Troubling Prohibitions: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 27 February 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 27 February 2011 (Eighth Sunday of Epiphany, Year A)

Isaiah 49:8-16aPsalm 1311 Corinthians 4:1-5Matthew 6:24-34

I did not start reading the Bible with any frequency until relatively late in my teen years, something that I’m glad for.  I have the utmost respect and affection for those who attempt to teach children in churches (and once a year, in VBS, I’m one of those people), not least because so much of the Bible is off-limits.  I’ve joked with my own congregation’s children’s minister about publishing Bible coloring books based on such lovely passages as Ezekiel 16 and Revelation 17, and behind the joke lies the working assumption that I  bring with me when I teach the text of the Bible, whether in the college classroom or in congregational settings: the Bible is for grown-ups.

I mention all of that because this week’s Gospel reading is one of those passages that troubled me the most as a teenager.  I knew full well that, when I was a seventeen-year-old,  my own emotional states were not subject to my feeble teenage willpower (I attribute the change in my adult life not to an increase of willpower but a relatively weaker emotional existence), and I worried greatly that my own teenage tomorrow-worries, less about food and clothing than about girls, to be sure, were rendering me unfit to be a Christian.  And then, of course, having just the right amount of teenage self-absorption, I realized that my worrying about my worrying had in effect set up a feedback loop and that I was trapped in worrying about my worrying about my worrying about my worrying about tomorrow, and surely I would not amount to anything as a Christian.  After all, I was worrying, and those who worry must not really have faith.

As it turns out, a bit of attention to lexical matters goes a long way.

As the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary help us to see by their grouping Matthew 6:24 in with this group of verses, the teaching here is an extension of Jesus’s saying about serving two masters.  And the verb merimnao, the controlling verb of Matthew 6:25 and 27 and 31, can indeed have emotional connotations, but it can also serve as an ethical verb pointing less to a teenager’s chemical feedback that happens when he talks to a girl and more to the disposition that one has to make careful plans based on this rather than that.  Therefore to order one’s life in terms of attaining and keeping money and food and drink and clothes is a sort of servitude to them, and Jesus is expanding on the notion that servants of the LORD by necessity will not also be servants of those things.

Such a reading does not rule out emotional considerations, of course, but it does locate the imperative force of these verses in the large-scale ordering of life rather than becoming one of those “impossible demands” that certain theologies seem to enjoy finding in Jesus’s teachings.  (After all, to declare the demands impossible is to empty them of content in favor of the form “impossible demand.”)  To return to my discussion in previous weeks (and I do apologize that a sick daughter kept me from writing last week) of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus’s vision of the paradigm city, this passage of the Sermon seems once more to assume a prior discussion of cities-on-hills in which one possible motivating spirit of a city might be the scrambling after novelty in consumption, the sort of city that Plato calls Democracy.  The questions in this passage, after all, are not whether one will eat or drink or be clothed but what one shall eat or drink or wear.  To be sure, nobody adds an hour to one’s life by planning such things, and furthermore, those things stand to hold mastery over the soul the same way that one master will not allow another master to give orders.  In the city that Jesus sees when he looks out on the Galilean crowds, the common quest will not be commerce but that wonderful Greek concept dikaiosyne.

Perhaps Jesus asserts that “all these shall be added” (I like the echo of the Joseph narrative in the KJV more than the generic “will be given” of the NRSV) not so much as a precursor to the Prosperity Gospel (which would not have made much sense in an age of persecution) but as a reminder the people gathered on that mountain that a common life ordered in light of dikaiosyne which at once encompasses the modern connotations “righteousness” and “justice”) will, by virtue of the ekklesia‘s place in the Creation of a God who sends rain on the righteous and on the wicked, will find things such as tasty food and good wine bestowed, perhaps even without ordering one’s life in pursuit of rich food and expensive drink.  With its final ironic allusion to the Manna in the wilderness (but with a daily allowance of trouble rather than vittles), this week’s reading leaves the reader and the audience with a picture of a life where existence tends to sustain itself, where justice really could be a reasonable pursuit precisely because there is a God who will take care of the rest, the drink and the clothes… and the trouble.

May we always live in gratitude for the food that comes to those who don’t deserve good things to eat and hope that the days are coming when our daily dole of strife stops, even though we do deserve that.

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