Do not worry
Reading the gospel today we read three times the clear command “do not worry”. Now I doubt that there is a piece of advice which is more often given, more universally accepted as wise, and more completely useless, than those words: “do not worry”.
I mean, can you imagine a circumstance in which you were worried about something, it was nagging on your mind, keeping you awake at night, and then someone comes up to you and says, “don’t worry about it”, and you say “gosh! That thought had never occurred to me! I’ll stop worrying right now! Thank you for giving me such good advice”. As if worry was something that we could simply choose to do or to stop doing.
We all know about useless worry, about that pointless going over and over things that are past and can’t be changed, or things in the present that are beyond our control, or things in the future which might not even ever happen. And we know how hard it is to stop, even when we know how futile the worry is.
Which is perhaps why Jesus doesn’t just repeat the advice, doesn’t just make a bland “don’t worry, be happy”. And why just quoting “do not worry…” doesn’t do justice to his teaching.
The passage opens with “the eye is the lamp of the body” and “no one can serve two masters”. What you look at, what you pay attention to, what you choose to allow to enter your mind, matters – it shapes you, casts light or darkness into you.
Our attention – our focus, the theme of this series – is, in a way, our most precious resource. We know that there is an entire industry built around trying to capture our attention – from now so primitive seeming adverts on TV or radio or billboards, to the ever more sophisticated internet tracking algorithms, where every pause, even just for a few seconds, to look at a picture or video is recorded, processed, used to decide what to show us in future to capture more of our attention.
What we pay attention to shapes us. And the sad truth that the social media giants have discovered is that what holds the attention most is things that make us angry. These powerful forces are not just trying to get us to pay attention, they are doing so by appealing to those things that divide us. That’s a problem.
And with that in mind, read the next phrase: “no one can serve two masters”. Your attention, your focus, your service, cannot ever really be divided. Your choices will be shaped by what you pay most attention to, the voice or goal or value that you spend your time looking at and thinking about. And so we hear Jesus’ “therefore do not worry”. The motivation for not worrying that Jesus offers isn’t so that you will feel less stressed, or for the good of your health, but because the things that you choose to worry about – will become your master.
What we worry about matters. But it’s no good just leaving it there, just saying “don’t worry about those material things, there are other things much more important”. For though most of us are fortunate enough not to be in such a situation, I’m sure we can all at least imagine, if not remember, how hard it is to take your mind off the quest to meet physical needs when those needs are real and pressing, when there is no money to pay the rent, or the source of the next meal is far from clear.
So the passage moves on to the well-known birds of the air and lilies of the field analogy. One of the least convincing arguments anywhere in Jesus’ teaching. The birds do not sow or reap, or gather into barns, that’s true. And their heavenly Father feeds them. Well, yes, sometimes. But have a longer than usual drought, or a bad period of frost, and many birds of the air might well be wishing that they had gathered food into a barn or copied the squirrels in hiding nuts in a hole in a tree (I don’t know if squirrels actually do that, but they do in all the stories). Is Jesus really suggesting that working for what we need, or planning for the lean times, is fruitless worry, failure to trust?
And then Jesus’ question “can any of you, by worrying, add an hour to your life?”. Well, yes, Jesus, we can. Worrying about whether there is a car coming before you cross the road, worrying about whether you are eating a balanced diet or drinking too much, worrying about whether the ladder is stable, worrying about the noise coming from your car suspension. Those worries may add many hours to your life, or the lives of others.
Which made me wonder about this word “worry”. And it turns out that the Greek word, merimnao, carries a meaning very much at the negative end of our word ‘worry’. Anxiety, or even distraction; literally, it is ‘to be pulled apart’.
“Therefore, I say to you, do not be distracted by thinking about what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear”. Not “don’t think about them”, but “don’t let them draw you away from the real game” – Jesus’ punchline: “Instead, strive for the Kingdom of God”.
The whole passage suddenly sounds a rather different tone. “Be careful where you focus, for you cannot serve both God and the material things of the world. Don’t be distracted by the things you need and the things that you think you need; strive instead for the things of God’s reign, for God knows what you need.”.
The futile instruction “do not worry” then takes on a positive shape. If you want to stop worrying about stuff you can’t do anything about, the most powerful psychological trick available is to throw your focus, your energy, your concentration, your passion, yourself, into something else.
We no longer read “don’t worry about practical physical needs”, instead we read “don’t be distracted by them. Keep your eyes on the goal, your mind on your calling.”
Focus your attention on the reign of God. Work and live to make it more real, more visible, more here. Throw your life, your energy, your effort into doing the work of God’s reign that you have been called to – whether that be feeding the hungry, welcoming the excluded, campaigning for justice, educating a new generation, bringing health to the sick, protecting creation, caring for those who are in need, befriending the lonely, creating beauty, giving with generosity, telling the good news, praying for all these things and more – and trust God for the rest.
Now I’m not saying that this is easy advice to follow. It’s not always easy to know our calling as part of the work of the reign of God, not always easy to hold on to it.
But at least these words – to me, anyway – make sense. As a goal to strive for, a hope to cling onto. To find the works of the reign of God that you can do, that you are called to, gifted at, passionate for, and make them your focus.
Don’t be distracted. Keep your focus on your calling. Strive for God’s reign.