow some guiding principle—even if that principle is nihilism (the belief that there is no objective or moral truth). If it is true that we can truly serve only one master—and Jesus and experience tell us that it is—then it matters greatly which master we choose to serve. Our choice will dictate the direction that our life will take.
“You can’t serve both God and Mammon” (Greek: mamona—property, money, possessions). The NRSV translates mamona as “wealth,” but the KJV transliterated it (brought it into the English language as a new word)—Mammon—a word that, when capitalized, sounds like the name of a pagan god. The KJV approach has much to commend it. While there was no religion in Jesus’ day that worshiped a god called Mammon, people in every age worship at Mammon’s altar. Today we call it Affluence or Success or Promotion or Prosperity or the Good Life, and use it as a sailor uses the North Star—to set our direction—to guide our lives.
Jesus says that we cannot steer both by Mammon’s star and God’s star. Those stars reside in two separate parts of the heavens. “The one commands us to talk by faith and the other demands that we walk by sight. The one calls us to be humble and the other to be proud, the one to set our minds on things above and the other to set them on things below. One calls us to love light, the other to love darkness. The one tells us to look toward things unseen and eternal and the other to look at things seen and temporal” (MacArthur on 6:24). To try to tack between these two stars can only lead us into the abyss.
There is no prohibition in this verse against possessing wealth, but a few verses earlier Jesus counseled, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consume, and where thieves don’t break through and steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (6:19-21).
The problem is less in having mammon than in serving it—giving it our heart—letting it rule our lives—making it our top priority—letting it stand between us and God. David counsels, “if riches increase, do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10).
While wealth tempts us to selfishness, it is possible to use wealth unselfishly. Paul counsels the rich “not to be haughty,” but “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19). A number of Godly rich people follow this counsel, and their lives are a blessing to the beneficiaries of their good works.
The problem is that mammon snakes its tentacles around our hearts and chokes our relationship with God. After his encounter with the rich young ruler, Jesus observed, “it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24).
MATTHEW 6:25. DON’T BE ANXIOUS FOR YOUR LIFE
25“Therefore, I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
“Therefore, I tell you, don’t be anxious (merimnesete) for your life.”Jesus is not commending recklessness, but calls us not to be distracted by worry. A faithful disciple can make plans for the future, but needs to avoid being anxious about the future. Worry disables; faith enables.
Anxiety with regard to Mammon is a soul-cancer that strikes the rich, the poor, and those in the middle:
• The rich person is anxious to get richer still—to accumulate houses, cars, art, clothing, and other possessions to advertise his/her success. He/she must then try to protect these possessions against moth, rust, embezzlement, accounting fraud, inflation, deflation, high and low interest rates, and innumerable other threats. The energy required to maximize profitability, even of a modest estate, is enormous, and there are no guarantees. And, of course, death will sooner or later take it all away—all of it—irrevocably. The more we have, the more we stand to lose—and the more we worry about losing it.
• The middle-class person is anxious about job security, health insurance, car payments, house payments, tuition, the cost of child care, leaky roofs, worn tires, and a host of other concerns.
• The poor person is anxious about keeping a roof overhead and food on the table. Poor people are easily tempted by lotteries and other unlikely get-rich-quick schemes, because they have such desperate needs and so little hope.
Keep in mind that Jesus, even as he counsels people not to worry, is aware of a cross in his future. He is not stoic about pain—he will sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane—but he will also pray, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Worry is the opposite of faith. As Ruth Graham Bell says: “I (have) learned that worship and worry cannot live in the same heart: they are mutually exclusive.” Someone else made this observation:
“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its trials—
it simply empties today of its joy.
Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow—
it empties today of its strength.”
Jesus isn’t anti-money, but is instead anti-anxiety. He doesn’t counsel us to be flippant about possessions or to be careless stewards. We have financial needs, and Jesus says that God understands that (v. 30). God also expects us to help the hungry and the homeless by providing food and shelter, and that requires financial resources. Toward the end of this Gospel Jesus will warn that, on Judgment Day, God will count as sheep those who have taken care of the needy and will count as goats those who have failed to do so (Matthew 25:31-46). That task might seem overwhelming in its scope, but Jesus calls us to trust God—and not to be anxious.
As I am writing this, we are living in an era of unprecedented affluence. The wealth is unevenly distributed, but the love of money burns equally brightly in the hearts of rich and poor. What Billy Graham said decades ago continues to resonate today. He said:
“We are rich in the things that perish,
but poor in the things of the spirit.
We are rich in gadgets, but poor in faith.
We are rich in goods, but poor in grace.
We are rich in know-how, but poor in character.
We are rich in words, but poor in deeds.”
