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.
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.” This invitation to community becomes “the constitution of a people” who “cannot live by the demands of the sermon” on their own, 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?
1. Ulrich Luz. Matthew 1-7: a Commentary (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 341.
2. Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 81.