Scripture: Matthew 6:25–34
Bobby McFerrin released his most famous song in 1988, Don’t Worry Be Happy. It was musically complex, as McFerrin accompanied himself, singing separately each line a cappella and dubbing them over each other. It was the first a cappella song to reach #1 on Billboard charts, and is one of the songs on Rolling Stone’s list: “Best Songs to Whistle.” It is a serious dangerous earworm. In fact, you are probably singing the song in your head now, and will all day. You’re welcome.
Not only did it sell a million copies, but soon after it was released, a million preachers, and youth pastors, and youth curriculum writers all had the exact same thought: “Matthew 6! Do not worry! Bobby McFerrin is just echoing Jesus!” And a million sermons and youth Sunday school lessons repackaged Jesus’ words: “Don’t Worry Be Happy!”
And with all due respect for folks’ interpretive freedom, I wonder if there were unintended consequences. As complex and layered as the music was for Don’t Worry, Be Happy, the lyrics were not. They were an overly simplified pop song with very little nuance. And putting those words into the mouth of Jesus made him sound oversimplified, as well. Youth and churchgoers heard these messages, and felt like there was no room for anything but “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” It was a difficult message to hear for those dealing with post-partum depression. Or panic attacks. Or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or complicated grief. Or really any kind of grief. To interpret Jesus as a Hawaiian-shirt wearing, mai-tai sipping beach bum makes it really hard for someone crushed by the pain of grief. Or dealing with any clinical anxiety or depression. Especially if their preacher rubs salt in their wounds: ”O you of little faith.” Many were left with this oversimplified message of “if you had more faith, or better faith, then you wouldn’t feel this way.”
But scholars have taken a harder look at these verses, and suggest that maybe there is something going on more complex than simply “Don’t worry, be happy.” They point to a couple of insights from the Greek that suggest that maybe what Jesus is doing is actually pretty different.
The first is this little word at the beginning of the passage: “therefore.” If I or any preacher ever begins a Scripture reading with “therefore,” we should hear the flutter of Bible pages, to see what came before. (Or a digital flutter, for those of you who use an iPad or phone for your Scripture.) It’s like if I started a story “And then, the next thing I did was….” If we heard that at the beginning of a story, we would immediately wonder, what was missing? “Wait, what was the first thing you did? What came before it?” And it should be the same with “therefore.” Because this little word implies that an argument or a statement has been made, and now there is a follow-up point, or an application that is about to follow. In Greek, the word is dia, from which we get our word “diameter,” meaning “to go across.” The point is that the argument moves across from one point to another. So, scholars argue that we shouldn’t begin the reading with vs. 25, but at least go back to 24:
No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, I tell you, do not worry…
Whoa. That changes things. Now, instead of talking about psychological or emotional anxiety, we’re talking about…money. When Jesus is talking about anxiety and worry, it seems to be about the anxiety and worry that we have about…money. Now we are talking about 401K’s, and tax refunds, and insuring our stuff against loss, and increasing our wealth and protecting our wealth, and keeping up with the Joneses, and all the things that we as good, middle class Americans are taught are important. Even holy. Even worthy of our worship. Oh no, Jesus…now you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling! Now, when we start worrying about that stuff, and waking up in the middle of the night thinking about that stuff, and making that stuff your priority, that’s when Jesus tells us, “you of little faith.”
Of course, no one would literally say that they worship money or wealth. But Jesus is pushing us to ask how our anxieties and our fears and our worries are driven by financial security and protecting the things that really matter to us. How much of our anxiety is driven by possessions? How are the ways that we value ourselves or others driven by monetary concerns? Jesus—then and now—is challenging the values of Empire that suggest that concerns and anxieties and trust in money is the baseline, foundational principle in our walk of faith.
