Matt. 6:24-34: 23rd February 2014
If you were to find a group of friends all of whom have jobs, places to live, and a family car and you were to read today’s gospel to them, how might they respond? What would be their concerns? How might they hear the message – don’t worry about what you will eat or drink or wear, because God will take care of you?
Perhaps they’re struggling to pay the mortgage, perhaps there’s some uncertainty about their employment, perhaps a child is having trouble at school. These are all important things, and they need to hear Jesus= words. They can trust God to be there for them. And perhaps they will hear the Gospel as an encouragement to focus on the things that really matter, rather than just material wants. … Strive first for God’s kingdom and all these things will be added to you as well!
Now try (at least in your imagination) to read this gospel to the millions of people who have fled Syria, or who have been displaced from their homes in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. People who’ve been living in refugee camps, some for considerably more than a year. Or try, to read this gospel, as one of those in our own community who have been sanctioned under the new benefit rules, and who have lost all of their housing benefit at a stroke.
What might be heard by the well-off audience as an admonishment to focus on the things that matter, rather than material wants, is not an option for these people.
If you’ve spent the last year or more worrying every minute about feeding your children, giving them shelter at night, and perhaps someday being able to get them some shoes, Jesus’ message cannot be easy to hear. What does he mean, don’t worry? Life is nothing but worry.
Now we know that Jesus is not saying that the basic necessities of human life don’t matter. We know that he is not saying that these necessities will magically appear if we believe in him in the right way. So perhaps, he=s talking to people who actually have enough to live on. If not, doesn’t his encouragement not to worry seem rather cruel?
But what about those who truly don’t have enough? Where is the good news for them in today’s gospel?
Jesus says: Don’t spend your time and energy fretting about all this stuff. If you have enough, be thankful. And beware of making an idol of having what you want, rather than merely what you need. If you don’t have enough, it’s not because God doesn’t love you.
There is no simple equation to apply. You cannot say: those who please God have plenty; those who have displeased God will suffer.
If only it were that easy! It would simplify matters greatly, to be able to draw a straight line between a list of dos and don’ts and the corresponding benefits or punishments. We would know where we stood! For example, if you steal, the crack in your lounge wall will get longer; how much longer will depend on the value of what was stolen. Or if you cheat on your taxes, wham, you’ll be hit by a bus.
It just is not like that! We cannot justifiably say that those trapped in camps in Lebanon or Northern Uganda deserve their misfortune. We cannot, without gross generalisation, say that those sanctioned under the new benefit rules, all deserve to have no rent money, and thus no food or fuel. Jesus is encouraging his followers to look beyond the kind of inflexible thinking that attaches virtue to success and vice to failure.
God’s desire for us is that we all have enough; rather than we use some complex method to determine precisely how blessed or cursed we will be. “No one can serve two masters,” he says. We’ve got to decide what our priorities and values are, and if we’re going to follow Jesus, then those priorities and values will not be focussed on ourselves but on the needs of others.
The situation in Syria, the Sudan, the Central African Republic, of the Gaza strip will not magically get better. Many of the deserving poor in our own country will continue to be badly treated. The person in desperate circumstances will not necessarily see Jesus words as Good News. The effects of an earthquake in Pakistan, or floods in the UK cannot conveniently be sidestepped by those who are Christians. … While we have ample evidence that God doesn’t prevent disaster or save good Christians from it, Jesus assures us that God will not leave us alone, no matter how bad things seem. God’s love is there for all of us.
The Sermon on the Mount, of which today’s gospel is a part, is subversive. It’s values are not the values of the world. Things were just as bad in Jesus= day as they are today. And Jesus’ teaching in the face of all that is wrong with the world is consistent: have faith, and do something about the bad things by doing all the good you can.
Today’s gospel is part of a larger message, part of Jesus’ challenge to to us: Life in the kingdom of God has different values from the world. Life in the kingdom of God includes the poor, the merciful, those who mourn. Life in the kingdom of God is about bearing light to the darkest parts of the world, it is about salting the world with mercy and justice. Today’s gospel, taken outside this context, sounds unrealistic to someone who is suffering. In the larger context of Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is reminding us of God’s profound love for everything and everyone God has created. And encouraging us to focus on the kingdom of God.
For all human beings it is very easy to worry about the basics, about how we’ll pay the electric bill or what we are going to do about the heating system. Being good stewards of what we’re given is important. But there is at least one other thing of equal, if not greater, priority. We must ask: “How are we serving the kingdom of God? What are we doing that meets the needs of others? How are we being Good News to the poor?”
What Jesus proclaims, to refugees around the world, to the poor in the UK, and to comfortable British citizens alike, is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Grace and mercy are available to all. …And, for those us who already have much, which is the majority of us; perhaps we are meant to be the instruments of God=s grace and mercy. Perhaps it is through us that God intends to reach out to those in the deepest need. Perhaps God’s kingdom will only be real in Syria, the Gaza strip, in the Sudan of the Central African Republic, to those in need in our own community, if it comes to them through us. As we seek the kingdom of God, perhaps we will be God’s answer to the painful worries of others.
We have the responsibility, and at times the joy, of being the conduit through which the love of God reaches out into God’s world. “And,” says Jesus, “Even Solomon in all his glory didn’t shine as brightly as those who share and give and work for the kingdom of God.”