Text: Mt 6:19-7:12
After the making of Zeffirelli’s film, Jesus of Nazareth, the actor Robert Powell, who took the part of Jesus, talked about filming the Sermon on the Mount. ‘There were several thousand extras, shafts of the setting sun over the hill. I saw these thousands of upturned faces. I thought I’ll pitch it to them, so I raised my voice and, across the valley, I could hear it coming back and so could everybody else. And it just had a very eerie effect. The crew were all in floods of tears. It was as if one had been slightly touched by an external force. The beauty of those words and ideas when spoken aloud are overwhelming. You can read the words in the Bible, but when you come to say them aloud, it’s something else: they are electric.’
The Sermon on the Mount clearly had a similar effect on its first hearers. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” Over the past few weeks it has been my pleasure and privilege to preach from The Sermon on the Mount. I have been amazed all over again by this teaching. How vivid, how direct, how radical our Lord’s call to discipleship, how needful the grace and strength of God to even begin to follow this teaching.
Jesus has spoken of Christian character and witness, 5:1-12. Then of what it means to live rightly before God, 5:17-48. Then of religious observances such as fasting, praying and giving, 6:1-18.
He now turns to the disciple’s attitude towards material possessions – money, and the things money can buy. You would expect me to complain that we live in a materialistic society. But the headline in today’s Independent shouts, ‘STOP! How well do you know your children? Did you know that one in three girls think they are ugly…every child sees 18,000 junk food adverts per year…16-year-olds have an average £40 a week to spend…they watch 4 hours’ TV each day? Yes, we do live in a materialistic society. And, yes, Christians do get sucked into the spirit of the age – the commercial spirit. We are often obsessed with material things – what we will eat, what we will drink, what we will wear, where we will live, what we will drive. But Jesus understands the problem, and he knows the solution. Let’s take a look at Jesus’ analysis in Mt 6:25-33.
1. The Problem
Worrying overmuch about material things is (a) distracting, v25 – “Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” We can busy ourselves so much with provision of food and clothing that we miss out completely on the life they are intended to support. We think of Mary and Martha, Lk 10:38-42. ‘As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Many practical people have a sneaking sympathy for Martha. After all, somebody had to prepare the food and do the dishes! But we need to take seriously our Lord’s gentle rebuke. The problem was not Martha’s hospitality, but the fact that she was distracted by it.
It is also (b) destructive: It is futile, at the very least. Mt 6:27 – ‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life’. Indeed, we are more likely to shorten our lives by worry. Think of the parable of the sower. In Mt 13:22 our Lord explains the meaning of the seed that was sown among thorns: the word of God had been faithfully sown, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choked it.
Cyprian was, a 3rd-century Christian leader, wrote: ‘Their money held them in chains…chains which shackled their courage and choked their faith and hampered…their judgement and throttled their souls…They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned, enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but its slaves.’
No wonder Jesus said, 6:24, “No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and Money.”
It is also
(c) distrustful, In Mt 6:30 Jesus turns to his over-anxious hearers and exclaims, “O you of little faith!”
Said the robin to the sparrow:
“I should really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush about and worry so.”
Said the sparrow to the robin:
“Friend, I think that it must be
Thay they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.”
Over-anxiety about material things is practical atheism: it argues a lack of trust in a caring and benevolent heavenly Father.
I am not going to ask you how many pairs of shoes you own, or how many holidays you will have this year. I’m not going to quiz you about the size of your mortgage, nor advise you on whether you should have that extension, or that patio or that conservatory. I would just ask you to consider before God three simple questions: what do you expend your energy on; what do you day-dream about; and what are your plans for the future. And then ask, what place there is for God and his kingdom in all this.
2. The Solution
We need to
(a) see God’s providence around us. 26-30.
I wonder if you know this verse:-
“Oh, where is the sea” the fishes cried,
As they swam the Atlantic waters through;
“We’ve heard of the sea and the ocean tide
And we long to gaze on its waters blue.”
This may be taken as a parable of the multitudes who are sustained every moment by the providence of God and cannot see it.
Are we not rather like those fishes? We live, move and have our being in an ocean of divine providence, and yet can’t see the ocean for the water. With our scientific education we focus on secondary causes: rain is caused by condensation of vapour, crops grow because of the effect of fertilizer. In a world that could not for one moment exist without the activity of God, we have conditioned our minds to a way of thinking that leaves no room for him. So many of our wants are provided by what seem natural and impersonal forces that we have lost sight of the great Provider. The ancient Hebrews from whom the Bible came saw this clearly. They saw in every event the direct activity of God. If it rained, it was God who sent the rain. When the crops were good, it was God who yielded the increase.
Jesus says ‘look at the birds – you are more valuable than these; look at the flowers – you were made for eternity.’ If God feeds the birds and clothes the flowers, will he not much more feed and clothe you?
Moreover, we need to,
(b) set God’s priorities before us. V33 – “Seek first his kingdom and righteouness, and these things will be given to you as well.”
So, it’s a question of priorities. We are not being told here to deny the value of material things, and become ascetics. No: God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.’ Nor is this an excuse for an idleness that expects food to drop onto our tables without working for it. ‘God gives every bird its food, but he does not throw it into the nest.’ Nor again can any of this be used as an excuse for turning our back on the plight of those who lack the basic necessities of life. No – it’s a matter of priorities; of putting first things first.
A businessman had an angel come to visit him who promised to grant him one request. The man requested a copy of the stock market quotes for one year in the future. As he studied the future prices on the stock exchanges he smiled smugly to himself about all the wealth that would be his as a result of this “insider” look into the future. Then he glanced across the newspaper page, only to see his own picture in the obituary column.
The one thing we all agree on about money and possessions is that ‘you can’t take it with you.’ But this leads to either of two attitudes. Either we say, ‘Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’, or we labour for the things that do last. We can build with wood, hay, stubble. Or we can build with silver and gold.
Let’s consider again our priorities. Let’s acknowledge afresh that money and the things that money can buy are at best means to a greater end: to a life that is full and satisfying, to a kingdom that will last for ever, to a character that may have much or little material things, but although poor in spirit, mourning over ungodliness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, is pronounced blessed, blessed and blessed again by Jesus, who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich.