Studying Matthew 6 19-34

We are studying Matthew 6:19-34 for Sunday, June 6. This is a part of the Sermon on the Mount we didn’t look at closely the last time we studied the Sermon on the Mount (last year, notes here and here). This time, we’ll be looking closely at Jesus’s remarks on not worrying or striving after material things. [Here are some questions on the text.] Here are my notes on this familiar text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The text comes about mid-way through the Sermon on the Mount, which is the first long teaching passage in the gospel of Matthew. As we might remember from other readings of Matthew, this gospel is organized around these long teaching sections, interspersed with stories of Jesus’s often miraculous activities.

So, this comes after the teachings on true blessedness, and true righteousness – that is, on getting one’s heart, one’s motives, right before God – and then after the teachings on the proper practice of religious practices. Again, the point is having the right relationship with God, not on ticking boxes or seeming to be right with God.

Then comes our text, which focuses on the location of real treasure, and the nature of real insight, and then a complex composite portrayal of misplaced effort in the service of the wrong things, perhaps implicitly contrasted with the service of the right things.

Then, the “sermon” ends with a set of teachings on how to go about putting all of this into practice: with an eye to one’s own issues rather than others’, and with the kind of determined effort appropriate to a life-or-death challenge.

Most of these verses are in the lectionary, either as part of the reading for Ash Wednesday every year (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), or as the reading for the Eighth Sunday after Epiphany or alternatively the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 6:24-34). The verses about not being anxious, but rather, presumably, grateful are also the designated reading for Thanksgiving Day in the United States.
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CLOSER READING: As throughout the discourse, Jesus alternates between 2nd person plural and 2nd person singular forms. This gives us readers a sense that sometimes Jesus is addressing the group collectively, while addressing each individual at others. So, Jesus tells you-all not to lay up treasures on earth but in heaven, and then more directly and individually points out that where your (singular) treasure is, there your heart will be.

The words about light and darkness and your eye are addressed to you (singular). The words about anxiety and seeking the kingdom first are addressed to you-all (plural).

Verses 19-21 focus repetitively on treasure and treasuring – the root, either as a verb or noun, occurs five times in these three verses. Earth is contrasted with heaven as the location of treasure. Moth and rust make treasures disappear, literally, on earth but not in heaven.

What does it really mean, concretely, to lay up treasure in heaven? Do we know?

Verses 22-23, the sayings about light, pose striking contrasts that upon reflection are peculiar. Jesus contrasts a clear, literally “single,” eye with an evil eye. This leaves us to think about why “singleness” contrasts with evil. The light that is in you could still be darkness – leaving us to think about how. [Because you think you see clearly, but you don’t, and you don’t even know it? You don’t even realize enough to search for some actual light?] Somewhere we seem to have crossed from literal to metaphorical, from material to spiritual language.

Verse 24 might be a self-contained teaching, about serving two masters. Its dénouement is that no one can serve God and mammon – an Aramaic word that is evidently more encompassing than money, but means something more encompassing, like wealth, possessions, or material things.

On the other hand, verse 24 might be a transition to the long discourse on being anxious and distracted about securing one’s material needs. The term anxious appears six times in verses 25-34. This is the same term Jesus uses to describe Martha in Luke 10:41. We might think of being preoccupied, even obsessed, with myriad [material] concerns.

In verse 25, Jesus is talking about the psyche kind of life that “you-all” are not to be anxious about – that is, not to be anxious about how to secure it, to provide for it.

In verse 27, the reason not to be anxious is that anxiety accomplishes nothing; it’s ineffectual.

The example of the birds of the heavens and of the lilies show that anxiety is unnecessary as well as ineffectual. In verse 28, the lilies neither toil, or labor nor spin; perhaps coincidentally, they participate on neither side of the human gendered division of labor.

In verse 30, the term for “little faith” is oligopistos, a term that economists familiar with oligopolies or political scientists familiar with oligarchies will perhaps find arresting and thought-provoking. In what way is the insufficiency of faith in this context like the insufficient number of firms in the distorted oligopolistic economy, or the insufficiently shared rule of the dangerously unjust oligarchy?

In verse 33, Jesus’s instruction again raises the question “what exactly does this mean” – that is, what does it mean, concretely, to seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness? What does that entail?

In short, the text raises many questions. We are likely to have automatic, pious, “right” answers to those questions. But our automatic answers are not necessarily the best answers. We would be well-advised, I think, to allow these questions to work on us for a time, and to reconsider those questions and their possible answers. What does it mean to seek first the kingdom of heaven? What does it mean for our eyes to be single, or clear? What does it mean to lay up treasure in heaven?
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painting of Jesus teaching a group of people seated on grass

Image: “The Sermon on the Mount” (detail), Károly Ferenczy, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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