A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:25-34. 1. Worry is incompatible with Christian faith. (25-30).
In verse 30 Jesus dubs those who get het up over food and clothing ‘men of little faith’. The reasons he gives why we should trust God instead of being anxious are both *a fortiori* (how much more)’ arguments. One is taken from human experience and argues from the greater to the lesser; the other comes from sub-human experience (birds and flowers) and argues from the lesser to the greater.
Our human experience is this: God created and now sustains our life; he also created and continues to sustain our body. This is a fact of every day experience. We neither made ourselves, nor keep ourselves alive. Now, our ‘life’ (for which God is responsible) is obviously more important than the food and drink which nourish it. Similarly our ‘body’ (for which God is also responsible) is more important than the clothing which covers and warms it. Well then, if God already takes care of the greater (our life and body), can we not trust him to take care of the lesser (our food and our clothing)? The logic is inescapable, and Jesus enforces it in verse 27 with a question: *Which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?* It is uncertain whether the last word of his question (*helikia*) should be translated ‘span of life’ (RSV) or ‘stature’ (AV). It can mean either. To add half a metre to our stature would be a remarkable feat indeed, although God does it to all of us between our childhood and adult life. To add a period of time to our lifespan is also outside our competence. A human being cannot achieve this by himself. Indeed, far from lengthening his life, worry ‘may very well shorten it’, as we all know. So just as we leave these matters to God (for they are certainly beyond us), would it not be sensible to trust him for the lesser things like food and clothes?
Next, Jesus turns to the sub-human world and argues the other way round. He uses birds as an illustration of God’s supply of food (26) and flowers to illustrate his supply of clothing (28-30). In both cases he tells us to ‘look at’ or ‘consider’ them, that is, to think about the facts of God’s providential care in their case. Some readers may know that I happen myself to have been since my boyhood an enthusiastic bird-watcher. I know, of course, that bird-watching is regarded by some as a rather eccentric pastime; they view the likes of me with quizzical and patronizing amusement. But I claim biblical – indeed dominical – warrant for this activity. ‘Consider the fowls of the air,’ said Jesus according to the AV, and this in basic English could be translated ‘watch birds’! Indeed, I am quite serious, for the Greek verb in his command (*emblepsate eis*) means ‘fix your eyes on, so as to take a good look at’. If we do take an interest in birds and flowers (and we should surely, like our Master, be gratefully aware of the natural world around us), then we will know that although birds *neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, yet our heavenly Father feeds them*, and that although *the lilies of the field (anemones, poppies, irises and gladioli have all been suggested as alternatives to lilies, although the reference may be general to all the beautiful spring flowers of Galilee) … neither toil nor spin*, yet our heavenly Father *clothes* them, indeed more gorgeously than *Solomon in all his glory*. This being so, can we not trust him to feed and clothe us who are of so much more value than the birds and flowers? why, he even clothes the common grass *which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven*!
‘You see,’ writes Martin Luther with great charm, ‘he is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers. It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospel a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and a preacher to the wisest of men … Whenever you listen to a nightingale, therefore, you are listening to an excellent preacher … It is as if he were saying “I prefer to be in the Lord’s kitchen. He has made heaven and earth, and he himself is the cook and the host. Every day he feeds and nourishes innumerable little birds out of his hand.”’ Similarly, this time quoting Spurgeon: ‘lovely lilies, how ye rebuke our foolish nervousness!’
More familiar to most of us will be the doggerel:
Said the robin to the sparrow:
‘I should like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so’.
Said the sparrow to the robin:
‘Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father,
Such as cares for you and me.’
It is a delightful sentiment, yet not a strictly accurate reflection of the teaching of Jesus. For he did not say that birds have a heavenly Father, but rather that we have, and that if a creator cares for his creatures, we may be even more sure that the Father will look after his children.
Tomorrow: Problems relating to the 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.