Consider the Lilies
Robert J. Elder
February 27, 2011
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?
Our passage from Matthew comes from a section of the Sermon on the Mount that deals with the distractions of earthly concerns. And who could not identify with the issues Jesus addresses here? From the disintegration of our material lives – whether by moths in the sweater drawer, or rust on the fenders of our cars – or the much greater fear of the invasion of thieves into our material worlds of possessions. In the midst of these concerns – the mere mention of which can cause a slow or fast rise of panic in our minds (Did we remember to lock the car in the parking lot or the house as we left this morning? Did we?) – Jesus declares that the more we store up, the greater will be our quotient of worry. He knows it’s in our best interest to sit lightly in the material world, because the essence in each of us is not material, it is spiritual.
Matthew was probably fully aware that the churches with which he shared these words from Jesus had a high proportion of people who could no more write Greek than we could, who possessed very little material wealth, and many of whom came from backgrounds of poverty and oppression. Of course the ancient world was thoroughly unacquainted with things like retirement plans, and life for the vast majority of people, on a material level, could be characterized as a rather desperate hold on what little material wealth they had.
With that kind of poverty in mind – the sort most of us can only imagine from fleeting images we may chance to see on the TV screen – we can learn from our brothers and sisters in the faith who live full lives in many places around the world, possessing only the tiniest fraction of the kind of material wealth we know. Still, Matthew’s gospel message, like ours, is spoken not only to poverty-stricken people, but also to a sophisticated world of people, filled with a kind of anxiety that rooms full of material goods can never ease. Knowing that, we may know how Matthew understood Jesus’ words when he heard them, and why he passed them on.
We know that these words from the lips of Jesus are not about several things: They are not a reasoned argument against a struggle for self-sufficiency; They do not promote a passive do-nothing attitude in the face of adversity; They do not advocate fatalistic resignation; Most of all, they are not a club which wealthy people can use to beat poor folks over the head in order to keep them in their place. Rather, this passage is more like that most dreaded of examination questions from our school days: the “forced choice” question. Jesus the teacher would want to ask us to choose our ultimate loyalty between God and mammon, between a single-minded trust and an anxious distrust, and then make a case for our choice:
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…?
This passage is mostly about things that can be trusted, and serves as an encouragement to us to live as if we believed these words were true.
Anyone who places even partial trust in material things – social position, personal achievement, earned run averages, won-loss records, Wall Street trends, Social Security, a fifteen-year-old automobile for midnight rides on I-5, their share of Daddy’s estate – knows the meaning of the word anxiety. It’s not that we can avoid involvement with material things, Social Security, or – many of us – old model automobiles, any more than baseball players can avoid earned-run averages or Wall Street players can avoid the Dow Jones.
These words do not amount to a hymn to resignation. They are an encouragement to remember what comes first. Seek first the kingdom of God. Things can be worried about at their own level of importance. To be a part of God’s kingdom puts some of life’s experiences in perspective, it is to know first of all that we are precious in God’s eyes.
Now that may sound like a pulpit cliché: “we are precious in God’s eyes.” But it is Jesus who took great pains to let us know that it is so. He was aware that people possess a built-in reluctance to see it this way. Perhaps our reluctance has to do with a merit pay scale view of life. Any mother’s child knows that in this world we don’t get by on other peoples’ good will. What we receive is what we have earned. We may utter pious platitudes about believing in the essential goodness of people, but our life experiences often give lie to that sentiment.
From school days through retirement, modern life is a constant program of performance evaluation. High School transcripts, college transcripts and test scores provide means of entry into employment or professional school. And after all that, following the first few years in a career, job performance begins to outweigh records of academic achievement. Every major company has performance review for employees. Businesses stand or fall on their record of performance. One must earn the trust of creditors before securing a loan, and that respect comes mainly through means of good past performance on loans and payment schedules. How many times have we heard about some outstanding citizen who is said to have “earned the respect and admiration of his fellow citizens”?
Evaluation – measuring up – is part of life, as American as apple pie. We are so accustomed to the idea that everyone gets what they deserve that it is no wonder we are surprised when someone challenges that wisdom. In some ways, translators might as well have left Jesus’ words in their original language when he uttered those phrases about anxiety over the material things of life. What else is there to get quite as anxious about? Yet, in the face of our desperate daily chase after the security of material possessions, Jesus uttered a quiet and welcome word of grace.
Birds of the air do not plow fields or plant corn, yet our heavenly Father feeds them. The lilies of the field never had a cumulative grade point average of 3.9, but God sees to it that their clothing is more glorious than anything Paris Hilton has in her closet. If this is so, if mere birds and grass are subjects of God’s great concern, how much more the pride of his Creation, the people whom he has chosen to call his own?
Jesus took our normal expectations and turned them upside down. We might not like a merit pay scale, but at least it’s familiar. We know how to act when someone asks us for two or three references. But the idea that God’s care is available to everyone without cost flies in the face of so much of what we spend our lives doing.
Our perspective may be like the story of the farmer and his pious pastor. The preacher looked at his beautifully cultivated field and exclaimed, “What you and God have accomplished!” The farmer replied, “You should have seen it before God took me on as a partner!”
How like us all that comment is: “I have worked for what I have. What part has God played in bringing home the weekly paycheck?” Yet we consistently miss the point if we think our lives are about our own hard work, or food on the table, or a three-day weekend, or even time to be with family.
Our word from Matthew is a word of trust as the best remedy for anxiety.
It’s interesting that our money declares, for all the world to see, “In God We Trust”... but it’s the US Treasury Department, not God, that puts its good faith behind our currency. One joker said, “In God we trust: all others pay cash.” Even so, even in its secular, compromised sort of way, that simple declaration on coins and folding money is a way of admitting the limited sort of assurance that money can provide when we start throwing around words like trust.
Those who have lost everything and survived to tell about it generally mention trust in something beyond the material realm in the story of their survival. Psalm 121 is generally loved for the wrong reason. You remember it, it begins with an interrogative statement:
I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
It is not – and this is important – a declarative statement:
I lift up my eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help.
That is because our help does not, ultimately, come from hills or dales or big bank accounts or even lean ones. Our help does not come from beautiful mountain settings, nor lush golf course greens, nor libraries full of books, nor the latest computer system, nor safety deposit boxes filled with securities. No, Matthew, and the Psalmist with him, want to remind us – since we are so prone to forget it – our “help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” That trust in God is just about the only trust worthy of the name. Nothing less will do. Not for long.
I’ll close today with some thoughtful words from an old hymn text by William Cowper1 – a paraphrase of Matthew and the prophet Habakkuk2:
[Tomorrow] can bring with it nothing
But God will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe the people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God who feeds the ravens
Will give his children bread.
And just in case lean times threatened the understanding of this hymn, he continued:
Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding
I cannot but rejoice.
© copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 “Joy and Peace in Believing,” #48, Olney Hymns, Glasgow: William Collins & Co., Printers, 1843, p. 332.
2 Habakkuk 3:17-18.