Matthew 6:25-34

THE FORBIDDEN WORRY

Matt. 6:25-34

I tell you, therefore, do not worry about your life, about what you are to eat, or what you are to drink; and do not worry about your body, about what you are to wear. Is not your life more than food, and your body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air, and see that they do not sow, or reap, or gather things into store-houses, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not better than they? Who of you can add one span to his life by worrying about it? And why do you worry about clothes? Learn a lesson from the lilies of the field, from the way in which they grow. They do not toil or spin; but I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which exists to-day, and which is thrown into the oven to-morrow, shall he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So then do not worry, saying, What are we to eat? or, What are we to drink? or, What are we to wear? The Gentiles seek after all these things. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will come to you in addition. So, then, do not worry about to-morrow; to-morrow will worry about itself. Its own troubles are quite enough for the day.

We must begin our study of this passage by making sure that we understand what Jesus is forbidding and what he is demanding. The King James Version translates Jesus’ commandment: Take no thought for the morrow. Strange to say, the King James Version was the first translation to translate it in that way. Wyclif had it: “Be not busy to your life.” Tyndale, Crammer and the Geneva Version all had: “Be not careful for your life.” They used the word careful in the literal sense of full of care. The older versions were in fact more accurate. It is not ordinary, prudent foresight, such as becomes a man, that Jesus forbids; it is worry. Jesus is not advocating a shiftless, thriftless, reckless, thoughtless, improvident attitude to life; he is forbidding a care-worn, worried fear, which takes all the joy out of life.

The word which is used is the word merimnan (GSN3309), which means to worry anxiously. Its corresponding noun is merimna (GSN3308), which means worry. In a papyrus letter a wife writes to her absent husband: “I cannot sleep at night or by day, because of the worry (merimna, GSN3308) I have about your welfare.” A mother, on hearing of her son’s good health and prosperity writes back: “That is all my prayer and all my anxiety (merimna, GSN3308).” Anacreon, the poet, writes: “When I drink wine, my worries (merimna, GSN3308) go to sleep.” In Greek the word is the characteristic word for anxiety, and worry, and care.

The Jews themselves were very familiar with this attitude to life. It was the teaching of the great Rabbis that a man ought to meet life with a combination of prudence and serenity. They insisted, for instance, that every man must teach his son a trade, for, they said, not to teach him a trade was to teach him to steal. That is to say, they believed in taking all the necessary steps for the prudent handling of life. But at the same time, they said, “He who has a loaf in his basket, and who says, `What will I eat tomorrow?’ is a man of little faith.”

Jesus is here teaching a lesson which his countrymen well knew–the lesson of prudence and forethought and serenity and trust combined.

WORRY AND ITS CURE

Matt. 6:25-34 (continued)

In these ten verses Jesus sets out seven different arguments and defences against worry.

(i) He begins by pointing out (Matt. 6:25) that God gave us life, and, if he gave us life, surely we can trust him for the lesser things. If God gave us life, surely we can trust him to give us food to sustain that life. If God gave us bodies, surely we can trust him for raiment to clothe these bodies. If anyone gives us a gift which is beyond price, surely we can be certain that such a giver will not be mean, and stingy, and niggardly, and careless, and forgetful about much less costly gifts. So, then, the first argument is that, if God gave us life, we can trust him for the things which are necessary to support life.

(ii) Jesus goes on to speak about the birds (Matt. 6:26). There is no worry in their lives, no attempt to pile up goods for an unforeseen and unforeseeable future; and yet their lives go on. More than one Jewish Rabbi was fascinated by the way in which the animals live. “In my life,” said Rabbi Simeon, “I have never seen a stag as a dryer of figs, or a lion as a porter, or a fox as a merchant, yet they are all nourished without worry. If they, who are created to serve me, are nourished without worry, how much more ought 1, who am created to serve my Maker, to be nourished without worry; but I have corrupted my ways, and so I have impaired my substance.” The point that Jesus is making is not that the birds do not work; it has been said that no one works harder than the average sparrow to make a living; the point that he is making is that they do not worry. There is not to be found in them man’s straining to see a future which he cannot see, and man’s seeking to find security in things stored up and accumulated against the future.

(iii) In Matt. 6:27, Jesus goes on to prove that worry is in any event useless. The verse can bear two meanings. It can mean that no man by worrying can add a cubit to his height; but a cubit is eighteen inches, and no man surely would ever contemplate adding eighteen inches to his height! It can mean that no man by worrying can add the shortest space to his life; and that meaning is more likely. It is Jesus’ argument that worry is pointless anyway.

(iv) Jesus goes on to speak about the flowers (Matt. 6:28-30), and he speaks about them as one who loved them. The lilies of the field were the scarlet poppies and anemones. They bloomed one day on the hillsides of Palestine; and yet in their brief life they were clothed with a beauty which surpassed the beauty of the robes of kings. When they died they were used for nothing better than for burning. The point is this. The Palestinian oven was made of clay. It was like a clay box set on bricks over the fire. When it was desired to raise the temperature of it especially quickly, some handfuls of dried grasses and wild flowers were flung inside the oven and set alight. The flowers had but one day of life; and then they were set alight to help a woman to heat an oven when she was baking in a hurry; and yet God clothes them with a beauty which is beyond man’s power to imitate. If God gives such beauty to a short-lived flower, how much more will he care for man? Surely the generosity which is so lavish to the flower of a day will not be forgetful of man, the crown of creation.