“The greatest danger to Western Christianity is not, as is sometimes alleged, prevailing ideologies such as Marxism, Islam, the New Age movement or humanism, but rather the all-pervasive materialism of our affluent culture” (Craig Blomberg, quoted in Keener, 151).
“what you will eat, or what you will drink.” For much of the First World, obesity rather than hunger is the problem. We are eating ourselves to death. If we truly loved our neighbor, as Jesus calls us to do, we would eat more simply and do more to provide for the needs of our hungry neighbor.
“nor yet for your body, what you will wear.”A visit to a modern mall will demonstrate our obsession with decorating our bodies. The typical mall has acres and acres of clothing on display—most of it fashionable rather than functional. The promise is that such clothes will make us popular. Much of the clothing for young people, particularly teenage girls, is revealing and sexually provocative. The promise that such clothing will bring happiness proves hollow when it encourages casual sex and results in unwanted pregnancies.
Jesus doesn’t call us to wear dowdy clothing. The issue isn’t our clothing but our hearts. The problem isn’t that we enjoy looking good, but that we give material possessions the throne-room in our hearts—the place that is intended for God. The problem is that we become obsessive about impressing people instead of trying to please God.
Nor is the problem limited to clothing. We are tempted by an endless array of material possessions that promise to impress our neighbors—luxury automobiles, huge RVs, fancy boats, oversized McMansions. Jesus doesn’t call us to keep up with the Joneses—or to impress them—or to cause them to envy us. He calls us to love them.
“Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Jesus isn’t saying that food and clothing are unimportant. In verse 32, he will acknowledge that we need them. His call here is to perspective—to giving material things their proper place in our lives.
MATTHEW 6:26-30. SEE THE BIRDS OF THE SKY
26“See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they?
27“Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment (Greek: pechun—cubit) to his lifespan? 28Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies (Greek: krina—wildflowers) of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, 29yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith?”
Jesus first tells us not to be anxious, and then provides the rationale:
• God provides for the sparrow, who works but does not worry.
• God, who gave us life, will provide for our needs.
• Our worry is futile; it does not accomplish anything.
• God clothes the flowers beautifully, even though they are of minor importance compared with humans—God’s sons and daughters created in God’s image. Jesus argues from lesser to greater—a common type of reasoning among the Jews of his day.
It is true that birds “don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns” (v. 26), but that hardly makes them slothful or careless creatures. They build nests, forage for food, and care for their young. We have an obligation to do the same: to work—to produce—to avoid idleness and dependency.
Some Christians in Thessalonica misunderstood this. They decided to sit back and await Jesus’ Second Coming. In the process, they became moochers and meddlers. Paul noted that, in his earlier visit, he had counseled, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). In his follow-up letter, he referred to the non-workers as “in rebellion” and “busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11). He commanded them to work and to eat their own bread (2 Thessalonians 3:12).
Jesus does not promise affluence, but promises only that the Father will provide for such basic needs as food and clothing.
“Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?” (v. 27). A cubit is a measure of distance rather than time—the distance from fingertip to elbow—roughly a foot and a half (half a meter). In this context, however, it clearly refers to time—to lifespan. The irony, of course, is that anxiety does not lengthen life but shortens it. Worry is a killer! It clogs arteries and stops hearts!
Of course, prudence with regard to diet and exercise can lengthen life by many hours. It is simple stewardship to exercise such prudence—to adopt healthy practices and to encourage others to do the same. Worry, however, is not one of those healthy practices.
“Consider the lilies (Greek: krina) of the field…. Even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these” (vv. 28b-29). God does not clothe his creatures in plain, unadorned, shapeless garments. Jesus uses Solomon’s glory to illustrate lavish, sumptuous dress. God created krina to be even more lavish and sumptuous than even Solomon’s Sunday best.
Krina can refer to any one of several wildflowers, including lilies, anemones, poppies, and daisies. Krina are beautiful. In clothing them, God used every color, texture, and shape, weaving them together to be immensely pleasing to the eye. Not only are krina beautifully clothed, but trees too—and birds—and butterflies—and lions, leopards, panthers, and cheetahs—and horses and cows—and koalas and kangaroos—and zebras and giraffes—and tropical fish. God obviously enjoys beauty, and provides it in abundance for our enjoyment.
“But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith?” (v. 30). The call here is not to forego beauty in clothing (or anything else), but to forego anxiety about clothing (or anything else). It is good to enjoy God’s beautiful gifts, but it is not good to worry about them. Again Jesus argues from the lesser to the greater. If God takes care of wildflowers and grass, won’t he also take care of his children?
