"Don't Live Like a Pagan Gentile"
The Words of Jesus and the Worries of Life

For Sunday February 27, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Isaiah 49:8–16a

Psalm 131

1 Corinthians 4:1–5

Matthew 6:24–34

           Right after telling his followers to "be perfect," Jesus tells them, "don't worry" (Matthew 5:48, 6:25). In fact, he repeats himself five times.

           Don't worry about your life. Worry won't get you anywhere. Why worry about your food, drink, and clothing? Stop worrying. Don't worry about the future (6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34).

California poppies.
California poppies.

           Don't live like a Roman tax collector or the pagan Gentiles, says Jesus, who "run after all these things." Instead of hoarding money, give it away. Instead of obsessing about yourself, care for others. Beyond your prudent planning for the cares of life, abandon yourself to a God who is both infinitely powerful and intimately personal. After you've hedged every bet and calculated every contingency, enjoy the beauty of birdsong and the fragrance of flowers.

           Live like what you believe is true, which in fact it is, whether you believe it or not — that God is like a generous father who knows what you need, and a nursing mother for whom it's impossible to forget her baby at her breast (Isaiah 49:15). Don't fret about the future but enjoy the present moment. And consider the psalmist for this week: "I have quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother" (131:2).

           I probably qualify as a natural worrier. I've taped one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons to our kitchen cabinet. It pictures a man sitting in his living room with a look of panic on his face. He's dropped his book and his hair stands on end. He's yanked his legs off the floor and onto the chair, where he clutches them in a fetal position. There's a bomb on the floor that someone has tossed through his window. Shattered glass litters the floor as the fuse burns down. In the punch line, he confesses to his wife: "It's my fault — I wasn't worrying enough."

Wood duck drake.
Wood duck drake.

           Another cartoon taped onto our kitchen cabinet pictures a man alone in bed late at night. He's sitting up, scribbling on a note pad, and talking on the phone. In the caption he tells his friend, "When I can't sleep, I find that it sometimes helps to get up and jot down my anxieties." Every square centimeter of the bedroom walls is covered with dozens of scribbled worries — war, recession, killer bees, aging, calories, sex, balding, radon gas, and so on.

           I love these characters with their exaggerated sense of responsibility. I make lists, then mark things off the list after I do them. I'd rather be an hour early than five minutes late. Brooding and internal soliloquies come naturally to me. My exterior demeanor is calm, but my internal engines are often racing. At night when it's time to sleep I sometimes can't find the "off" switch. To relax is a challenge. Overcompensation? That's my specialty. Obsessing about a trivial detail? I've perfected the art. As the cartoon puts it, just think of all the bad stuff that will happen if I don't worry enough.

           I try not to be too hard on myself. My pop psychological analysis suggests that I inherited a "worry gene" from my mother. I'm not clinically depressed like she was for the last twenty years of her life, and I don't chew my fingernails like I remember my father doing when I was in high school. But the worrier in me wonders — anything's possible, and there's still plenty of time.

Humpback whale.
Humpback whale.

           Not all of our worries are merely imagined, not by a long shot; some are genuinely real. There are many good reasons to worry. Among my friends and family are divorce, unemployment, eating disorders, bad mortgages, chemotherapy treatments, sleep disorders and struggling kids (who have great parents). And when we look at the larger world there are environmental disasters on an unprecedented scale, the collapse of the housing and financial markets, rogue states, and the threat of nuclear terrorism.

           In the same issue of the New Yorker as the cartoon above (June 14 and 21, 2010), an article called "Fresh Hell" explores the boom in "dystopian fiction" among young readers. Perhaps it has something to do with the world they experience every day? "The typical arc of the dystopian narrative," writes the author, "mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection." These dystopian tales, he says, are about "the world being broken or intolerable."

           Although we manufacture some worries by projecting our anxiety onto the world, other worries are sane responses to an insane world. In either case, says Jesus, if you "live like a pagan Gentile" who's ignorant of the one true God and who worships false idols, or if you mimic the ways of the world like a Roman tax collector, then you're certain to experience disappointment.

Great Blue Heron.
Great Blue Heron.

           The gospel for this week anticipates our personal neuroses and our legitimate anxieties, but not in the way that we might want or expect. Jesus, observes Diarmaid MacCulloch in his book Christianity (2010), plays by a different set of rules. In the gospels, observes MacCulloch, "Jesus is his own authority." The coming kingdom that Jesus announced "produced outrageous inversions of normality," like paying a laborer who worked only one hour an entire day's wages. Jesus subverts our cultural conventions and natural intuitions with a sense of relish. And such is his advice to us about anxiety.

           Don't worry about your life, says Jesus. Don't be afraid. Isaiah acknowledged that the exiles felt "forsaken and forgotten" in their exile to Babylon, and so he reminded them of the God of "comfort and compassion" (49:13–14).

           In my better moments, I resonate with the farmer-poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) and his poem The Peace of Wild Things. Berry echoes the words of Jesus about the worries of life:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

The world can be wild, but Jesus says that under the care of his Father it can nonetheless be a place of peace.

For further reflection

* Consider St. Makarios of Egypt (5th century): "I am convinced that not even the apostles, although filled with the Holy Spirit, were therefore completely free from anxiety… Contrary to the stupid view expressed by some, the advent of grace does not mean the immediate deliverance from anxiety."
* Philippians 4:7, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."
* 1 Peter 5:7: "Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you."

Image credits: (1) UCLA Geography Tour; (2) Greg Downing Photograph; (3) McCullagh.org; and (4) Redbubble.com.