Who Do You Love?
My little brother, who was actually little when I was 11 and he was first born but isn’t so little anymore, is one of those guys who intentionally lives his life care-free and unfettered. At age 30, he is not married; he has no children. Though he’s very well-educated he doesn’t go in for the boring old traditional rat race the rest of us run day in and day out. Instead, he works to take care of what he needs and spends the rest of his time surfing or hunting or gardening. It’s a way of life that allows for lots of flexibility and spontaneity.
To be able to live the way he does, Matt is always looking for unusual work and living opportunities that might allow him this freedom he values so much. Recently, a family friend inherited a long-neglected house from a distant relative and had to find a quick solution to get it up to code before the city condemned the building. The first call he made was to Matt, who now lives in the dilapidated house for free in exchange for fixing it up.
Sounds like a great deal for Matt, but let me tell you: none of us would ever want to live in this house. You can see the ground through the floorboards; the house is inhabited by myriad critters—and not just little ones; and because of its age and disrepair it has certain, well, quirks…like leaking plumbing requiring one to run downstairs and turn on the water before running back upstairs to flush the toilet then running back downstairs, quick, to turn off the water again. As I mentioned, most of us might not share Matt’s enthusiasm about his good fortune in finding such a living situation.
But Matt is young and unencumbered! He doesn’t have a family to worry about or many large expenses to handle. He has hours and hours of free time on his hands. This situation might not work for the average person, but for Matt…well, it’s just fine.
At least this is what my parents tell each other to make themselves feel better.
I think there were probably similar conversations popping up all over the crowd the day that Jesus got up and said something like what we read this morning in our Gospel lesson. These famous teachings of Jesus are so jarring that even a casual, cultural Christian will find at least some paraphrase of, “don’t worry about tomorrow—tomorrow has enough worries of its own” or “don’t worry about what you will eat or drink” or “do not store up treasures on earth” familiar. And they are so familiar to us that one either repeats the words piously with no real intention of ever taking them seriously, or dismisses them altogether as the wishful thinking of a man who, like my brother Matt, did not have a family to feed or very many obligations to the community hanging over his head or any real pressing material needs to speak of at all.
There he was, golden boy of Nazareth, traveling the countryside with his trusty group of disciples, sleeping wherever they could, depending on the kindness of friends and strangers alike, and viewing each day as a whole new adventure in finding what they needed to survive. It all sounded just a little exciting to not worry about where your next meal was coming from—for someone like Jesus! Of course he could sit up at the top of the rise and say things like, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”. What did he know about financial obligations, about hungry mouths to feed, about the volatile economy that could pull the rug right out from under you with no notice whatsoever? Good for him that he could be so footloose. But there’s no way Jesus’ words have any relevance for the rest of us!
It’s true: there are a lot of hard, challenging words assembled in the Sermon on the Mount. And perhaps some of the hardest come up today Many scholars would say that today’s passage, from Matthew chapter 6, is the heart of Jesus’ teachings on material wealth—that is, how and why and how much we acquire possessions and money. Jesus talks a lot about that sort of thing all throughout the New Testament, but it’s here in these verses that he pulls no punches. It’s our task today to try to parse what exactly Jesus might have meant by these words he said.
To try to get at core meaning of a passage, of course, one should always start with its context. You know to whom Jesus was speaking—Matthew tells us at the end of chapter 4. Basically, his audience was a crowd of losers—people who were desperately looking for something: healing, reassurance, food—and they were just desperate enough to follow up on the slim shred of hope that this itinerant prophet Jesus might have something they’d found frustratingly elusive all this time. And there’s a literary context to consider, too. In Matthew’s account, anyway, these teachings of Jesus come solidly within the second half of The Sermon on the Mount. So let’s remember what comes before them: The Beatitudes, a reminder to be salt and light in the world, teachings on divorce and adultery, instruction to love your enemy, warnings against showing off your piety in front of everyone. Then, at the beginning of this little section, Jesus lays it out straight: don’t store up treasures on earth, don’t even think you can serve two masters, God and money…because you can’t.
It’s right then, right in the middle of our passage today, that Jesus uses a little word that has great meaning—almost like the hidden key to unlocking the meaning of the text. Can you see it there at the beginning of verse 25? It’s “therefore.” And “therefore” means something like: “in light of everything you have just heard me say…”, or “because of all this…” or something like that. It’s like Jesus is saying: “I am unfolding the wonder and potential of a brand new order of life, the Kingdom of God, and describing the upside down way of living it offers. Embrace it. Give your life to it. Open your heart to take it on as your mission and vision. Live it, to change the world. Once you decide this way is the way for you…well, then, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink…”.
