Matthew 6: 19-24

Bible Study: Matthew 6: 19-24

Biennial Church Day [Kirchentag], Dresden, Germany, June 4, 2011

By Marcia Pally

             First, we’d like to thank you for coming all the way out here to consider a few thoughts about this passage in Matthew. And we’d like to thank the organizers of the Kirchentag for giving us the opportunity to talk with you.

I’d like to start not at the beginning. The first three sentences, Matthew 19-21, in my view, are not the framing thesis of this section. That, I believe, is in Matthew 22 and 23: “The eye is the lamp of the body.” Does that mean–as in a horror film — eyes that glow in the dark? Perhaps not. Perhaps Matthew meant not that our eyes are afire but that our eyes light up the world. Lamps illuminate the world; they are the portal to seeing what there is. Our ways of seeing are the precondition of our having perspective–literally, from the Latin root spec, to see. The way we see the world is literally how we come to have a “point of view,” “worldview,” and “Weltanschauung”–notice the repeating visual image.

Matthew continues: “If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” “Healthy”? In the Septuagint, the earliest version of the Christian Bible, the Greek word connotes “generous.” So we have: If you see the world with generosity, you will act with generosity.” If you feel that you have enough, you will be able to give to others. By contrast, the next sentence says, “if your eyes are unhealthy”—meaning, ungenerous—“your whole body will be full of darkness”—you will act with stinginess. If you feel—or fear—that there isn’t enough, that you don’t have enough, you will hoard what you have for only yourself, protect every little bit, and think that this is the way to protect yourself.

What Matthew is pointing out here is not procedural justice, abstract rights, or Kantian duty. These are important, but Matthew isn’t talking about them but rather about generosity—giving attention and care to specific, real others in their particular situations. This is the core Judeo-Christian idea of relationship and covenant, seen in the Abrahamic covenant—a reciprocal relationship between God and Abraham, each with responsibilities to the other—and in the new covenant in Christ. The idea of specific relationship is seen also in nature, as we’re now discovering—in the very mathematical formulas that govern the sub-atomic particles that make everything what it is. In all matter, sub-atomic particles are in constant motion. Nothing—from the seats we’re sitting on to the blood in our bodies—is still. Sub-atomic motion is directed by mathematical formulas that “tell” the particles where and when to move. These formulas too, it turns out, are relational. One sub-atomic particle’s mathematical formula “knows” that another is at a certain point along a path so that the first particle cannot move there. The first particle attends to the other for the sake of the other’s path of movement and for the sake of the whole. For without this relationship among forumlas, there would no matter; there would be nothing at all. Considered one way, Matthew points to this relational fundament of the world—at the human level.

We’ve all had some experience with the idea that one’s vision of the world guides one’s actions–to be generous or not. If we look around and “see” the world as a mean, competitive place where everyone is grabbing and where we have to protect ourselves, we’re going to be quite closed-handed with others. We’re nasty to shop clerks and snap at people who work in calls centers when we call up to find out why we can’t get the vacuum cleaner bag out of the vacuum cleaner. We don’t extend our perspective to see things from their point of view. And not only shopkeepers–we don’t give many others our time or attention, except perhaps as means to what we want. We don’t give them our help, because we fear we must spend all our time helping ourselves to what we want.

It takes even more time to listen, understand and aid people of different races, religions, classes, or countries, so we certainly don’t take the time to do that. When we see the unemployed, we think disdainfully—why don’t they just get a job?! When we hear the news, we think, why are those people in the other political party so stupid?! How can those people in that other country be so blind?! I was just at a lecture given in Berlin by an American professor who happens to vote Democrat. He and everyone in the German audience, which prefers Obama, laughed at Republican policies and felt kind of cozy together, pointing up Republican stupidity. Did anyone think of finding out why ordinary Americans who vote Republican see things the way they do?

But when we’re having a good day, we feel the largesse to give all sorts of things to each other. We might even take the time to think through why those “stupid” “blind” people in that other group or political party think the way they do. I learned from an American evangelical pastor that the most important thing in a Christian approach to politics is “to find out why they other side is for the other side”—why they see things the way they do. That is generosity. And a yet higher level of generosity is taking the time to find points of consensus, where you see things similarly, things you can work on together on even if you don’t agree about everything. Generosity is when evangelicals and feminists each try to see why the other is “for the other side” of the abortion issue and work together to reduce abortion as much as possible instead of fighting about it.

I’d like to share with you an instance when I’ve seen the effects of perspective keenly in my own life. When I was younger, I was a dancer and choreographer and today, though I am professor, I still choreograph and perform. Since we’ve all seen the movie Black Swan, we know what a snippy, competitive place ballet can be. If two girls are being bitchy—whispering about how (badly) other girls are dancing—I too can be bitchy. I can complain to yet other girls about how bitchy those first girls are being. Or, I can go up to one of those bitchy girls—who is simply insecure and nervous—and say, “hey, you looked great doing that pirouette.” Usually, there is an astonished smile. The coloration of the class changes—the bitchy competitiveness drops and we start chatting. Coloration—again the tones with which we see the world.

With this gloss on sentences 22-23, we can understand the passages immediately before and after it. The opening sentences, 19-21, are a provocative introduction: what does Matthew mean when he says, “Do not store up, for yourselves, treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” Of course I should protect my stuff—I paid good money for my iPhone/Kindle/iPad2—or as a student of mine said, “iStuff.”

