Let the Scriptures Speak
To Care and Not to Care
But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides. (Matt 6:33)
Does Jesus invite his followers to take on the attitude of the "flower children" of the 1960s? It is not hard to hear such a mentality in today's reading from the Sermon on the Mount. But what would it mean to take these words seriously?
Why are you so anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? (Mt 6:28-30).
A single mother, struggling to raise two children on a less-than-living wage, what is she to make of such talk? The issues of providing sufficient food and clothing for herself and her children are very practical concerns for her, and she knows they are going to demand some work on her part. What possible meaning could this Sunday's Gospel have for her?
The key to understanding this radical teaching on anxiety lies in verse 33: “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” So Jesus is not teaching us to be careless, but to center our care in the right place—on the kingdom of God. And it is important to recognize that "kingdom of God" (or "kingdom of heaven," as it more frequently appears in this Gospel) does not refer primarily to life after death but to living in response to God's reign here and now. The previous portion of the Sermon on the Mount has been all about the righteousness of God's kingdom. The righteousness mentioned in the Beatitudes (which we are to hunger and thirst for, and even suffer for) is the righteousness that must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). The rest of Matthew 5 spells that out as a way of life entailing forgiveness, nonviolence, and love of enemies. And the Last Judgment scenario of Matthew 25 will illustrate righteous behavior with the examples of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and giving drink to the thirsty.
Still, where does all this good thought leave the single mother struggling to feed and clothe her kids? It can help a little by calling her to focus her deepest care on living the life of righteousness spelled out in the whole Gospel. But perhaps the most important element in the Sermon is the aspect most frequently overlooked in the contemporary North Atlantic community—the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is addressed not simply to individuals but to the whole People of God. A community that together seeks first the kingdom of God and his righteousness will see to it that such mothers and their children will have the food, drink and clothing that they need.
Notice that this section of the Sermon is headed by the saying, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The poor are not often caught in the dilemma of trying to serve both God and money. It is those well off who are tempted to move beyond a balanced sufficiency to greater affluence. It is to those of us in that comfortable situation that Jesus' words are most pointedly directed. To those who find themselves caught between God and mammon Jesus says, most pertinently, "Get your priorities straight!" "Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness."
For those who have the means, it is one thing to eat a healthy diet, to get enough exercise, and to dress appropriately. It is something else to be preoccupied with dietary and sartorial fashion in ways that distract one from honoring God and serving the needs of others.
Somewhere, TS Eliot wrote this prayerful line: “Teach us to care and not to care.”* This is a wise paraphrase of today's Gospel. Teach us to care enough about the kingdom so that we can cease to care so much about our own personal stuff. That way, the reign of God will become more evident, when it is embodied in a community meeting the needs of all its members.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University