See what Jesus is doing here? He’s not really talking about our material possessions or what we wear or if we’re thirsty. In fact, he’s saying that those questions are not the questions we should even be asking. Instead, if you choose to live in this new way—this Kingdom of God way—the question suddenly becomes totally different. The question is not “what do you have?” but “who do you love?”. Questions about possessions are inconsequential; the really urgent question is: who do you love?
What? Could we have been hearing right? It must be that Jesus is a single, unencumbered man who is not bound by responsibilities, right? What could he know about how much we worry? If he did, he wouldn’t say such strange things.
They scratched their heads back then on the hillside of Galilee. And we find Jesus’ words deeply baffling as well. After all, we are Americans. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We live in the society of the little guy making good. We’ve been taught from early on that material security is critical, and that if we work hard enough we can make it happen by force of will! And more, material comfort is a sign of good character—well, maybe we wouldn’t come straight out and say it that way—but you know we all think along those lines. It’s the American spirit!
I was reminded of this just the other day in a biography of Benjamin Franklin, one of our founding fathers, that I’ve been reading. His biographer, Walter Isaacson, studied Franklin’s personal papers extensively and gives a great inside snapshot of an incredible man. Franklin was one of those who promoted this idea of material security and success as part of the American psyche. He wrote in his publication Poor Richard’s Almanac: “Industry and frugality are the means of procuring wealth and thereby securing virtue.” We were born to think this way!
But concern about material wealth and comfort is not a priority of Jesus’. In fact, what he’s doing here in the Gospel of Matthew is completely changing the question. See, the question of how much we have or how much we need or even how much we want is not a question Jesus is concerned about at all. Nope. The main question in his mind is instead, “Who do you love?” Who do you love?
…and frankly, this new question Jesus is framing is deeply problematic for those of us who care so much about material comfort.
Because when we spend our time asking what we need or wondering how we can acquire even more or lamenting the things we don’t have, what we’re really doing is trying to control our lives. When we excessively plan for the future or compulsively hoard more than we need or expend our energy on anything of that sort, what we’re really doing is trying or very hardest and best to exercise control. To predict the outcome of our lives. To set the parameters and cover all the bases and make absolutely sure everything turns out the way we want it to.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but: it is impossible to control our lives.
No matter how much we try, we will never be able to exercise full control.
So, instead Jesus invites us to change the whole game. Because when we switch up the question…when we put aside the grasping and planning and worrying and instead consider who it is we love, questions and worries and plans about material wealth and status seem rather secondary.
The reason Jesus kept changing the question, kept pulling us away from worry about material possessions and instead pushing us toward the question of where we place our highest allegiances, is because asking the question of who we love had nothing to do with what we possess. In fact, the two might very well stand at odds. The kind of love Jesus was talking about here is the love that goes all out, with abandon. True and deep love, commitment…it requires a ceding of control—just opening up our hands and giving up any illusion that we can predict or control or manufacture. This love demands utter trust and full surrender and it is risky, oh is it so very risky. The kind of love Jesus is talking about asks us to look deeply and ask: who rules our hearts? How are our priorities ordered? To what do we offer our deepest devotion and highest commitment?
What Jesus was talking about when he was going on and on about lilies and bird was not a single man’s carefree approach to vaguely irresponsible living. No, what Jesus meant was that when we change the question to ask instead who we love, we will soon find ourselves free from greed and fear—those qualities that fuel and preoccupy materialistic angst. Because the kind of love Jesus is talking about is one that turns it all over, gives it all away—not just materially but at the core of who we are—everything, utterly surrendered to God.
How strange and unfamiliar. How un-American! How utterly, radically weird. We don’t know this way of living; it is not something we readily recognize.
Come to think of it, it is. See, the thing is that, while we often don’t have the first clue how to even begin changing the questions of our lives, we do know what this kind of love looks like. In fact, we have experienced a love like this. It’s God’s love. The kind of love that would sacrifice everything, go to the ends of the earth for me. For you. And because God has loved us with abandonment, we don’t have to worry. In fact, because God loves us like this we have the utter freedom to completely change the question, to refuse to live our lives shackled to things, to live out with freedom and joy the kind of love that God has lavished on us.
Never mind what’s for lunch. Don’t worry about what you have on. The real question, Jesus would say, is this: Tell me: who do you love? Amen.