Our difficulty with this is that Christians often suffer violence or poverty or starvation or illness—just like everyone else. I have researched this issue, but cannot claim a definitive answer. However, I will offer these tentative thoughts:
• Both Old and New Testaments tell of situations where God has failed to answer prayers (Job 19:7; 30:20; Psalm 18:41; 60:1-3; Isaiah 40:27; Lamentations 3:8-9; 2 Corinthians 12:7-9; Matthew 26:39; Hebrews 11:39-40; James 4:3).
• There are lists of reasons why prayers are not answered. The person praying lacked faith—or asked for the wrong thing or for the wrong reason. God knows best, and will answer in a way that is better than we asked or even imagined. The person who suffers here will prosper in heaven. While there is some merit in such thoughts, a mother standing by the grave of her infant child would find them neither comforting nor convincing. We need to tread very carefully here, because there are broken hearts in every pew. They need love, not insensitive, ill-considered Biblical quotations.
• If God were to answer every prayer as asked, the result would be chaos. Most people lack the spiritual underpinnings to ask prayers that God would want to answer as asked.
• Our prayers are precious to God, because we are precious to God. He invites us to come back again—and again—and again—because he loves to hear from us. He loves to have us near. He loves us.
• While God might not always give us everything we want—any more than you would give your children everything they want—Jesus promises that God will bless us when we call on him day and night (Luke 18:7).
• People who live as Jesus calls us to live are not only better equipped spiritually to survive tough times, they are more likely to live more enjoyable lives—and more prosperous lives as well. My church history professor used to talk about the Quakers, who worked hard, produced quality work, interacted in kind and generous ways with their neighbors, and developed rock-solid reputations for integrity. People stood in line to do business with Quakers, who gradually became quite wealthy. Conversely, people who ignore Jesus’ moral precepts often make great trouble for themselves.
MATTHEW 6:31-33. SEEK FIRST GOD’S KINGDOM AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS
31“Therefore don’t be anxious (Greek: merimnesete), saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“Therefore don’t be anxious” (merimnesete) (v. 31). The KJV says, “Therefore take no thought,” which sounds as if Jesus is prohibiting planning, but that is not the case. The subject here is worry—anxiety.
“For the Gentiles seek after all these things” (v. 32a). “Gentiles” here is a synonym for “pagans”—people outside the community of faith—people who know nothing of God—people whose actions stem from impure motives and thoughts. It is people such as this who ask “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”
“your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (v. 32b). Jesus does not say that food and clothing are unimportant but, to the contrary, reminds us that the Father—the one who created us to be human—knows full well our need for food, clothing, and “all these things.” We don’t have to persuade the Father about this, because the Father has known it all along. We can take comfort in that fact, because the Father is capable of meeting our needs.
“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well” (v. 33). The star toward which the Christian is to navigate is God—God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. The promise is that the person who steers in that direction will find blessings along the way. The promise is not wealth, but essentials—food and clothing. These two, food and clothing, serve as a metaphor for all the essentials: air to breathe, medical care, shelter, and all the rest.
The Christian who puts Jesus’ counsel into practice can have a tremendous witness. So many people are so worried about such petty things—even the brand names on clothing and cars. People who live prudently and trust God to meet their needs stand in contrast to such anxious people. Their peaceful demeanor draws people to them, allowing them to point those people to Christ. Putting this passage into practice can be life-saving, both for the person who does so—and for those to whom he/she bears witness.
“seek first God’s kingdom” does not mean first in sequence but first in priority. It isn’t that we are to strive for the kingdom of God for a period of time so that we may then be free to strive for other things, but that we should keep the kingdom in the forefront of our concerns always.
MATTHEW 6:34. SO DON’T BE ANXIOUS FOR TOMORROW
34“Therefore don’t be anxious (Greek: merimnesete) for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil (Greek: kakia) is sufficient.”
“So don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” As noted above, this is not intended to prohibit planning but anxiety. In the Parable of the Bridesmaids (25:1-13), Jesus makes it clear that preparation is essential—although the preparation called for in that parable is spiritual in nature, and is not intended to secure the cradle-to-grave physical security that we crave.
While planning and preparing, we can be sure that God is for us, so we have no need to be anxious (Romans 8:31). That does not constitute a guarantee that God will endorse all our plans or open all the doors that we want opened, but it is a guarantee that God will open the right doors at the right times. Nor is it a guarantee that we will not suffer. Christ calls us to cross-bearing discipleship (8:34), and many Christians have suffered and even died for their faith. However, it is a promise that, in life and death, we belong to God and, in life and death, God provides for our needs.
“Each day’s own evil (kakia—evil, bad things, difficulties, troubles, hardships) is sufficient.” This is a call to live in the present—and to trust God for present needs. We will gain nothing by re-living yesterday’s troubles, nor will we be well served by constant worry for the future.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Boring, M. Eugene, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
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Copyright, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan