Scripture: Luke 12:22–24
It was the end of another hard week, and Tracy collapsed at her dining room table and went through the mail. Among the bills and credit card offers was a handwritten card addressed to her. Curiously, she opened it and found a beautiful card with a picture of birds on the front. Inside, this Bible verse was written, “Do not worry about your life…consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” with an attached note that said, “Tracy, I hope this week is going better for you. In my daily devotions I came across this passage and thought of you and our conversation on Sunday. I am praying that you can learn to worry less and trust God more, remembering that God cares for you and will provide all that you need.” By the time she finished reading the note, Tracy was in tears. She called up her friend and said, “You’ll never guess what I got in the mail today! A card from a lady at church with that Bible verse when Jesus said not to worry but consider how God takes care of the birds, so God will take care of you too, with an added note saying she was praying that I would learn to worry less and trust God more. I’m sure she meant well but can’t people understand that there’s a difference between worry and anxiety? That my anxiety is a medical condition. That my anxiety isn’t about a lack of trust in God, it’s a way my brain has been programmed to think. This is why I don’t talk about my anxiety at church!”
While this story is made up, it feels plausible. The passage I just read commonly gets misused by well-meaning people trying to provide peace to those in the midst of worry or anxiety. But when we look at the text, we can see that Jesus was talking to a specific group of people about a specific worry. Because of the misconceptions around this passage, first, we need to explore who Jesus is NOT talking to in this passage.
Jesus is not talking to people with anxiety disorders. There is a difference between worry and anxiety. Worries tend to be about something concrete, a specific problem or situation that a person is dealing with. Anxiety is bigger and often deals with perceived problems or threats that are not actually present. Worry is temporary and can be controlled pretty easily, whereas anxiety is long lasting and unpredictable. Worry might cause temporary discomfort but anxiety causes long term physical and emotional discomfort that regularly affects daily life. In this passage, Jesus is not talking to people with anxiety disorders.
Jesus is also not talking to people struggling to put food on the table and clothes on their back. Jesus isn’t telling people who are starving that it’s okay because life is more than food. Jesus is fully human, he understands needing food, he has experienced hunger. No, Jesus is telling a different group of people to not worry.
The “therefore” at the beginning of this passage clues us in to who Jesus is talking to. Right before this, a man comes to Jesus and asks him to convince his brother to split the family inheritance. In a very Jesus-y response, Jesus does not directly answer the man’s request but says, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then, Jesus tells a parable about a rich farmer whose harvest produces much more than anticipated, so the man plans to build larger storehouses to hold the harvest and then live off this excess for years to come with relaxation and merriment. But—plot twist!—the man dies that night and is unable to enjoy the riches he had stored. Jesus concludes by saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”
Then, it seems he turns to his disciples to elaborate on the story, which is our text today. When Jesus says, “Do not worry,” he is talking about a specific type of worry. He is thinking of the man who is fighting with his brother over the family inheritance and the rich man in the parable whose life was centered on acquiring riches. Jesus is addressing people that have enough but continue to worry about getting more. In addressing them, Jesus offers these people an alternative that can then be extended to all of us.
Jesus says, consider the raven…the raven doesn’t plant, harvest or store its food…God provides the raven what it needs. Ravens were considered unclean. Jews were not supposed to come into contact with ravens YET God cares for them. Jesus reminds them that people are more precious to God than the ravens…leading to the conclusion that of course God will provide for people in even more ways than God provides for the ravens. Jesus is telling these people you don’t need to worry about building bigger barns to hold all of your food, be more like the raven who knows there will be enough and does not hide its food away.
Next, Jesus says, consider the lilies…they don’t work hard to make their clothes but are already beautifully dressed by God. Jesus says Solomon, who was famous for his wealth and lavish, beautiful surroundings, could not be better dressed than a lily. And lilies, like grass, are not long lasting…beautiful one day and gone the next…so the God who created the fleeting beauty of the grass and flowers will clothe you even more. Jesus is encouraging his listeners to not be going after the next best fashionable piece of clothing. Instead, consider the simple beauty of the lilies and know that you will have the clothes that you need.
Jesus then summarizes what he has been saying in verses 29 and 30. “And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.” Take note of the word “striving” here, which is translated in other versions as chasing, seeking, setting your heart upon, or spending time thinking about. Jesus is describing a very focused posture of putting much time, energy and concern into what you will eat or drink. If Jesus was talking to a mainstream American audience, I think he would pick different items to caution us to strive after because our lives are not centered around the daily struggle of having enough to eat like it was in Jesus’ time. I think he would pick the things that we center our lives around today. Maybe Jesus would say do not keep striving for status, for luxury, for a bigger retirement portfolio, or for more likes on social media. Jesus is saying these are the things that the nations—those that don’t know God—are striving for…but you, Jesus is saying, you do know God, you do know that just as God has cared for the birds and the flowers, God cares even more for you and knows what you need, so don’t fall into the trap of constantly working and worrying about getting more, instead…
Instead, in verse 31, Jesus presents another option. Instead of a life focused on getting, focused on putting our greatest energy into acquiring material goods. “Instead,” Jesus says, “strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
Jesus says you can choose to work for and focus on the things of this world, for materials goods and wealth OR you can focus on the kingdom of God. People have been confused about the kingdom of God since Jesus first spoke about it. The Jews were looking for someone who would conquer the Romans and re-establish Israel as an independent nation. But when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he never references a physical kingdom, instead Jesus proclaims a new world order…one that uplifts the poor and oppressed and where the last are first and the first are last. Since we are constantly imagining the meaning of this word incorrectly, another term has emerged to express this new world order—kin-dom. In the kin-dom of God, we all see each other as family, as kin, and as the family of God we work together for love and justice in this world.
So how do we do this, how do we seek God’s kingdom? This time, Jesus gives us a straight answer—”Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”
To seek the kingdom of God we can’t follow the old order that strives for material goods, for always wanting a little bit more. We can debate whether Jesus in this case is instructing his listeners to sell all of their possessions or just the excess, but what is clear is that Jesus is saying don’t be like the rich fool in the parable…don’t save up your wealth and your harvests by building bigger storehouses to be filled with things that you then won’t be able to use. Instead, sell your possessions and give that money to the poor. If we did that, then truly no one would ever have to worry about having enough money for food and clothes! Jesus is saying don’t hoard your money, give it to those in need. Don’t store up treasure for yourself, be rich with God.
Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Where your treasure is, where your time, focus and money are spent…that will show where your heart truly is, whether it is chasing and worrying about always getting more or whether you are striving to be with God and to help bring the kin-dom of God to this world, the kin-dom that proclaims there is enough, we can all be a part of the family of God. Jesus reminds us that our status isn’t determined by how much we have. If God loves and cares for unclean birds and fragile flowers, of course God loves and cares for you, no matter what is in your bank account, so share your possessions and wealth, focus on the things that last beyond this world.
So this text isn’t the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” song. In this text, Jesus is offering us two worldviews—one where all our energy and focus goes towards always accumulating just a little more, and another where we seek God’s kingdom, where we pursue this new order of life based on kinship, loving one another as family, and knowing that there can be enough for everyone….
And so Tracy, or anyone with anxiety, does not need to feel like they are failing to follow Jesus’ teaching when they read “do not worry” here. Jesus is not condemning those with anxiety disorders, Jesus is inviting us all to new way of living, one where we can step away from the race of always striving for more and pause to consider the ravens and lilies, to see creation not as something to have control and dominion over but to live with, to remember just how much God cares for all of his creation, but especially humanity, and to live as the family of God, the kin-dom of God, in this world.