Monday, July 29, 2013

What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Worry”?

Perhaps one of the more comforting passages from the teachings of Jesus is found in Luke 12:22-34, where Jesus commands his listeners not to worry about the concerns of life, for God will take care of you. But, is this really Jesus’ meaning? I once read the passage this way; but I wonder if there is something more. 

One thing we must keep in mind is the literary context in which we find Jesus speaking about worry. It follows his telling of the Parable of the Rich Fool, who Jesus says is a fool because he pursued more and more wealth for himself with no thought for what God would demand of him. Indeed, that very night, God demanded his life, and his riches were wasted.

In light of this context, at least for Luke, we might understand Jesus’ command about not worrying as more related to our pursuit of wealth and possessions than the lack of our needs being met. In other words, taking into account what Jesus has said in the parable about the landowner, he may be suggesting that worry and anxiety happen when we are striving for wealth and things. Worry will dissipate if we stop seeking these things and instead put our trust in God.

But what are we to make of the three illustrations Jesus offers in this passage?
Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith!
What is Jesus’ purpose in using the ravens, the life span of human existence, and the flowers to make his point?
First, we can perceive from Jesus’ statements about birds being fed, humans not being able to lengthen their lives, and lilies that are clothed in beauty that all of God’s creation, both nature and humanity, are dependent on the goodness of God for life and sustenance. This is the heart of understanding God as the Creator, who not only brings things into beings, but who also sustains those things until their natural end. All life is God dependent.
This is what the rich fool failed to see or recognize. He thought that what he had was all because of what he had done, and he gave no thought for how God had blessed him. He failed to be dependent on God.

Second, when Jesus speaks about birds not gathering into barns, humans not being able to add hours to their lives, and grass that is here today and thrown into the oven tomorrow, he is expressing the temporality to our current existence. Neither us, nor any of creation, is promised a tomorrow in this world, and thus we are not to spend our short existence striving for wealth and possessions that are here today and gone tomorrow.

Again, the rich fool failed to see this, for he thought that just by having his abundance he would have a happy future. But none of us are promised even tomorrow.
Third, the choice of birds, plants, and humans represents the consistent biblical teachings that all of creation is the concern of God. God, as Creator, sustains creation by God’s love, and God desires that creation live out its intended design. 
I think it is particularly important that the statement about humans not being able to lengthen their lives is placed between the statement about the birds and the one about the lilies. It seems reasonable that Jesus is intending his hearers to understand two important things.
One, they are a part of creation and not above creation. And, two, since we are a part of creation, and not above creation, we have a God-given purpose of using creation, but with great care and responsibility. Creation is a gift to humanity. It provides us not only with the needs of food, clothing, and shelter; it also provides us with beauty and meaningfulness.
But for humans to ravage God’s household for selfish purposes, is to live recklessly in God’s creation. Jesus’ use of the birds and the flowers, along with his statement about human life, spells out for us that God cares for God’s entire creation, and we ought to do the same.
We might interpret the actions of the rich landowner as transgressing this care for creation. He owns a lot of land, and though he is free within the bounds of the human understanding of ownership to use the land for his own purposes, he seems not to care for the creation itself, but only for what it can give him; a comfortable life.
Striving for what is temporal, as the rich man did, moves our focus from God and those around us to our own lives of selfish need and want, which results in our living as the world lives, in a constant struggle with the anxiety of desiring more. Then, it becomes about us, and we start speaking about “I” and “my” just as the rich fool does in Jesus’ parable.
But Jesus offers a different striving. Instead of striving for the things in this world that bring worry, and that pass away, Jesus calls us to strive for the kingdom of God, in which we are dependent on God and God’s goodness toward us and all of creation. 

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