Is the Sermon on the Mount Just For the People Who Already “have”?
The Sermon on the Mount is a wonderful and beautiful passage of the Bible. It is Jesus’ own words to us. His own words. That is stunning. We can hear the words of Jesus which means we hear the words of God himself.
But in Matthew 6:19-34 there are two things that I had to dig deeper on because they sounded jarring to my ears.
In verse 19 Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” and in verse 33 he continues “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
But just looking around us illustrates that there are some people to whom God does not provide. They work multiple jobs. They live in shelters and transitional housing. They are homeless. What does that mean for this passage?
It would be easy to be a trite Anglican and cite all the usual “He does not give you what you want but he gives you what you need” type stuff. When you have no food and are trying to protect your children on the streets, that is very cold comfort. And it would be remiss of us as God’s people to sweep away the hard facts of some people’s existence by toying with the semantics of “want” and “need”.
There are people who need food, clothing, shelter, medicine and basic sanitation. There are people who need kindness and generosity. They don’t need me, as a white middle class middle-aged woman telling them that God provides when from their perspective, he hasn’t.
In addition, you could read this and think that if he hasn’t provided those things, that your faith is not strong enough – that you have not put the kingdom first and so the Lord has not provided your basic needs. In verse 30 it even says “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” I heard a preacher once say that where we fear the most, is where we trust God the least. And in Michael Green’s commentary, he says that “Worry is essentially a failure to trust God.”
I can imagine if you have nothing, then worry will be a completely natural state to be in. But does that mean that faith is diminished and therefore God has not, and will not provide? Is provision based on faith?
There is so much more to be said on this.
First, the Bible itself points out that worry is fruitless. Now, a little worry can be helpful. It can be a spur to action. Just enough worry about paying bills can be a spur to diligence at our work. Just enough worry about our children’s health can be a spur to take protective measures. But by continuing to worry, we cannot add a day to our lives. So whether we have much or we have little, continued worry can do nothing but infect our hearts and minds with fruitless negative thinking. And that interferes with our relationship with God.
(Side note – as helpfully pointed out by my minister, this passage is not speaking into the lives of people who have chronic issues – those with anxiety that has to be managed and even medicated every day (of which I am one). The worry talked about here, is the worry about material things and is focused on maintaining a clear line of sight to God – it is focused on reliance on God and not on our own abilities. Worry is a spur to act with the gifts and abilities and opportunities that God has given us. The rest we leave to him.)
Second, it is a hard truth that provision is unequally received in this world. Back in Deuteronomy 15 God told Moses that there would always be poor people in the land. This is among the passages when God is providing commandments to the people to help them live as a community of God. His answer is generosity of spirit. “If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.” (Deut. 15:7) and “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut. 15:11).
Much of the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew is also in the gospel of Luke. Interestingly, in the Luke passages, where he notes the “Blessed are the…” statements, he adds that Jesus said:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:24-26)
In this additional passage in Luke, we see Jesus is fully aware of the differential material experience that some have. We also start to understand that in the new heaven and the new earth, we will all receive the same experience. Matthew himself reports in chapter 20 that the first will be last and the last will be first.
So what does this mean? It means that God has not forgotten those who “have not”. It means that provision is not dependent on faith. Faith is active on its own and will lead all of us – rich and poor – to heaven and God’s presence. We can be thankful to God for what we have now, whether it be much or little. But we can be even more thankful to God for his salvation and provision of eternity in his presence where there will be no pain and no mourning.
It also means that it is incumbent on those of us whom God has blessed materially to ask ourselves “What do you want me to do with my resources?” He has provided us with our resources for a reason and it is not for us – it is his. We are merely its stewards. And while our world teaches us to live individual lives, we still live in community with open handed generosity of spirit. We must not think that the money we have is ours. Generosity to the needy is a responsibility that God laid on us from the Old Testament that Jesus re-affirmed in the New Testament.
And while those in need pray to God for provision, we can be God’s hands and feet in providing what people need. We are part of God’s plan. Those in need lean on God in total reliance. We must lean on him in total reliance for that which we already have, and the wise use of it to support others, and glorify him.
There are so many layers in each section of the Sermon on the Mount. And it is wise to peel them back so we can see the world around us clearly and understand how God wants us to apply his teaching as we look towards his eternity.