But wait, there’s more. If you weren’t feeling unsettled enough yet, the Greek gives us another insight that perhaps our English translation misses. Usually when we read this passage, we think in individual terms, again because we are trained as good, middle class Americans to think in those terms. You need to have more faith. You need to stop worrying. But that isn’t really what the Greek says!
One of the podcasts that I listen to is from a couple of scholars from the South: Amy Robertson from the Atlanta area and Robert Williamson from Little Rock. And they agree that we need to have a new translation of the Bible: the “Y’all Translation.” Because so much of this stuff that translates in singular in English is actually plural. Including this passage. It actually reads:
your heavenly Father knows that y’all need all these things. But y’all seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to y’all as well. So y’all do not worry about tomorrow…
Again…whoa. This really changes things, doesn’t it? Instead of individual definitions of our own net worth, Jesus is saying that as a community you have enough…as long as everyone shares. Together you don’t need to worry about food and clothes and protection, as long as everyone does their part and takes care of those in need.
That’s what Jesus is talking about here. “Y’all have enough, so don’t worry.” He asks us to reconsider how those folks lined up at the border are partially our responsibility as well. He asks us if we are part of the reason why hundreds of cars showed up yesterday at Mobile Food Pantry in need. He asks us who doesn’t have enough, and why not? “Y’all don’t need to worry about this stuff. There is plenty to go around.” And all of a sudden, Jesus has gone from preaching, to meddling, to attacking the core of some of our most cherished values.
Scholar Katherine Bush poses an important question here. Is Jesus criticizing the ways that we live—then and now—or is he giving us a new and better way to live? And her answer is, yes. It has to be both. There has to be a challenge to the ways that we have swallowed the values of Empire hook, line, and sinker. There has to be some bad news, in order to replace it with the good news.
When Jesus takes a shot at the Gentiles, part of what he is doing is naming the fact that the values of Empire are not good, life-sustaining values. Even though it is easy to parrot the Romans, Jesus is telling them that they have had the right answers the whole time, embedded in the Torah. Jesus harkens back to the Old Testament teachings of Torah: of Moses and manna and taking just what we need, and Deuteronomy and the promise that if we live by these principles, it will go well with you in the land God is giving you. And part and parcel with these stories is the concept of tithing, or firstfruits. The short version is that whatever we receive, the first 10 percent of it goes away. To support those in need and those supporting those in need. To care for widow and orphan and stranger. It goes out the door before we even get to think that we own it. It wasn’t ours to begin with. Manna. Promised land. Tithe. Firstfruits. Jesus is taking these old, ancient, principles and reapplying them in the context of Roman Empire values.
Likewise, they still apply to us! How’s the life of Empire working for you? Being beholden to making sure you have enough stuff to make yourself happy and equal to your neighbor. To making sure all of that stuff is protected and hoarded? The principles that God has taught through the provision of manna, and the promise of the Promised Land, are better ways to live than the Empire values of greed and excess and building bigger and bigger walls to protect your stuff. Jesus is pleading with them and us to say “all that stuff gives you is more stuff to be stressed out about. More stuff to worry about. Y’all seek first the kingdom, and you’ll receive what you need.”
Jesus’ words push us to think about what relationship we have with our wealth, with our stuff, and with the worry that goes along with it. How do we internalize the values of Empire, day in and day out, without even noticing? Jesus is trying to show us a better, less anxious, healthier way of living. Bush suggests that there is criticism in the words of Jesus, but there is also freedom. There is also release.
A young man who has been attending our 838 service told his story today. Only 9 years old, he began to notice those on the streets of Lawrence, across the river in the homeless campground, and around town, and asked a simple question of his mother: “Can’t we just give them something to eat?” He asked the question enough that he and his mother decided to do something about it, and the Jax Project was born. A chance to find food in the community, and get it to those in need. A chance to share home and a friendly hug with those who need it. A chance to show what it looks like to live “y’all” together. And a chance to receive the freedom and release of dismantling anxiety in our world and our hearts. The faith of a child shows us the way.