First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 8

William Loader

Epiphany 8: 27 February Matthew 6:24-34

The agrarian society of Jesus' Galilee and Matthew's probable context could sustain a movement where its emissaries turned up in towns and villages and could find board and lodging. Poverty levels were not so dire across the board to make this impossible. Jesus' advice could make sense both for his agents and for those who remained at home. There was enough to cloth them like the lilies and to feed them like the birds. We all know situations where this does not work, where without outside intervention people shrivel in starvation and face exposure and death through lack of shelter. Simply transferring Jesus' words into sites of famine is naive and grossly irresponsible.

In fact Jesus' context in that sense had more in common with the situation most of us as readers of this website face. Of copurse, the differences are nevertheless stark.. Their resources were barely enough but sufficed for basic support. Ours usually far exceed our needs. Yet our passage begins with a challenge to idolatry which still resonates. Obviously it must have meant something in Jesus' day. There were those whose self-interest set them an agenda of acquisition, which Jesus sees as competing with God and God's will. Jesus' parables offer us a window onto a basic economy where investment, money-lending and shrewd business were alive and well. Jesus knew about it well enough to employ its images.

The issue for Jesus was what - who - ruled one's priorities. He sets the self-serving pursuit of money on a par with religious devotion as something which can be all encompassing. The alternative is not a naive return to a pre-monetary world of barter or self sufficiency, but engagement in God's world of evolving humanity and human community in a way that did not set people against each other or secure my wealth by diminishing yours. The challenge to seek God's rule and God's righteousness which must include God's justice, with which this passage ends, informs its opening challenge. It flies directly in the face of  the continuing public discourse in much of what bombards us in the media, namely that we should live by greed and accumulate more than we need to live. The challenge remains not to withdraw but to engage, including to gain and use resources for the common good.

Jesus' argument not only appeals to what would have worked in his economy - risking (trusting) that local resources will suffice for survival. He also addresses worry and fear, which frequently drive greed. Greed becomes an obsession which paradoxically impoverishes our spirit. As in last week's reading, we find another sleight against Gentiles - Christians later made it worse by assuming a reference to the "heathen". Its justification is that Matthew (or Jesus?) was sufficiently aware of what drove the wider world to name it, even if grossly stereotyping the "other". The truth is that all human beings know the anxiety about not having enough love and being abandoned and all know that one strategy for filling the void is to accumulate wealth if not also power - we often accumulate the comforting layers of body of fat to our detriment for the same reason. Out of neediness we not only diminish ourselves - we rob others of justice and a fair share. The gospel deals with this gross injustice not primarily by telling us off, but by offering a new centre to our lives, a new centre of seeking, as 6:33 suggests.

There is a sense in which seeking first God's reign and God's righteousness/goodness/justice will give you the satisfaction in life which we all need and which the gospel encourages us to value. It does so because it teaches us to merge together in love respect and care about God, others, and ourselves. Outside of contexts like those of Jesus and Matthew its impact in terms of the basic necessities of life will vary: It would be false comfort for those starving whose only hope is their destiny with God beyond death, but before that pain and grief. It would be false pretence for those of us whose basic needs are more than met and in gross adversity have welfare schemes to support us. We all need to take thought for the morrow if not for our own sake, certainly for the sake of others. But then we can do so, not driven by the lonely greed which wants all tomorrows to serve its ends, but in the trust that ultimately when we open tomorrow's door God will not have gone away.

Epistle: Epiphany 8:  27 February  1 Corinthians 4:1-5