But, Matthew suggests, don’t do this because this is the path of fear, the path to stinginess. One act of stinginess begets another act of stinginess, and the world is soon full of isolated people fearful of each other, ready to get the other guy before he gets you. This is the path that leads to demonizing the Other, to office backstabbing, mobbing, power games, to stereotyping, prejudice, aggression and war–all on the pretext of protecting yourself. This was Thomas Hobbes’s great insight: people do not start out mean, ungenerous and aggressive. They become so because they see the other guy as aggressive, and from this ungenerous outlook, they arrive at every form of neglect and brutality–in Hobbes’s famous phrase, “the war of all against all.”

The solution, on Hobbes’s view, was the Leviathan—the sovereign that controls everyone’s fearful aggression so we at least don’t all kill each other. But there is an alternative, suggested by Matthew: “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Yes, we all have stuff and a position we’ve worked for. But what is our perspective—our attitude–about our stuff? Do we think about protecting it and getting more every day? The really valuable stuff, Matthew suggests, is immaterial, indestructible by moths and thieves. It is relational, covenantial.

These were the sentences right before our framing idea about seeing and perspective. The sentences just after it are also illuminated by it—there is the lamp image again. “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money.” This does not mean, have no money, have no stuff, be a victim. The key word here is “serve.” The passage does not say, don’t have money; it says don’t serve money. We may need money, but serving money means it is our master—it motivates us, dominates our actions. And now we’re back at our theme: if we see the world this way, we cannot give to others—we cannot give time, care, understanding, money or stuff. As people see the world this way, it is soon full—again–of isolated people fearful of each other, protective of their stuff, and ready to grab more before the other guy does. But if we see with generosity, what other sorts of things might we do with our money?

Matthew’s answer to this in the next section of our text is highly worrisome. It worries me because… it tells us not to worry. Who over the age of two does not worry? “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Are you kidding? First of all, until very recently, if everyone did not worry about what they would eat and wear, they would have starved and frozen. Second, you cannot tell a girl from Manhattan not to worry about what to wear. Then the passage gets harder to understand: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet our heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.” My teenage cousin read this and immediately grasped the true meaning of this text. “Right,” she said, “so stop nagging me about my homework.”

I would like to suggest that this passage is not a divine invitation to ignore your homework or your bank account. We have responsibilities to our communities, our children, etc. But if we are to do all this, how can we not worry? The answer, again, lies in perspective. The passage does not say don’t do anything; it says don’t worry. It does not say, don’t work; it says, don’t labor. I’d like to look at both pairs.

First, do and worry, and the birds who “do not sow or reap” but “your heavenly father feeds them.” I’d like to suggest that this is not a Romantic elegy for the “natural” but that we should work to fulfill our responsibilities without worrying about them. This should be our perspective. Doing is not worrying. Often, worrying prevents us from doing things imaginatively and productively. If I may again illustrate from ballet: if a dancer worries about how well s/he is doing, that dancer has just fallen into self-absorption. She or he is not thinking about the audience. You cannot communicate with an audience unless your first priority is…them. You must give them every ounce of effort, concentration and care. And only dancers who do this are ever seen—back to our visual imagery. The rest are just technicians, and the audience rapidly becomes interested in their candy wrappers and SMS-ing.

Instead, Matthew suggests, we should take the view that, like the birds of the air, we will be cared for by our heavenly Father. How would that perspective work? Well, if you don’t think you are cared for as the birds are, then you’re alone in the world. Others might help you but, since they’re only human, their help is limited. And you’re not only alone, but you’re alone in a chaotic, un-cared-for place where “Shit happens.” This is Job’s challenge. It is Jesus’ challenge on the cross: “Father, why have you forsaken me?” It is Hobbes’s. If we see the world as abandoned, we’re apt to be self-protective and uncaring of others. Matthew here asks, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” No—you can’t. You’ll just get ulcers or high blood pressure. But when we see the world as embedded in care, we have a sense of support that lets us be caring of others.

The second pair, work and labor, is similar. Work may be great effort, challenging, even exhausting—but creative and productive. Labor connotes forced effort–backbreaking, humiliating tedium. In English, I can say, “I love my work; I love teaching my students.” But no one would say, I love my labor. A small anecdote: when I first made the distinction to an audience of Germans, someone shouted out to make the humorous point, “That may be true in America, but in Germany, we love our labor.”

If we hold that this passage means that birds and flowers don’t work, we would have to conclude that Matthew, for all his talents, was a lousy biologist. Birds and flowers do great work—the extraordinary process of photosynthesis, for instance. And let’s not forget the millions of hours of aviary nest-building, egg-sitting, worm-getting since the world began. I don’t think Matthew forgot them. Rather, I think this passage asks what perspective we bring to our efforts—work or labor? Because the way we see will determine how we act, generously or not. Under the labor-perspective, the self-absorbed perspective, we cannot be generous, we cannot see things from the other’s point of view, and so we create conditions where others do not work but labor in horrible exploitative conditions for little pay.

Here Matthew is applying his idea about perspective to the economic sphere. How you see the world, Matthew suggests, will determine how you act in it. Specifically, if you see your efforts as labor in an abandoned, Hobbesian place, you’ll be self-absorbed and exploitative and aggressive to others. This is the ethos of laissez-faire capitalism: me for me only; never mind about everyone else. Historically, we have seen the great wealth and scientific invention abetted by markets. But this passage suggests that, with a different outlook–the outlook that we are supported and loved–we have the sense of sufficiency that lets us see things from the other’s point of view and be generous. Thus we can better our economies. We can embed the energy and creativity of work in an ethics of generosity. What would that economy look like?

This is Matthew’s offer and it is extremely difficult because we tend to see the world through fear—the ungenerous fear that the other guy is grabbing stuff at our expense. No one knew this more than Hobbes. He was born on the day the Spanish Armada attackedEngland. Later he wrote, two things we born on that day: myself and Fear. So indeed it is difficult to let the perspective of fear go. But the point of taking the Bible seriously is not to make life easier, just better.