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Growing Into the Sermon on the Mount

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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Growing Into the Sermon on the Mount

Submitted by Patrick Burrows on March 7, 2011

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."

--St. Matthew 6.34

When I was younger and was asked what kind of life I aspired to live, I would always point to the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel, also known as the Sermon on the Mount. I was completely steeped in the Bible as the guide for life, and in these chapters, I saw Jesus’ greatest teachings about what the “good life” consisted of. Turning the other cheek. Going the extra mile. Choosing the narrow gate. And even, cutting off your right hand if it caused you to sin. I have always had a highly (and if you ask my parents, overly) active imagination, and so, the imagery of these texts really gave me something to sink my teeth into.

As time has gone by, however, I find these messages less appealing. I still very much consider them to be the basis of Christian ethics, but I no longer look at them with the eyes of a child. It’s easy to say as a child to turn the other cheek to that kid in class who won’t share with you. It is an entirely different beast to suggest to adults that they should love their enemies and pray for those who persecute them, especially those who are actively oppressed. Even more to say do not store up your treasures on earth, when consumerism is so rampant that it takes every ounce of self-control to maintain some sense of sanity in the weeks leading up to Christmas. As a child, not storing up treasures on earth was not a problem—my treasures consisted primarily in my Hot Wheels car collection. But now, even when most of my valued possessions can fit in my car, orienting my heart towards my true Treasure is an epic task in and of itself.

But Jesus continues to go on and on with a list of increasingly demanding ethical principles. This is not the Law of the Moses, with individual commandments that can be checked off a list. This Gospel is about metanoia—transformation—, a complete change of the way we interact with the world, moving from one form to another. Later in St. Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus claims that his “yoke is easy and [his] burden is light,” I can’t help but scoff.

But nothing is more infuriating to me than the last verse of chapter 6. The New International Version translates it as, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” When I was taking a huge course-load and was overly active in extracurriculars my junior year of high school, I had this verse written across the front of my notebooks for my two most intense classes. It was a comforting reminder to take things one day at a time and not to get overly worked up.

“I don’t see why that’s infuriating to you,” you might be thinking. The problem is, I’m an anxiety-prone person. Worrying is what I do. I can usually stave it off by getting ridiculously over-committed and not having time to breathe, much less to think about all the things that could be going horribly wrong all around me. But as I’ve gotten more settled into my site placement and grown into a routine that doesn’t occupy much conscious thought, my brain has time to wander and, inevitably, to start worrying. When I hear Jesus say, “Do not worry about your life,” my immediate reaction is, “Well, that’s easy for you to say. After all, you are God.” Theologians have often argued about whether or not Jesus gave up his omniscience in taking on human flesh, using all sorts of metaphysical arguments. At least from my point of view, for Jesus to have the sheer audacity to say these words, he couldn’t have known the limits of human understanding. Telling us not to worry is akin to telling a fish to learn how to breathe air.

But that is the Jesus I encounter here, a Jesus who pushes me away from the conceit that I have absolute control over my life. My worrying is an attempt to control everything by figuring it out, and is actually implicitly a denial of God’s control in the situation. And though I don’t think that God takes offense at that, by worrying about everything, I’m not making room for God to do something. Instead, I am attempting to micromanage grace, to bend it to my will, instead of letting it flow through me.

Jesus’ words “do not worry about tomorrow” used to be words of comfort, then words of angst. But now, I am beginning to see that they are liberating, if only I will trust that God will take better care of my life than I would. “Tomorrow will worry about itself.”


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