October 17, 2017

Adding Our Two Cents’ Worth

harvest provence

Harvest in Provence, Van Gogh

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.

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field, Van Gogh

Sheaves of Wheat in a Field, Van Gogh

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:

  1. A requirement
  2. 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.

 

Comments

  1. Richard Hershberger says:

    My, you really are turning into a Lutheran! You not only have the theology down pat, but the joys of council meetings. (Now imagine that as a congregational meeting with a little old German church lady questioning individual line items of the budget. That’s my church.)

    But seriously, I am constantly bemused by how eager people are to embrace a theology of God as the psychotically abusive Father. It seems to me that if you start with “God is love” and work you way to the psychotically abusive Father, my might do well to consider the possibility that you strayed off the path somewhere along the way.

  2. Great post. Of course I do have my own two cents worth to add to it.

    I wonder if our tendency to separate seeking the Kingdom of God from obtaining the basic necessities of life is unnatural. Might that be a product of the spirit/matter dualism that probably wouldn’t have made any sense to Jesus and his contemporaries? In other words, do we treat seeking God’s kingdom as doing spiritual things, while such things as harvesting food, providing shelter and clothing, etc. are vulgar base things that are unfortunate interferences with our spiritual quest for righteousness?

    Maybe when we seek God’s kingdom and righteousness we can expect to get some dirt under our fingernails. Maybe when we seek God’s kingdom we should expect doing so to naturally yield food, shelter and clothing–not wealth, but the things our bodies need. Maybe that’s because feeding, clothing and sheltering ourselves is a natural part of seeking God’s kingdom.

    Just a thought…

  3. The worst part about an if/then understanding of this verse is when the counselors of Job in your life see you struggling in the material realm and use this verse to tell you that if you were just seeking the Kingdom more, you wouldn’t be having those problems. That really grinds my gears. They might as well come out and say “I’m immune to your struggles and suffering because I’m just so much more spiritual than you.” If/Then readings of Scripture are a guaranteed way to take the liberating Gospel Christ gives us and turn it into the demanding taskmaster of the Law.

    • I have found that nothing eases suffering more than ignoring the advice of those who haven’t suffered. Works every time.

      • A question and an observation:

        Who hasn’t suffered?

        Sometimes you also need to ignore the advice of those who have suffered acutely, particularly if they think they have overcome their suffering by the exercise of their own wisdom and strength, because they’ll expect you to do the same thing that they think they have, and judge you according to that false measure.

        • #1…..LOVE the original post….terrific thoughts!

          #2….@Miguel~sadly true in the prosperity driven world of some “Christians”. If you are broke or unemployed or just plain scraping by, you just aren’t “seizing your blessings!” God promised to fulfill our needs, not our wants….

          #3…..Robert, I sadly DO know people who have not suffered, unless you call acne on prom night or driving a three year “old” Mercedes “suffering”. (And yes, these few people I am speaking of are also cheerfully free of internal angst, and yes I know them well enough to be sure of this). BUT it IS those who have faced trials and believe that they overcame it all through their own fortitude and actions who can be obnoxiously oblivious to the efforts of God and other humans in solving the issue they are so sure that they fixed by their own stellar will and effort.

        • I thought I had suffered until 5 years ago when these things started happening:

          1. house fire – reconstruction took a year and a half

          2. illnesses of close family members leading to their death: father-in-law and brother in 2010, mother in 2011, father last month.

          3. unemployment for a significant amount of time leading to new employment with 40% pay cut and no benefits.

          The fire was traumatic, but now, viewed in the aftermath of losing three family members, it seems just a nuisance.

          What have I learned?

          People are kinder in the face of disaster than I would have supposed. The ones who have experienced it understand what I feel better than I do.
          Sometimes the right answer doesn’t matter. But love always does.
          I’d rather talk about anything else rather than complain about my circumstances. Before I was a complainer.
          And- God is present during these times more than when I’m comfortable. Or, I sense him there – and when I don’t sense him, I know that he’s there, and will reveal himself at the proper time.

