NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 6: 24-34
EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?'
or 'What are we to drink? ‘or 'What are we to wear?'
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil."
This coming Sunday is the last before the Lenten/Easter/Pentecost cycle, and we will not return to the Sunday narratives of Matthew in sequence until June 25. If that seems like a long way off, it is. Four months, to be precise. And when we do resume the narrative, it picks up well into Matthew 10, on the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time. This year there is no ninth, tenth, or eleventh Sundays, as they fall on Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi, respectively. It is the unfortunate lot of Matthew that the longest Gospel suffers the biggest editorial interruptions in the Lectionary.
As one might expect in Year A, Matthew’s account of the Temptation of Jesus (4: 1-11) is the text of choice for the First Sunday of Lent, and his account of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountaintop (17: 1-9) is the choice for the Second Sunday of Lent. But then Year A features the three lengthy conversion narratives from St. John’s Gospel—associated with the Catechumenate—through the bulk of Lent. Matthew’s account of the Passion is read on Palm Sunday and his Resurrection account at the Easter Vigil, but his text is not a primary source during much of the Easter Season. Matthew’s Gospel, to be sure, is best appreciated by personal reading and reflection cover-to-cover.
Sunday’s Lectionary texts is divided into two sections, and in R.T. France’s commentary (see home page) he treats of the “two masters’ dilemma” with preceding text about where one’s treasure lies. The poet John Milton, in Paradise Lost, personifies mammon into Mammon in describing a fallen angel, so that the text would seem to describe a division of personal loyalties, God or the Evil One with his minions of fallen angels, in the style of the temptation in the desert. But the thrust of Matthew’s sermon is personal disposition; what is described here is internal wrestling about value and worth. As France writes, Jesus’ saying about the two masters is not true, practically speaking; In life, we serve many masters or persons, from parents to IRS agents. The better interpretation runs along the lines of personal orientation, toward God or mammon—though ironically the Scriptures generally use the word mammon in a neutral or even favorable way, a true demonstration of the radical thought of Jesus. (France, p. 262)
The second and larger portion of Sunday’s Gospel continues the theme of the disciples’ attitude to material needs and possessions as well as the radical style of Jesus’ commands. The Sermon on the Mount is a unified description of the true disciple, and the advice of Jesus here was countercultural then as it is today. My ecclesiology professor would refer to Gospel texts like this one as “balloon theology.” On its face the comparison of human complexity to lilies of the field or free spirited chirping birds can seem like an insult to the intelligence, or an appeal to utopian/Woodstock naivete. The idea of people living off God’s dole without any indication of a full day’s work can be read as socialism on steroids, certainly a far cry from Calvin’s Protestant work ethic. Remember, though, that Matthew’s Gospel has a futuristic/apocalyptic strain always in search of eventual glory, as the remarkable Good Friday text illustrates at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27: 51-53).
But beyond that, one way that Scripture scholars undertake their work is through text and grammar analysis, or form criticism. At its root, form criticism looks at the oral and early written origins and contexts of sacred texts, to the degree that this is possible. (In fact, form criticism is less used today because scholars have less textual faith in what they can determine than they did in the twentieth century.) But textual analysis remains very useful in attempting to transmit both Mideastern linguistics and culture into western understanding.
Jesus made frequent use of similes, metaphors, and hyperbole. A jarring example of hyperbole is Jesus’ saying, “If your hand is an occasion of sin, cut it off….” Self-mutilation, then and now, would be gravely immoral, but Jesus’ audience would have perceived his intent to convey a life-and-death struggle to remain faithful to the Kingdom and avoid the fires of Gehenna or hell. In our Sunday text, we have a series of natural metaphors, although again practical and observable realities would call them into question. Birds of the air (not to mention the poor people on the ground) died of starvation in Jesus’ day. The wild flowers might indeed have been dressed better than Solomon, but they were more likely eaten by wildlife before they reached the oven. Jesus’ metaphors here certainly point to an idealized future.
Again, remember that the primary audience here is disciples, itinerants with Jesus who had sold boats and abandoned tax collecting for an unreliable day-to-day existence. Not for nothing did Jesus teach them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” France makes the point well: “Worry is the antithesis of the practical trust in God which is the essential meaning of faith in this Gospel. Those who worry show their lack of faith.” (p. 266) Again, the existential/psychological struggle of discipleship is manifest here: trusting the promise of the Kingdom should trump present day cares. I suspect that as Matthew penned this narrative a half-century later, the Beatitudes—God’s futuristic morality--were not far from his mind, as well as Jesus’ command to be (or become) perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.
Given that Lent is just a week away, it may be that some readers might wish to study the full and uninterrupted text of Matthew during the holy season. I will attempt to find some recommended links to good texts and commentaries for your perusal.