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Last week I tried to reveal some tension between hope and pessimism–or, as some may call it, realism–and how that relates to our reading of the biblical text. If you haven’t read it, check it out here. It was Matthew 6 (though I’ve since come to see this hope surfacing again and again throughout the Bible) that originally sparked my attention to pessimism and hope and directed my hermeneutic of suspicion toward Jesus.

Reading Jesus’ exhortation to be free from worry and anxiety simply seems disjointed in our world today (but was it any less fractured and broken in Jesus’ world?). Being free from worry and anxiety (am I confusing the roots of compassion?) in the First World implies an isolated individualism that fails to embrace the others-minded ethic that is woven throughout the Second Testament. Swiss scholar Ulrich Luz questions the broad value of the optimistic ideology of Matthew 6 along with positive interpretations of these teachings on anxiety:

It is said that every “starving sparrow” contradicts Jesus, not to mention every famine and every war; that the text gives the appearance of being extremely simpleminded; that it acts as if there were no economic problems, only ethical ones, and that it is a good symbol of the economic naiveté that has 
characterized Christianity in the course of its history. . . The admonition not to be anxious about tomorrow appears to be naive. . . in the age of global nuclear threats and global unemployment.[1]

Luz highlights the problem of this text with stark realism: industrialization vis-a-vis global capitalism has negatively transformed ecosystems and economies in the Two-Thirds World, water does not fall on the people, plants, land, and animals who depend on it, and devastating hunger and poverty still hover over millions of people across the globe. Is it honest and faithful to be free from worry? Is that what Jesus had in mind for his hearers and followers? Is that what living into the story of God means for us?

While Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious, what is to be done while others are hungering, while others have no water, while others need clothing for work or for school? What is to be done when the lilies do not grow, or where cold cement and pavement outnumbers green space? The friction caused by the text and our current realities force us to question not just striving and anxiety, but deep needs that extend beyond our body to the body of the earth, or as some theologians put it, the very body of God.

“Don’t worry. God is in control.”

I used to say stuff like that. It was a coping mechanism. It kept me numb. The residual effects of this has left me in a constant struggle to resist numbness. What does this passive and determinist theology passing as faithfulness do to us? Reading this text in particular from the First World is a dangerous endeavor. As Luz points out, the rose-colored lenses of the text fail to face the reality of creation not living up to its claimed fecundity; it fails to face the reality of those in power not using their power to generate greater equality and sustainability.

In contrast to Jesus’ attempt at comfort, this friction ought to lead us to a place of holy worry and anxiety that inspires us toward justice and care that creates a world where others need not worry or be anxious. Our current context demands that those of us who are privileged read these teachings about anxiety and worry as ironic commentary on the orderliness of creation assumed by Jesus. Resisting a First World reading of Matthew 6:25-34 is necessary in an age where our technological addictions and consumptive habits affect the livelihood of people around the world and the lives of future generations. What do those of us in an addicted society have to worry about when we have far more than we need? Jesus is undoubtedly attempting to teach a radical dependence upon God that transcends the driving force of the status quo and cultural addiction and envisions an alternative reality within the commonwealth of God marked by trust and peace.

I think Stanley Hauerwas points us in the right direction. He claims that the sermon on the mount is “not addressed to individuals but to the community that Jesus begins and portends through the calling of the disciples.”[2] This invitation to community becomes “the constitution of a people” who “cannot live by the demands of the sermon” on their own,[3] which is precisely the point; the demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another. But what does it mean to depend on God?

I have not completely turned my back on hope, but I’m not quite sure what it means to have hope. I have, however, turned my back on a naively hopeful and deterministic reading of the Bible. But what is an appropriate hope? As I attempt to find that out may I become the kind of person-in-community who alleviates the worry and anxiety of others. Must I become hope in order to have hope?

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1. Ulrich Luz. Matthew 1-7: a Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 341. 

2. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 81.

3. Ibid.

I’m one of those hopeful dreamer types. I like to see the good in people and situations and feel that dwelling on the negative requires far more energy than the alternative, and can also be destructive. However, as I’ve become more perceptive of my optimism and how others live out their optimism, I have recognized how optimism left unchecked can stain one’s view of reality and the ways in which one engages the very real suffering and injustice present in our world. Over the past few years I have begun to grow into a space where I am gaining the ability to lean into the dark realities of life without white-washing them. This is a difficult process and I attribute a lot of it to the privilege of not ever experiencing suffering or great crisis. My comfortable life has not led me down the roads that far too many walk daily. May comfort never lead me into complacency or apathy.

I used to feel compelled to view every event of human history through a hopeful lens that sought to reconcile all pain, grief, suffering, and injustice as somehow being used for God’s glory. I was convinced that all things happened by way of God’s will. Though I may or may not have ever seen how an event may be used by God for a greater good, I trusted that all the pains of life would somehow be redeemed and flipped on their heads. All of this was because I believed that God was good, and that God was intimately involved in the inner workings of the world within history. I still believe God is good, but I no longer believe that God works in the same ways that I once did. I have since come to reject those understandings of God, history, and suffering.

I share this because I strongly agree with Douglas John Hall’s critique of North American Christianity as a faith that embraces an official optimism. It is not hard to see where Christianity gets this optimism from. The Bible is an incredibly optimistic text. Hope is woven throughout the Hebrew Bible by the threads of covenant, promise, and faith. Even in the midst of exile a strand of hope hung over the edge of despair as God’s people told stories of deliverance from Egypt, of divine intervention, of being chosen by God to reveal love and goodness to others. Even though they attributed their sufferings to YHWH, it was also YHWH who restored them and showed them mercy. Read Lamentations 3, for crying out loud.

That strand of hope continues through the Second Testament as well. A concordance search for the word “hope” churns out dozens of results. Hope is a good thing, and I wouldn’t be who I am today had I not been shaped by hope. But there is a problem with hope that has been becoming increasingly clear to me. Hope can immobilize. When hope holds out for payment in the near or distant future, one is more likely to go bankrupt, so to speak, in the present. There is a tension between hope on one side, and fear and worry on the other side. My predilection toward hope tends to push out worry and fear or anxiety from my realities and this has caused me to fail to take appropriate and timely actions to various situations. I think it is essential that we hold these two paradigms–hope and worry/anxiety–in tension, and approach with caution and suspicion when we are confronted with too great a hope or too great a fear.

This hermeneutical approach finds friction when we get to Matthew 6 within Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

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? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

When I read these words, I cannot help but fumble over how Jesus can speak these words of hope to a marginalized and oppressed community. Beyond that, how can we read and speak these words today in the face of suffering, pain and injustice all around us? How do we read this text from the First World? Does this trouble you at all? I have my own thoughts about this, which I will share, but I’m curious if anyone else has wrestled with this and come to any conclusions about the practicality of hope and Jesus’ words here. If so, please share your thoughts and stories.