A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:23,24. A question of vision. A question of ambition (25-34).
It is pity that this passage is often read on its own in church, isolated from what has gone before. Then the significance of the introductory *Therefore I tell you* is missed. So we must begin by relating this ‘therefore’, this conclusion of Jesus, to the teaching which has led up to it. He calls us to thought before he calls us to action. He invites us to look clearly and coolly at the alternatives before us and to weigh them up carefully. We want to accumulate treasure? Then which of the two possibilities is the more durable? We wish to be free and purposive in our movements? Then what must our eyes be like to facilitate this? We wish to serve the best master? Then we must consider which is more worthy of our devotion. Only when we have grasped with our minds the comparative durability of the two treasures (corruptible and incorruptible), the comparative usefulness of the two eye conditions (light or darkness) and the comparative worth of the two masters (God or mammon), are we ready to make our choice. And only when we have made our choice – for heavenly treasure, for light, for God – *therefore I tell you* this is how you must go on to behave: *do not be anxious about your life … nor about your body … But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness* (25,33). In other words, our basic choice of which of two masters we intend to serve will radically affect our attitude to both. We shall not be anxious about the one (for we have rejected it), but concentrate our mind and energy on the other (for we have chosen him); we shall refuse to become engrossed in our own concerns, but instead *seek first* the concerns of God.
Christ’s language of search (contrasting what *the Gentiles seek* with what his followers are to *seek first*. 32,33) introduces us to the subject of ambition. Jesus took it for granted that all human beings are ‘seekers’. It is not natural for people to drift aimlessly through life like plankton. We need something to live for, something to give meaning to our existence, something to ‘seek’, something on which to set our ‘hearts’ (JBP) and our ‘minds’ (JB). Although few people today would use the language of ancient Greek philosophers, yet what we are seeking is, in fact, what they called ‘the Supreme Good’ to which to dedicate our lives. Probably ‘ambition’ is the best modern equivalent. True, in dictionary terms it means ‘a strong desire to achieve success’ and therefore often has a bad image, a selfish flavour. It is in this sense that Shakespeare in his King Henry VIII brings this appeal to Thomas Cromwell: ‘Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away Ambition. By that sin fell the angels …’ But ‘ambition’ can equally refer to other strong desires – unselfish rather than selfish, godly rather than worldly. In a word, it is possible to be ‘ambitious for God’. Ambition concerns our goals in life and our incentives for pursuing them. A person’s ambition is what makes him ‘tick’: it uncovers the mainspring of his actions, his secret inner motivation. This, then, is what Jesus was talking about when he defined what in the Christian counter-culture we are to ‘seek first’.
Once again our Lord simplifies the issue for us by reducing the alternatives possible life-goals to only two. He puts them over against each other in this section, urging his followers not to be preoccupied with their own security (food, drink, and clothing), for that is the obsession of ‘the Gentiles’ who do not know him, but rather with God’s rule and God’s righteousness, and with their spread and triumph in the world.
Tomorrow: False or secular ambition: our own material security.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.