“Do Not Worry” — Sparse Counsel for A Life Deeply Lived

fear art
“Letting Go of Fear” (Creative Commons)

Matthew 6:25-34 (The Cotton Patch Gospel):

25. “Therefore, let me tell you all something: Don’t worry about making a living—what you’ll eat, what you’ll drink, what you’ll wear. Isn’t the life of a man more important than what he eats? Think for a moment about the birds of the sky. They don’t plant. They don’t harvest. They don’t store up in barns. Even so, your spiritual Father cares for them. Really now, aren’t you all more precious than birds? Besides, who of you, by fretting and fuming, can make himself one inch taller?

28. “And what’s all this big to-do over clothing? Look yonder at that field of flowers, how they’re growing. They do no housework and no sewing. But I’m telling you, not even Solomon in all his finery was ever dressed up like one of them. Well then, if God so clothes the flowers of the field, which are blooming today and are used for kindling tomorrow, won’t he do even more for you, you spiritual runts? So cut out your anxious talk about ‘what are we gonna eat, and what are we gonna drink, and what are we gonna wear.’ For the people of the world go tearing around after all these things. Listen, your spiritual Father is quite aware that you’ve got to have all such stuff. Then set your heart on the God Movement and its kind of life, and all these things will come as a matter of course. Don’t worry over the future; let the future worry over itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I often forget that the Sermon on the Mount was written as one long sermon. I see a beloved holy man sitting near the summit of a high hill, surrounded by devoted disciples and few a curious children. And the masses mill about with their blankets and picnics. Jesus delivers his massive discourse, packed with divine wisdom and love, hitting almost every major area of life in one session.

I forget that I’m getting the condensed version of what was more likely a series of conversations with many people. In seeing Jesus speaking once to one crowd, I apply this universal approach to my own life. Jesus told this massive crowd not to worry, thus I am not to worry. End of story.

What I often fail to do is read the tone in which I read Jesus’ words. As calm and loving as he sounds when he breathes the Beatitudes, Jesus voice suddenly becomes flippant and casual when he talks about worry.

“Pffft…! What? Me worry? Naw! It’s a ridiculous waste of time to worry over little things, so don’t do it!”

I’ve heard this tone in countless sermons growing up. Worry was such a trivial action for Jesus that all he needed to do was to tell the crowds not to do it, and that was the end of the matter. Jesus was already so actualized and chill that worry had no hold upon his own life. If I’m to emulate this Jesus, then, I need to stop worrying because then I step into disobedience.

What a perfectly packaged guilt trip. Jesus said, so that ends it.

What I fail to remember is that Jesus was telling starving people not to worry about what they were going to eat or drink; he was telling marginalized people — their stations in life often marked by their type of garments — not to worry about what they were going to wear; he was telling a hurting people to not worry about their hurt.

This isn’t flippancy. This is upside-down thinking.

I’ve come to believe that Jesus didn’t offer his words “do not worry” easily. He’s already known hunger and thirst; he’s already known the impacts of castes and classist systems; he knows his audience better than we do as foreign readers. Jesus did not casually toss out the demand for his followers to stop worrying.

He was acknowledging that their fears were real, and that God already had intimate knowledge of those fears and even deeper care about them.

He was paving the way for people to realize just how much God and God’s love was already present in their lives. He wasn’t dismissing their troubles or their worries. His words were carefully chosen and not lightly given. In his humanness, Jesus was speaking as much to himself as he was to his hearers.

How much it must have hurt him to tell a hungry person “Don’t worry; your heavenly Father cares about you”, or a naked person “Don’t worry; a Force who clothes these flowers cares for you more than you know.”

I assume that Jesus was continuously overjoyed to share what we perceive are words of freedom and comfort. I forget that his words, even if they were intended to be hopeful, would have had immediate and shocking impacts.

Words don’t stop stomach pains.

Words don’t clean stinking rags.

So if I continue to read Jesus’ words in this new tone — one of caution marked with a lifetime of experience — believing that it was difficult for him to encourage hungry and naked people with such crazy notions, my perceptions of worry change as well.

I am not as quick to tell others not to worry about their troubles.

“Don’t worry” ceases to be a go-to catch-all phrase to say when I can’t think of anything else to say.

I am more mindful of the present circumstances others are living in — indeed even my own — that are contributing to our worries and cares. Jesus himself confesses that each day has enough trouble of its own. He doesn’t erase suffering in this passage. In fact, he highlights it. Jesus is offering a way for a beleaguered people to begin to step into spiritual, social, and political freedom so life could begin to thrive rather than be stunted.

When I become more aware of Jesus’ tone in his own context, “don’t worry” ceases to be a casual drop of advice, or a pat answer for any person I may happen to encounter.

Worry is real.

Fear is real.

They are real because hunger, loss, homelessness, and disease are all real and have already had deadly impacts on our lives. Is it Jesus’ desire that we continue to live in fear?

Likely not, but I dare say he understands that fear and worry are daily monsters we all face.

I would say that Jesus’ desire is for us to understand his tone more than anything else. For if we choose to put his words into his own context, we can’t help but hear heaviness and years of life experience in his voice.

Here is the example I need to follow: a person who knew life well enough to offer what words he did, but saw the whole of it and refused to reduce it.

May I be wise enough to follow in such deep footsteps.

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