Most believers have heard sermons about money — probably more often than they would like. Typically, we’re reminded that this was one of Jesus’ favorite subjects; indeed, it’s a prevalent theme throughout Scripture. In such sermons, we’re encouraged to be more generous on the one hand, or less materialistic on the other. Awkwardly, the sermons sometimes come in the midst of a church building campaign, or at the end of the year when a congregation is behind budget. Some folks are so frustrated or offended by this that they leave the church.
So let me be clear from the outset: this will not be a tithing sermon.
In fact, in some ways, it’s the opposite.
In recent posts, we’ve seen how the book of James promotes the “upside-down” logic of the kingdom: “Let the believer who is lowly boast in being raised up, and the rich in being brought low, because the rich will disappear like a flower in the field” (James 1:9-10a, NRSV). Low is high, high is low; poor is rich, rich is poor. The kingdom of God subverts our usual ways of thinking about what’s important in life.
Here, the teaching of James draws not only upon the wisdom of the Old Testament, but the wisdom of Jesus. James’ understanding of doubt as anxious double-mindedness and his upside-down perspective on wealth echo Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.
There’s a well-known passage from Matthew 6 that I suspect many of us read as if we’re being scolded for our selfish materialism:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:19-21,24, NRSV)
True, Jesus is speaking of material possessions. But he’s not simply chastising us for wanting a bigger TV. He’s contrasting earth with heaven, the temporal with the eternal. People who are seeking to live by Jesus’ upside-down kingdom need to shift their values away from the former and toward the latter.
Cast your lot with God, and you cast your lot with eternity. It changes your priorities and passions. And don’t kid yourself, Jesus seems to say. What you value most is what you worship. What you worship is your God. And there’s only one God, who alone must be worshiped.
If that still sounds like a scolding, what Jesus says next is “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (vs. 25).
The word “therefore” can be read as “here’s what follows from what I just said about storing up eternal treasure instead of the kind that won’t last.”
And what follows is: “Don’t worry.”
. . .
Worry is clearly the theme of the last part of Matthew 6: the word for “worry” appears six times from verses 25 to 34. Don’t worry about your life, Jesus begins, listing commons concerns relevant to our well-being: food and drink, clothing. Again, this is not about materialism; he isn’t saying, “Stop buying expensive food and designer jeans.” Rather, he’s saying, Stop worrying about your survival. Don’t the birds fly about without a care? That’s because God feeds them. And aren’t the wildflowers God created dressed more beautifully than the richest and most glamorous of celebrities? Your Father loves you more than these, and he knows what you need. So stop worrying! (vss. 26-32).
Does that still sound like a scolding?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that Jesus doesn’t care about how we perceive and pursue wealth or the status and power that come with it. But we miss the point, I think, if we treat his words about God and Mammon solely as an accusation of idolatry.
Jesus is trying to teach his followers the true meaning of righteousness, but not through giving us strict demands for obedience and austerity. Rather, he lays out the spiritual facts of life: You can’t worship God wholeheartedly if you’re anxious and preoccupied with the things you think you need to survive. Gently, he invites into a life freed of such basic worry, by inviting us to embrace the love and care of a Father who already knows what we need.