  4. cermak_rd says:

    The problem with your reading though, Chaplain Mike, is that it ignores the fact that there are such things as starvation, malnourishment and privation in the world, I would imagine even among believers in Jesus. So clearly these things aren’t being given to people. Now I would argue that is because part of the Divine’s means of providing these things is the bestowal of a sense of empathy among humans, but if you don’t believe that, then I would think you might decide that giving of the needs of survival are not part of the Divine’s purview.

    • That’s another issue, not addressed in this post.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Off topic, but has anyone noticed we’re in mid-October? And so far no sign of Devil’s Holiday Panic Parties, Reformation Day(TM), Trunk or Treat(TM), Christian Harvest Festivals(TM), Hell House(TM), Tribulation Trail(TM),Spiritual Warfare mobilizations(TM), Chick Tracts for trick-or-treaters, or any of the other usual Christianese weirdness and raw superstition you get around this time of year? Is everyone off playing Atlas Shrugged or End Time Prophecy in DC or something? You could almost set your watch by the Christian Paranoia Panic Party starting every October 1st and running through All Saints Day.

        • Oh, rest assured, we will most certainly bust out the Deutsche Messe for Reformation Day. We have a pretty big one coming up in 4? years or so.

        • Well, the only way I know Halloween is coming is because the Christmas decorations are not only OUT (they have been since August) but are now at the FRONT of the stores…..

        • Final Anonymous says:

          All angst and fury channeled to the government shutdown. I guess we can thank Congress for that, at least.

        • Brianthedad says:

          My Lutheran church has its “reformation day trunk or treat harvest festival” planned and ready to go. Have been doing it for several years now. It’s a nice alternative to the baptist churches’ joint hell house down the road. It also gives us a chance to see many of our neighbors that wouldn’t darken the door of a Lutheran church even if invited. We cook, give out food, do the bouncy inflatables, and give out awards for best decorated trunk. I used to think it was us running from the halloween that old mike spencer really liked, but that’s not the case. We’ve adapted, and meet the neighborhood and all the kids and have a grand time, school night or not.

  5. I re-read the whole Matthew 6 passage again (NASB) for a refresher of what’s going on here…

    The preceding passage talks about greed, storing up, and striving for wealth. Jesus appears to be engaging in hyperbole in much of this chapter to make his point, as he is oft to do; in context, to me this looks like he is emphasizing that we do not fall into the trap of putting all of our energies into worrying about wealth, status, and those sort of trappings and instead use those energies to ‘seek God’s Kingdom’ (whatever that means).

    Taken out of context and read very literally, it does seem that this becomes an If/Then transaction, but I agree that it is not so. The message is to seek God’s Kingdom, which I would assert should mean seeking doing God’s will, which would include looking out for each other, especially those in need. If those who have seek the Kingdom, those in need will be provided for.

    Two cents more added.

    • I agree with your point, but I think it is a bad idea to equate God’s kingdom with us doing His will. When we pray for His kingdom to come and his will be done on earth, we are asking Him to act, not necessarily promising that we will. The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit: this is pure gift, originating in him and terminating in us. It is not a work we create and offer back up to God as a pleasing sacrifice, but rather the perfect sacrifice that Christ offered up on the cross. The death and resurrection of Christ IS the kingdom of God, and to the extent that we are made partakers of his life and suffering, His will is done in us.

      Now together we’re just shy of a nickel. 😛

  6. While the context of Mt. 6:33 is about basic needs like food and clothing, it is also especially about the greed of people in general, who seek–by working hard–to earn the “best” food and clothing. Thus Mt. 6:19 speaks against laying up treasures on earth, treasures (like expensive clothes) that moths destroy; instead, disciples should be laying up treasures in heaven (as in Mt. 19:21, where Jesus tells the rich man to sell his treasured possessions and give to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven). (This is similar to Lk. 12:33, which follows on 12:31, Luke’s parallel passage to Mt. 6:33.) Mt. 6:24 then contrasts serving two masters: God or mammon (wealth, treasures on earth). Mt. 6:25 says, “therefore” do not be anxious about what you eat or drink or wear; this anxiety is due to serving mammon, to feverishly seeking treasures on earth. Unlike the birds and flowers, most people anxiously work hard to be able to afford the best treasures, treasures like expensive clothes, fine wine, and rich food.

