A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:25-34. False or secular ambition: our own material security.
Most of this paragraph is negative. Three times Jesus repeats his prohibition *Do not be anxious* (25, 31, 34) or ‘Don’t worry’ (JBP). And the preoccupation he forbids us is food, drink and clothing: *What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear?’ (31). Yet this is precisely ‘the world’s Trinity of cares* (Spurgeon, p.39): *for the Gentiles seek all these things* (32). We have only to glance at the advertisements on television, in newspapers and in public transport to find a vivid modern illustration of what Jesus taught nearly two millennia ago.
A few years ago I was sent a complimentary copy of *Accent*, a new glossy magazine whose full title was *Accent on good living*. It included enticing advertisements for champagne, cigarettes, food, clothing, antiques and carpets, together with the description of an esoteric weekend’s shopping in Rome. There were articles on how to have a computer in your kitchen; how to win a luxury cabin cruiser or 100 twelve bottle cases of Scotch whiskey instead; and how 15 million women cannot be wrong about their cosmetic choices. We were then promised in the following month’s issue alluring articles on Caribbean holidays, staying in bed, high fashion warm underwear and the delights of reindeer meat and snowberries. From beginning to end it concerned the welfare of the body and how to feed it, clothe it, warm it, cool it, refresh it, relax it, entertain it, titivate and titillate it.
Now please do not misunderstand this. Jesus Christ neither denies nor despises the needs of the body. As a matter of fact, he made it himself. And he takes care of it. He has just taught us to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ What is he saying then? He is emphasizing that to become engrossed in material comforts is a false preoccupation. For one thing, it is unproductive (except perhaps of ulcers and yet more worry); for another it is unnecessary (because ‘your heavenly Father knows what you need’, 8 and 32); but especially it is unworthy. It betrays a false view of human beings (as if they were only bodies needing to be fed, watered, clothed and housed) and of human life (as if it were merely a physiological mechanism needing to be protected, lubricated and fuelled). An exclusive preoccupation with food, drink, and clothing could be justified only if physical survival were the be-all and end-all of existence. We just live to live. Then indeed how to sustain the body would be our proper first concern. So it is understandable that in emergency famine conditions the struggle to survive must take precedence over other things. But for this to be so in ordinary circumstances would express a reductionist concept of man which is totally unacceptable. It would downgrade him to the level of animals, indeed to that of birds and plants. Yet the great majority of today’s advertisements are directed towards the body – underwear to display it at its shapeliest, deodorants to keep it smelling sweet, and alcoholic beverages to pep it up when it is languishing. This preoccupation prompts these questions: is physical well-being a worthy object to which to devote our lives? Has human life no more significance than this? *The Gentiles seek all these things.* Let them. But as for you my disciples, Jesus implies, they are a hopelessly unworthy goal. For they are not the ‘Supreme Good’ in life.
We need now to clarify what Jesus is prohibiting, and what reasons he gives for his prohibition. First, he is not forbidding thought. On the contrary, he is encouraging it when he goes on to bid us look at the birds and the flowers and ‘consider’ how God looks after them. So the familiar AV ‘Take no thought’ is mistaken and misleading. Second, he is not forbidding forethought. I have already mentioned the Bible’s approval of the ant. Birds too, which Jesus commends, make provision for the future by building their nests, laying and incubating eggs, and feeding their young. Many migrate to warmer climes before the winter (which is an outstanding example of provident – though instinctive – forethought), and some even store food, like shrikes which stock their own larder by impaling insects on thorns. So there is nothing here to stop Christians making plans for the future or taking sensible steps for their own security. No, What Jesus forbids is neither thought nor forethought, but anxious thought. This is the meaning of the command *me merimnate*. It is the word used of Martha who was ‘distracted’ with much serving, of the good seed sown among thorns which was choked by the ‘cares’ of life, and by Paul in his injunction, ‘Have no anxiety about anything.’ (Lk.10:40; 8:14; Phil.4:6). As Bishop Ryle expressed it: ‘Prudent provision for the future is right; wearing, corroding, self-tormenting anxiety is wrong.’
Why is it wrong? Jesus replies by arguing that obsessional worry of this kind is incompatible both with Christian faith (25-30) and with common sense (34), but he spends more time on the first.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:25-30. 1). Worry is incompatible with Christian faith.
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.