(v) Jesus goes on to advance a very fundamental argument against worry. Worry, he says, is characteristic of a heathen, and not of one who knows what God is like (Matt. 6:32). Worry is essentially distrust of God. Such a distrust may be understandable in a heathen who believes in a jealous, capricious, unpredictable god; but it is beyond comprehension in one who has learned to call God by the name of Father. The Christian cannot worry because he believes in the love of God.

(vi) Jesus goes on to advance two ways in which to defeat worry. The first is to seek first, to concentrate upon, the Kingdom of God. We have seen that to be in the Kingdom and to do the will of God is one and the same thing (Matt. 6:10). To concentrate on the doing of, and the acceptance of, God’s will is the way to defeat worry. We know how in our own lives a great love can drive out every other concern. Such a love can inspire a man’s work, intensify his study, purify his life, dominate his whole being. It was Jesus; conviction that worry is banished when God becomes the dominating power of our lives.

(vii) Lastly, Jesus says that worry can be defeated when we acquire the art of living one day at a time (Matt. 6:34). The Jews had a saying: “Do not worry over tomorrow’s evils, for you know not what today will bring forth. Perhaps tomorrow you will not be alive, and you will have worried for a world which will not be yours.” If each day is lived as it comes, if each task is done as it appears, then the sum of all the days is bound to be good. It is Jesus’ advice that we should handle the demands of each day as it comes, without worrying about the unknown future and the things which may never happen.

THE FOLLY OF WORRY

Matt. 6:25-34 (continued)

Let us now see if we can gather up Jesus’ arguments against worry.

(i) Worry is needless, useless and even actively injurious. Worry cannot affect the past, for the past is past. Omar Khayyam was grimly right:

“The moving finger writes, and, having writ, Moves on; nor all thy piety nor wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a line, Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”

The past is past. It is not that a man can or ought to dissociate himself from his past; but he ought to use his past as a spur and a guide for better action in the future, and not as something about which he broods until he has worried himself into a paralysis of action.

Equally, worry about the future is useless. Alistair MacLean in one of his sermons tells of a story which he had read. A London doctor was the hero. “He was paralysed and bedridden, but almost outrageously cheerful, and his smile so brave and radiant that everyone forgot to be sorry for him. His children adored him, and when one of his boys was leaving the nest and starting forth upon life’s adventure, Dr. Greatheart gave him good advice: `Johnny,’ he said, `the thing to do, my lad, is to hold your own end up, and to do it like a gentleman, and please remember the biggest troubles you have got to face are those that never come.'” Worry about the future is wasted effort, and the future of reality is seldom as bad as the future of our fears.

But worry is worse than useless; it is often actively injurious. The two typical diseases of modern life are the stomach ulcer and the coronary thrombosis, and in many cases both are the result of worry. It is a medical fact that he who laughs most lives longest. The worry which wears out the mind wears out the body along with it. Worry affects a man’s judgment, lessens his powers of decision, and renders him progressively incapable of dealing with life. Let a man give his best to every situation–he cannot give more–and let him leave the rest to God.

(ii) Worry is blind. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of nature. Jesus bids men look at the birds, and see the bounty which is behind nature, and trust the love that lies behind that bounty. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of history. There was a Psalmist who cheered himself with the memory of history: “O my God,” he cries, “my soul is cast down within me.” And then he goes on: “Therefore I remember Thee, from the land of Jordan, and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar” (Ps.42:6; compare Deut.3:9). When he was up against it, he comforted himself with the memory of what God had done. The man who feeds his heart on the record of what God has done in the past will never worry about the future. Worry refuses to learn the lesson of life. We are still alive and our heads are still above water; and yet if someone had told us that we would have to go through what we have actually gone through, we would have said that it was impossible. The lesson of life is that somehow we have been enabled to bear the unbearable and to do the undoable and to pass the breaking-point and not to break. The lesson of life is that worry is unnecessary.

(iii) Worry is essentially irreligious. Worry is not caused by external circumstances. In the same circumstances one man can be absolutely serene, and another man can be worried to death. Both worry and serenity come, not from circumstances, but from the heart. Alistair MacLean quotes a story from Tauler, the German mystic. One day Tauler met a beggar. “God give you a good day, my friend,” he said. The beggar answered, “I thank God I never had a bad one.” Then Tauler said, “God give you a happy life, my friend.” “I thank God,” said the beggar, “I am never unhappy.” Tauler in amazement said, “What do you mean?” “Well,” said the beggar, “when it is fine, I thank God; when it rains, I thank God; when I have plenty, I thank God; when I am hungry, I thank God; and since God’s will is my will, and whatever pleases him pleases me, why should I say I am unhappy when I am not?” Tauler looked at the man in astonishment. “Who are you?” he asked. “I am a king,” said the beggar. “Where then is your kingdom?” asked Tauler. And the beggar answered quietly: “In my heart.”

Isaiah said it long ago: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusts in thee” (Isa.26:3). As the north country woman had it: “I am always happy, and my secret is always to sail the seas, and ever to keep the heart in port.”

There may be greater sins than worry, but very certainly there is no more disabling sin. “Take no anxious thought for the morrow”–that is the commandment of Jesus, and it is the way, not only to peace, but also to power.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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