I had two things on my calendar yesterday besides my normal work day responsibilities: one was a dentist appointment and the other a church council (board) meeting. My visit to the dentist was just a cleaning and check-up (hallelujah). The council meeting involved dealing with our church budget for 2014.
I’ll tell you right from the start. I would rather have spent the whole day in the dentist chair enduring root canals, pulled teeth, and all manner of obscene torture than to attend a meeting where we talk about church budgets.
Yeah, I hate it that much.
Even so, overall the meeting turned out OK and we went home on good terms. Though we didn’t agree on everything, there was a general consensus going forward.
Your chaplain happens to be a hopeless idealist and has never cared much about money and practical realities. I won’t tell you about all the (many, many) times that has gotten me into trouble and hindered my leadership and effectiveness in various situations, but I readily admit the fact. When I went into ministry, I somehow simply believed that Christ had called me and would provide for my needs. I’ve never fully gotten beyond that childlike (and in some cases childish) idealism about Jesus and the nature of the Kingdom.
On church boards over the years, I’ve witnessed an ongoing conflict between idealists and pragmatists. You know, the people who say, “We only have a few loaves and fishes; how can these feed everybody?” and those who say, “Who cares how much we have? Let’s just start giving it away and see what happens!”
[If you haven't guessed by now that "Field of Dreams" is my favorite baseball movie, you haven't been paying attention. Of course, if you build it, they will come!]
Anyway, I got to thinking this morning about a verse on this subject that everybody knows, and it struck me that I’ve been misinterpreting it all these years. Now I’m starting to wonder if even a hopeless idealist like me has given these words their full value.
The verse is Matthew 6:33.
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
That’s the NASB translation; a straightforward, literal rendering of the Greek sentence. But now I want you to look at a few other versions and what they do with this verse.
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (NRSV)
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (NIV)
Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (CEB)
Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too. (The Voice)
Do you see what these Bible translations have done?
They’ve added their two cents’ worth to Jesus’ words.
And even though I never quoted it like those translations rendered it, I think that before today I always understood Matthew 6:33 as these Bible versions have it and not according to the actual straightforward words of the text.
What do I mean?
I mean I turned this verse into a mathematical equation, a formula. Seek first God’s kingdom… — and THEN all these things will be added to you.
I made Matthew 6:33 a verse that teaches:
- A requirement
- And then a reward.
IF I seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness…
THEN God will provide my needs.
After thinking about today, I’m not so sure. In fact, I lean strongly away from that take on this passage.
First of all, what are the “all these things” that God will provide? In context, Jesus is talking about the basic necessities of life. Food. Clothing. Fundamental needs.
Now you tell me, what earthly parent in his or her right mind would withhold those things from a child who is not wholly obedient? Do we say to our kids, “Do what I say, seek first to honor and obey your parents, and THEN we will feed you? THEN you get to wear clothes? I may not have been the best parent in the world, but I never sank to that level of abuse. And I can’t believe that God would either.
Second, the passage is aimed at countering our excessive worry about the basic provisions of life. It doesn’t make sense to me that Jesus would do that by giving me something else, something even more significant to worry about. If this verse is about requirement and reward, then what Jesus is saying is this: “You don’t need to worry about these things. But I’ll give you something even greater to worry about: Are you seeking God’s kingdom first? Are you passionately pursuing his righteousness? If you are, THEN you can have bread today and a pair of pants to wear.”
Gee thanks, Jesus. That makes me feel better. Is there anything else I have to do to earn a cracker?
No, I think what Jesus is really saying is this:
God will take care of you. Period.
Don’t worry about that.
All these things are yours already, just like God provides for his whole creation.
You can trust God to do that.
You, on the other hand, are now free to seek God’s rule and righteousness.
Being anxious about God’s provision need never hinder you from doing that.
Bottom-line is: if some preacher (like me) starts turning God’s grace and beneficence into a reward for a requirement that you have to fulfill, run away as fast as you can with your fingers in your ears. That’s just his two cents’ worth that he has added to the text.
Our heavenly Father takes care of his children.
I’m just idealistic enough to believe that.