Of Birds and Flowers

We stand on the brink of Lent, but we still have one more Sunday in Ordinary Time to celebrate. This means that we will continue to hear from the Gospel of St. Matthew and the so-called "Sermon on the Mount." After two weeks of speaking about and explaining the commandments, Jesus turns his attention to the subject of "worrying about the future." Just as the sections on the commandments were speaking about "right relationship" with God or "righteousness" in the sight of God, so too this section is also concerned with how we relate to God.

The examples that Jesus uses are very clever both as metaphors as well as rhetorical devices. He compares men to birds who "neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns," typical male work for this culture and time. He compares women to lilies or flowers who "neither spin nor toil," also typical work for the females of the family. The Aramaic noun for bird is a masculine gender noun; the Aramaic word for flower is a feminine gender noun. In essence what Jesus is asking of his audience, both the men and the women, is to put their ultimate trust in God who is very naturally more concerned about them than about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.

However, we must also consider that Jesus was speaking to people who, for the most part, lived a subsistence existence. They didn't have a change of clothes. Most men had only one cloak and one tunic. They didn't have a pantry filled with food stuffs. Bread was the major food in their homes. Wouldn't it be only natural for these people to be concerned about tomorrow?

The people who will be listening to this message here in this country live a completely different kind of life. Most of us have bank accounts and maybe even have a little set aside for "a rainy day." Most of us go to the closet every day and make a choice as to what we will wear that day. When it comes time to sit down for breakfast, lunch or dinner, we probably have choices. So when we hear the words of Jesus, it is only natural that we should hear them differently than the original audience.

However, this Gospel passage is not about how we are to view worldly possessions. The entire discourse is devoted to the topic of relationships to God and neighbor. The other lectionary readings, particularly the responsorial psalm for this Sunday, help us to plumb the depths of Jesus' wisdom. Psalm 62 proclaims: Only in God is my soul at rest; from him comes my salvation. He only is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I shall not be disturbed at all. The words "only" and "alone" appear four times in the space of the first verses of the psalm. There is a direct link between the psalm and the first of the commandments given on Sinai. God tells the children of Israel that he must be their "only" God, that no other gods must come before the God of Sinai.

So Jesus' words here might seem to be about the folly of "worry." However, worry is a part of human life. While we might tell people that we aren't worried, we would be less than human if we didn't. Parents worry about their children; children worry about school work and friends. Husbands and wives worry about balancing their love for one another with the responsibilities of raising a family. Honestly, I could fill several pages with the issues about which we worry. Can we honestly believe that Jesus is simply counseling us not to engage in what is a normal human preoccupation with future needs?

Jesus is really saying that these concerns, these "worries," must not become the false idols of our lives. God must have the primacy of place in our lives. Which brings us to the verse which opens this section of the Sermon: You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24d) In other words, while it is only natural and human to worry about food and clothing, shelter and provisions for our health and the future, it cannot become the all-encompassing reality of our lives. With the psalmist we must remember that: God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never fail. (Psalm 62:3)

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