“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”
In the season of Trinity, the Church considers christian duty. Throughout these weeks we ask how Christians should live in light of the knowledge of the Holy Trinity. From the parable of Lazarus and rich man to the fruit bearing tree, the Gospel readings in Trinity Season have encouraged us to persevere in God’s grace so that we may grow in our duty towards God and man. This Sunday’s Gospel focuses on the critical interior aspect of our Christian duty: how our intentions and desires must be aligned in order for us to serve in the kingdom of God. Let’s consider the context of the passage at hand before we examine how Jesus calls on our undivided attention to His Father.
The Gospel is the second half of chapter 6 in Matthew, which is the middle portion of the Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus’ key teachings on our duty towards God. In the first half of chapter six Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer while emphasizing that our motive for prayer is of utmost importance. He encourages the people before him to pray and fast in secret, only letting Our Father in heaven know our intentions. This should remind us of the parable of the Pharisee and the publican we heard as our Gospel in Trinity 11. Both were visibly serving God, and the Pharisee even seemed to perform his duty to an even greater degree. But Jesus commended the publican because his heart was humble. It is this private life of our hearts and minds that Jesus focuses upon. We as humans have the capacity to hide our true desires, and we may end up like that Pharisee who shows a religious shell to the outside while his interior life is corrupted. This interiority, of course, extends beyond our religion. We all know that in our relationships we have the capacity to hide our true desires, all the while slowly separating ourselves from those we most love.
We are reminded of this temptation in our opening collect. We pray at every mass: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit.” As a congregation we commit together to the intention of perfectly opening ourselves up to God who already knows us more than we do ourselves. Let us now turn back to Matthew and see how Jesus teaches us to open our hearts to God the Father.
In the second half of chapter six, Jesus continues to focus solely on the intentions of the heart. The immediate context to our Gospel reading is a brilliant rhetorical set up using two metaphors. First, Jesus declares that we should store treasure for ourselves in heaven rather than the earth where moth and rust consume. He concludes with the famous verse: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” By this Jesus means that what you love shapes your ultimate end.
Jesus explains this further with a second metaphor: the eye as the light of the body. Just as when you close your eyes, your whole sense of sight and body go dark, if the heart is evil, the whole body is full of darkness. In another sense, the eye can be taken to mean our power of reason which enlightens our body. When our reason is corrupted and our intentions evil, then our whole life and body is corrupted. This is the set up for the Gospel this week.
Our Gospel, then, is a practical explanation, a working out, of these two images. The reason why the eye darkens the whole body, or why a corrupted reason/intention corrupts our whole being and the reason why our hearts determine our treasure is because “NO man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.” Serving two masters is impossible, a contradiction of terms. You cannot serve a second master without the goals of the first master influencing all of your decisions.
As Jesus puts it: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” One cannot have a heart oriented towards riches and consumption and also orient that same heart towards God. It is impossible. But in the context of chapter six we understand that Jesus is not condemning anyone who is rich, because the whole context is about the intentions of the heart. It is those who are enslaved to their riches who cannot enslave themselves to God. As Jerome reminds us: “For he who is the slave of money, guards his money as a slave; but he who has thrown off the yoke of his slavery, dispenses them as a master.”
The lure and false promise of mammon is especially pertinent in our place and time. However, this is not a new temptation, and you don’t have to have money to be a slave to mammon. It is the desires of our hearts that need to change and Jesus offers a striking answer even for us in the twenty-first century: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” It is interesting that this verse comes right after the admonition to be careful about riches. Why would rich people have to care about what they will drink or eat or clothes? They don’t need to worry about that–they have the money for that. Paying attention here shows that Jesus is warning against much more than an anxiety of basic necessities. This is not just anxiety as concern, as putting a basic meal on the table, but the all-consuming anxiety of worldliness, of intentionally focusing only on material goods. It is what Jesus kindly admonished Martha for when she was so worried about what had to be cooked and served. Her service was not sinful, but the intentions of her heart were not focused on the Messiah who was in her own home.
But Jesus does not stop his teaching without giving a way to reorient our intentions so that we may fulfill our duty to God and man in a sincere and righteous way. Jesus continues in Matthew 6: “Is not the life more than meat, and the body [more] than raiment?” In one sense, this idea is the foundation of our trust in God. The God who made our very souls and breathed into us life, can surely provide us with food. And the God who knitted together our bodies that are fearfully and wonderfully made, can more easily provide covering for our bodies. We can trust God because we know that since he has given us life, he will also supply us with means of living. Our hearts should be oriented towards God who not only created the whole universe, but he already knows what our needs are.
In another sense, this passage protests against a materialistic view of life in which mammon is god. “Is not the life more than meat, and the body [more] than raiment?” Our life, and by life he means your very soul, is more than just food and clothes. If it were not, then all of our worship would be meaningless. A materialistic mindset cannot move beyond the mere physical. All life is cells and membranes and dust and not much more. It avoids the true meaning of our lives, and seeks distraction in the material world. In fact, if we are not careful, even putting a sufficient meal on the table can distract us from our duty. Jesus declares that life given over to material superficiality is not only sinful and stupid, but it prevents us from being real and authentic.
Jesus calls us to a different vision of the world, a different orientation of our hearts. This orientation is predicated on the fact that God is creator. Look at creation, how the lilies are dressed by God each morning and common birds are fed by the Master of Creation. This is a material world, but one charged with the grandeur and love of God. Therefore, in all we do, we must orient our hearts on God’s kingdom so that all of creation may be seen as God sees it. The temptation, of course, is to view riches or their consumption as a final end, to try to serve God and mammon at the same time, but this is futile. Why would we need to be anxious for our own life, to serve another master like Mammon when the creator of the universe is our own creator? The end of your life is more than what you sow, what you reap, what you gather into barns. Or in modern terms, your life is more than the investments you make, the salary you bring in, the stuff we fill in our garages. It must be more or we will be slaves to it. And so to seek the kingdom first means re-orienting our desires and intentions so that we may say with the Psalmist in all we do: Psalm 96: “O. Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; let the whole earth stand in awe of him.”