The words of Jesus are often used to comfort, and they do. There is frequently a confidence-building quality to His words, He reassures us of His own mercy and of the love and power of God. But there is a unique way that the words of Jesus are to be read by those who are following Him, or said another way, we shouldn’t blithely invoke the words of Jesus over those who have no interest in Him or His way of life out of a casual sense of compassion.
In Matthew 6 there is a famous passage about worry that Jesus includes in the Sermon on the Mount. He says,
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.
Jesus goes on to talk about the provision of God and even the abundance and remarkable beauty of that provision and how it is a gift the Father gives us to not be consumed with worry about what tomorrow may bring. All of this is built on the confidence that we have in the Father’s loving care for us. And this is a hallmark passage for people seeking peace or relief from highly stressful moments or seasons of life. We come to this kind of text as we seek refuge from difficulty, pain and chaos. And we should.
There is an important distinction that we cannot ignore here: the Sermon on the Mount is not a collection of maxims delivered to the entire earth and all human population. The words of Christ, His wisdom and the promises He makes, are deeply rooted in the individual’s surrender to Him and participation with Him in the life of the Kingdom. This is not general wisdom, it is conditional.
In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Stanley Hauerwas says this:
“The temptation…is to assume that Jesus’ admonition not to worry is some general human truth that is true whether Jesus says it or not. But…the content of the sermon cannot be abstracted from the one who delivers the sermon.
Jesus’s recommendation, that we not worry about tomorrow because the trouble of today is enough, is not just good advice, but rather wisdom that reflects the character of God’s new creation manifest in Christ’s life and ministry.”
Stanley Hauerwas, “Matthew”
Telling someone not to worry about their problems because God will take care of them is not just bad advice offered to someone who doesn’t care, or desire to care about Jesus or the Kingdom of God, it is stupid advice. It is senseless. It has no foundation. Pretending that Jesus intended everyone, regardless of any decision they’ve ever made, to be covered under this umbrella of peace is not helpful because it isn’t true. Jesus makes no such promise here. He isn’t talking to everyone. He is making a point to make distinctions throughout this sermon (bad fruit / good fruit, bad tree / good tree, narrow way / broad way, built on sand / built on rock, etc…).
Certainly that sounds harsh. In our world there is a great desire to cover everyone with everything God ever said, even if He really only said some of those things to those whom He had called specifically or those who had been faithful to Him. But the reality isn’t quite as harsh as it sounds, namely because Jesus’ invitation to everyone stands firm, open-armed, welcome gaze, ready to accept, forgive and make new. This is why He goes on to say in that very same passage that the peace and assurance we all long for is not locked away, but it is, instead, a result from first setting the focus of our life on something much more important than relief or provision:
But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Be careful not to give advice to people just because it makes you (and perhaps even them) feel better in the moment. This is not wrong because wanting people to be at rest or free or filled with joy is wrong, but because you might be advising them to settle for something less than real peace, real freedom or real joy. Those things can only come when we surrender ourselves to the God of all goodness. Or, as Hauerwas puts it:
“To seek first the righteousness of the kingdom of God is to discover that that for which we seek is given, not achieved.”