    Jesus’ disciples have left their prospering fishing businesses (Mt. 4:18-22) to follow this poor “Messiah.” They will now be “fishers of men,” traveling around teaching about the new king and kingdom. Their prayer above all is to be about the coming of this kingdom (of disciples), and secondarily about their Father’s giving them the things (like simple bread) they need (Mt. 6:9-11). The temptation they might be led into, by the evil one, is similar to Satan’s tempting of Jesus: If you are the son (child) of God (your Father), then you should not be hungry or suffer (Mt. 6:13; 4:1-5). If you are the leader(s) of a new kingdom, then you should be living like (greedy) kings.

  7. David Cornwell says:

    Great post. I think the more we seek the Kingdom, and the ways of the Kingdom, the more we become part of it, then our old ways of thinking are turned upside down and wrong side out. We find that we depend on grace, the undeserved presence of God in all our affairs.

    It’s hard, in that it so opposite of everything we’ve been about. And so we pray.

  8. Great post. Translation from one language and culture to another is a very tricky thing to do; it’s very easy for translators to let their cultural or doctrinal preconceptions shade the meaning of the translated text even when they don’t intend to do so, as Amy have happened here.

  9. Larry Geiger says:

    If we seek first the Kingdom of God then we really know what we “need” and we can give thanks for what God has given us. Whether or not, in the world’s view, it is meager or generous. If you seek first the Kingdom of God then you can come to know that you don’t deserve anything. Not even daily bread. You deserve what Jesus got. Instead, God showers blessings on us. Remarkable.

    • I agree with this. It sorta fits in with a concept I’ve been mulling over lately that we should view “bland, normal days” as blessings from God, because quite frankly every day has a chance to turn ugly really fast. Car accident, cancer diagnosis, stray bullet, job loss…you name it. My prayer lately for people going through the wringer has been, “God, just give these people one normal day today.”

      • There is an old poem about “One ordinary day…” with these sentiments……I will look for it, but if anyone else has it handy….

  10. Anonymously Yours says:

    I like that “Give us this day our daily bread” comes before “And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Now, honestly, our sin can get in the way of us receiving many of His gifts and blessings. But as for our daily bread? I think He will provide regardless of our sins and unforgiveness towards others. Think about it, after all. How many preachers have you heard talk about God providing while in the same sermon talking about some sin they were harboring or someone they had not forgiven? Yet God still provided for them in the mean time.

    “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him. But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord” (James 1:5-7 KJV).

    I used to imagine this verse as God withholding a blessing because of my lack of faith. But now I understand it as God holding His open hand in front of me, with the gift there for me to have, yet because I waver and lack faith, I do not reach forth and receive it from His hand. He is not withholding it from me at all.

  11. The rain falls on the good, and evil alike.

    God does provide. But we don’t always see it as gift, nor are we always grateful for His blessings. Especially the blessings that He provides that are packaged in suffering.

    I stand guilty as charged.

  12. There are communities here in Ohio of people who sought after what they can get and get it. They are still small towns but have bigger budgets, schools, homes, small industry, lots of eating and drinking establishment.There are communities that sought the kingdom. I think the slow food, slow church ethos describes them best. It takes a shift in mindset that Chaplain Mike calls a misinterpretation to look at these communities as to values. The churches and schools in the respective communities have far different board meetings. My small town’s church, school, and many family’ s budget is way below what a census would call low. My two cents worth has meaning here. Not in the small town 14 miles down the road. You know what I seek is little regarded on a website like Huffington Post. I visit Huffington Post, and the town down the road, but I don’t live in the same mindset as most of the people there.