Epiphany 8 • Matthew 6:24–34 • February 27, 2011
By David L. Adams
The Text as Text
The text is in overall good condition, and the few substantive issues do not materially affect the overall interpretation of the passage. In verse 25 the words “or what you will drink” are of questionable authenticity (but cf. v. 31 where they are clearly original). Similarly, in the phrase in verse 33 “the kingdom of God and his righteousness” the words “of God” are of questionable authenticity. Both are included in brackets in the standard text of NA27 but are omitted in the newer SBL Greek New Testament text. However, the possessive modifier of the phrase “his righteousness” (v. 33) appears to require an antecedent and argues for the authenticity of the words “of God” there.
The translation presents no special difficulties, and the differences among English translations are relatively minor. The verb merimna,w occurs six times in this short passage (6:25, 27, 28, 31, and twice in verse 34), and thus requires some comment. The verb is sometimes used in the general sense of to “attend to” or “take care of” something. It is also used to convey the sense of anxiety attendent to things that need to be taken care of. This distinction gives rise to the word-play of verse 34, where the first instance carries the sense of anxiety and the second instance the more general sense of to “take care of.” The ESV translates both instances as “be anxious,” but the point would be better conveyed by distinguishing the two senses by translating, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.”
The Text as Literature
The passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and doubtless represents a central theme of Jesus’s preaching.
Our pericopal system includes verse 24, which in many translations is treated as either a separate proverbial saying or as the conclusion of the preceding unit (cf. the ESV). In favor of this separation is the fact that the Lukan parallel to verse 24 is found in Luke 16:13 (the conclusion to the parable of the dishonest steward) rather than with the parallel to the rest of this discourse in Luke 12:22–31. However, a connection between the two segments of the discourse is established by the text itself through the introductory phrase Διὰ τοῦτο (ESV “therefore”). Thus, the admonition to trust in God and not worry about the things necessary to sustain this life is rooted in the fact that one can not be equally devoted to two competing interests.
The turning point in the discourse is the rhetorical question of verse 30. We should especially note how Jesus deals with the fact that his followers are ὀλιγόπιστοι “people of little faith.” In addition to this passage, Jesus addresses the concern that his disciples were ὀλιγόπιστοι in Matthew 8(:26), 14(:31), and 16(:8), as well as in the passage parallel to ours in the Gospel of Luke (12:28). In each of these instances Jesus comforts and reassures the disciples and does not simply criticize them for their weakness. Here the comfort arises not only from the examples preceding the question, but also from the explicit statement that follows, “[Y]our heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (6:32).
The Text as Theology
The admonition recalls God’s dealing with his people throughout their history. In the wilderness God provided not only food (manna and quail, Ex 16) but also drink (Ex 15:22 ff. and 17:1–7) and clothing (Dt 8:4, 29:5; Neh 9:21). Through these trials God sought “to teach you that a person does not live by bread alone, but a person lives by everything that comes from the mouth of the the Lord” (Dt 8:3, cf. Mt 4:4). The teaching of Jesus in this account recalls the people to this truth and to the fact that God knows their needs and provides for them. The words that close the passage, reminding the disciples that “each day will take care of itself,” especially recall the way in which God provided just enough manna to meet the needs of the people one day at a time.
Similarly, Jesus’s words recall the prophecy of Isaiah that is used as the Old Testament lesson for this Sunday, Isaiah 49:8–16a, that “in the day of salvation” (Is 49:8) God will lead his people on a new Exodus and will provide for them food and water for their pilgrimage because he has not forgotten them (Is 49:15), but has engraved them on the palms of his hands (Is 49:16). By connecting his ministry to these Old Testament deeds and promises, Jesus declares that his ministry has inaugurated the “day of salvation” of which Isaiah speaks.
As people of little faith (ὀλιγόπιστοι) we are often more preoccupied with the cares and needs of life in this world than with the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Too often life’s thorns threaten to choke our faith (Mt 13:1 ff.). Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we hesitate to trust God to provide our daily manna.
Some people take the words of Jesus in our text as an order to ignore or neglect the needs of this life. Others are tempted to use disdain for the needs of this life as a kind of measuring stick for how good a Christian one is. Both miss the point of Jesus’s words. God is not saying that the needs of this life in the world are irrelevant. (Indeed, he knows that they are necessary (6:32) and so he promises to provide them.) Rather, Jesus reminds us that God has liberated his people from the need to be preoccupied with the things necessary to sustain life in the here and now and frees them to focus on the kingdom of God.
But this text is not really about us, it is about the kingdom of God. The words of Jesus are a declaration that in him the kingdom of God has come. By connecting his ministry with God’s promise of the coming eschatological kingdom, Jesus declares that he is the one who will accomplish the day of salvation to which Isaiah points (Is 49:8), of which a central characteristic is God’s provision for those who are engraved on the palm of his hands (Is 49:16).