No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34
The sages of Proverbs used rhetorical questions to teach the young about the dangers of sexual temptation and the availability of wisdom as a resource to combat it.
- "Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one's feet?" (Prov. 6:28)
- "Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?" (Prov. 8:1)
Jesus' teachings include some rhetorical questions, a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.
- "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Mt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44)
- "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Mt. 7:9)
- "Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?" (Lk. 11:11; Mt. 7:10)
Jesus' Impossible Questions
However, Jesus' distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his "impossible questions."
If Jesus had stuck with rhetorical questions, questions with obvious answers that listeners like to answer, he might have lived longer. But Jesus was a subversive sage, undercutting the comfortable assumptions of his audiences. His teachings were more in the style of Qohelet (the name ascribed to the author of Ecclesiastes) and Job than the sunnier sages of Proverbs. "How can the wise die just like fools?" (Eccl. 2:16) "What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?" (Eccl. 2:22) "Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?" (Job 38:19-20)
Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. I dislike doing both those things.
"Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (Mt. 6:27; Lk. 12:25)
"What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mt. 16:26; Mk. 8:36; Lk. 9:25)
"Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?" (Mt. 5:13; Mk. 9:50; Lk. 14:34)
"If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?" (Mt. 5:47)
"If you love those who love you what reward do you have?" (Mt. 5:46; Lk. 6:32)
Jesus' Distinctive Voice
Jesus' distinctive teaching voice comes through in the way he coins sayings that conform to traditional wisdom forms like beatitudes and proverbs, but uses them not to resolve the conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them, not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to question society's assumptions and values and her own. They take a wisdom insight and concentrate and intensify it by paradox and hyperbole.
In this short passage alone, I am being pushed to give up one of my most cherished occupations, worry, in favor of trusting God for the basics of daily life. I am being pushed to consider that my other loyalties are in conflict with my loyalty to God (6:24). Jesus' teachings are digging tools that undercut the foundation of my house. My priority, my life's project has been to build a comfortable present and a secure future for me and my family. Jesus wants to undermine it and eventually, to replace it with radical, risky trust in God and the mission of seeking God first, confident that other matters will fall in place. If I give up a preoccupation with anxiety and security, it would seem like I would have time and energy for seeing to the needs of others around me. These teachings take something away to free me for something more. In that sense they are just the beginning.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.