This morning, in the collect of the Mass, we prayed:
This Sunday is sometimes referred to as “divine providence Sunday,” for virtually all of the texts of the Mass speak, in one way or another, of God's bounty. With the possible exception of the Lord's Prayer itself, no passage from our Lord's sermon on the mount is more familiar to Christian people than today's Gospel on the “Birds of the Air” and the “Lilies of the Field.” As with any passage from sacred Scripture, it is important that we read this one within its proper context—in this case, within the context of the entire sermon on the mount. (For those of you who are willing to read a little, that means the 5th, 6th and 7th chapters of Saint Matthew's Gospel.)
It is also important to note that the Semitic languages—Hebrew and Aramaic—the languages spoken by our Lord—tend to lack superlatives; words like wise, wiser, and wisest. Someone trying to make a point using these languages had two techniques available to him. He might say the same thing over several times, to indicate its importance. For example: in some Gospel passages our Lord repeats: “Amen, Amen, I say to you….” “Amen” means “truly,” and we probably would have just said something like “Most truly, I say to you….” But given the constraint of His language, He had instead to repeat
The other way a Semitic speaker might form a superlative would be through some degree of exaggeration. That is what our Lord is doing in proposing today's parable.
Quite obviously, our Lord was not telling the crowd that they should abandon their earthly lives, nor that they should ignore the problem of feeding themselves in the fairly hostile land of Palestine, nor is He telling then to go about in the clothing God provided to them at birth. Such things might have been possible for Adam and Eve in Paradise, but since the fall of our first parents, mankind has had to “eat his bread through the sweat of his brow, until he returned to the dust of the earth.”
What Jesus is doing, is emphasizing the importance of the spiritual life; placing it at least on par with the material concerns of physical life. We shouldn't spend all of our time worrying about what we will wear or what we will eat, while neglecting to nourish our souls with the Sacraments, or dirtying them with the stain of mortal sin.
He is not trying to discourage personal industry, or a prudent preparation for the future. Certainly in other passages he commends these things. But He always insists on balance. The Lord's Prayer comes in the same chapter as today's Gospel—and it is a good example of this balance. God's kingdom should be on earth as it is in heaven—we must forgive earthly debts, as well as we must avoid moral evils and temptation.
Even the petition for our “daily bread” is balanced, in that is taken to mean both the bread which nourishes us physically, and the Eucharistic bread of life. (In the Vulgate, Matthew refers to the “super-substantial bread.”) If only our people were as concerned about receiving our Lord daily in Holy Communion as they are about receiving their regular bread!!
Our Lord implies that those who put proper emphasis on spiritual things will also have their material needs attended to. “Seek first the kingdom of God... and all these things shall be added unto you.” Again, there is an element of His Semitic speaking style here. We know that good religious people are not always protected from physical suffering and want. They are, after all, material beings, and our Lord rarely suspends the laws which govern His material creation.
But we also know that if we are in the state of grace, and if we are in the habit of conforming our will to God's will, the material difficulties of this earth can be turned into something meritorious for our eternal salvation. We can, as it is often said, “unite our sufferings with the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the cross.” And material misfortunes will be less distressing to the spiritual person.
Saint Paul, in the Epistle read today, states precisely the same thing; just from another point of view. If we become mired down with the concerns of our physical nature, and ignore the spiritual, we will experience all of the tribulations which he lists; the “wraths, and quarrels, dissensions, and murders,” and so forth. It is only if we pursue the spiritual side of our nature that we will receive the various consolations which he lists; like peace, and joy, and charity, and so on.
Note that Paul isn't promising an earthly Utopia—but he is promising what is necessary for us to deal with earthly existence in a manner which will satisfy both our physical and spiritual needs. As we might say, “One which will allow us to cope with our situation.”
As our Lord tells us, we “cannot add a cubit to our height” by worrying about it. But then again, why would we want to be 18 inches taller? Such things are just not very important.
This morning we celebrate a Mass in honor of Divine Providence. Please let me urge you to strive for the balance suggested in the readings we have just heard. As well as we have to provide for our physical needs, we surely must provide for the spiritual. It is fine to work hard, and to plan for the future but don't forget that such work and planning must encompass both sides of our being. Just as our “daily bread” speaks to both. We “cannot serve both God and Mammon;” instead we must live in God's kingdom here on earth, until we are judged worthy to enter His kingdom in heaven.