No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34

Alyce McKenzieLectionary Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34
February 27, 2011

A Dialogue Between You and Jesus
Stage Notes: You are present at the Sermon on the Mount and feel emboldened to interrupt Jesus as he attempts to teach. It goes something like this:

Jesus: "You cannot serve God and wealth" (Mt. 6:24b).

You: Why not?

Jesus: "Because no one can serve two masters. A slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other" (6:24a).

You: I don't know if I agree with that or not. It seems overstated.

Jesus: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear."

You: Seriously? Isn't your advice a little naïve? I do need to plan ahead and know where my next meal is coming from and make sure my family is clothed.

Jesus: "Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?"

You: Yes, when you put it that way, but . . .

Jesus: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (6:26)

You: Yes, but . . .

Jesus: "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" (6:27)

You: No, I guess not, but . . .

Jesus: And why do you worry about clothing?

You: Well, because I need to be appropriately dressed for various occasions and at least try to be somewhat up to date.

Jesus: "Consider the lilies of the field, 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" (6:29).

You: Why do you keep making these nature analogies? Those are flowers. I'm a person.
Jesus: "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, you of little faith?" (6:30)

You: It would be nice to think so,but don't you think worry serves a useful function sometimes?

Jesus: "Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?'" (6:31)

You: All right. I get that you're not going to budge on the worry issue. But tell me this:what am I to do with all that mental free time I used to spend worrying?

Jesus: "Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well"(6:33).

Jesus used the wrong questioning technique if he wanted to live a long time.

Traditional Rhetorical Questions
If you're like me, your favorite kind of question is the rhetorical kind, the one with the obvious answer you don't have to study for the night before. I call them "duh" questions.

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.

  1. "Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one's feet?" (Prov. 6:28)
  2. "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.

  1. "Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?" (Mt. 7:16; Lk. 6:44)
  2. "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?" (Mt. 7:9)
  3. "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)