Scriptures: Matthew 6:25-33, 2 Peter 1:1-11
The "Lilies of the Field" passage in the gospel of Matthew is familiar to many of us. Do not be anxious, Jesus tells his disciples, because the God who cares for the flowers in the field and the birds of the air will surely provide for you. Stop worrying. Everything will turn out fine. That’s what we remember about this teaching.
But wait a minute. We’re not like flowers and birds. We know things are not OK all the time. In fact, we know that things are not OK right now. Does this teaching mean that we should just relax and let God take care of us?
Christian faith isn’t that simple. In the middle of the passage Jesus remarks that his disciples have "little faith." In effect, Jesus is saying their faith matters. And the concluding verse of the "Lilies of the Field" passage urges the disciples to live so as to strengthen their faith: "strive first for the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things [food and clothing, etc.] will be given to you as well." (Mt. 6:33)
The passage ends with an expectation that was absent in the comforting images of colorful flowers and well-fed birds. The disciples (and later the Christians reading this gospel) are urged by Jesus to give top priority to seeking "the kingdom of God and its righteousness." The "Lilies of the Field" passage is not about passively depending on God, but offers an assurance of God’s righteousnessrighteou in order to motivate us to live more faithfully.
In the Hebrew scriptures righteousness is a defining characteristic of God, and it is also what God expects of the people of Israel. The psalmist says of God, "you love righteousness and hate wickedness," (Ps. 45:7) and Isaiah writes, "the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness." (Is. 5:16) Paul’s letters are filled with the word. In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul says that in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus "the righteousness of God" has been disclosed. (Rom. 3:21-25) And Paul claims that Genesis 15 says, "Abraham had faith in God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (Rom. 4:3, Gen. 15:6)
We see faith and righteousness joined in the second reading for this morning from 2 Peter. The letter is addressed: "To those who have received a faith as precious as ours through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ." And what is this "faith" that is so precious? Faith means actively trusting in God. The letter calls Christians to "escape from the corruption that is in the world" and to "become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason," the letter urges, we "must make every effort to support" [our] "faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love." (2 Peter 1:4-5) For in this way, "entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided." (v. 11)
The church’s lectionary links the reading from 2 Peter to the reading from the gospel of Matthew in order to attack a "cheap grace" understanding of the "Lilies of the Field" passage. We are not like the flowers of the field and the birds of the air. They don’t have any choice about their lives. They live, and they die. However, unlike the flowers and the birds, we make choices about our lives, and these choices matter. We live and die, but through faith we may "die" while we yet live in order to enter into the kingdom of God. We may choose goodness, godliness, mutual affection and love, rather than accepting the corruption in the world.
It is striking that in our time the word "righteousness" is rarely used, and we generally associate the word "righteous" with being "self-righteous." In our "do-your-own-thing-as-long-as-you-don’t-harm-anyone-else" culture, talk about righteousness has an arrogant and judgmental connotation. After all, who can decide what is right for everyone? Who has the right to judge what others say and do?
The answer to these questions in the Bible is that God has this right, that God is righteous, and that we are loved and forgiven because of the righteousness of God. We are not called to be self-righteous but, in faith, to manifest God’s righteousness in our lives. This is what it means to enter into the kingdom of God.
Faith is not a matter of professing certain belief about God. Faith is living as though God’s love for us, and for the world, is real. As this is not self-evident, faith means trusting in God despite lack of proof that everything will be OK. Faith is affirming the righteousness of God in a corrupt world. Faith is responding to evil with good (Rom. 12:21), not because we are afraid to resist evil, but because we trust that God is fighting evil with good and we choose to be on God’s side.
Listen to the words of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer we pray every Sunday, the prayer that many of us pray every day. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This is not a prayer for Americans or for the defeat of terrorists, but a prayer for God’s righteousness. "Give us this day our daily bread." We pray that God will continue to give us life — not wealth and success, but bread so that we may live. "And forgive us our debts (trespasses), as we forgive our debtors (those who trespass against us)." Forgive us, we pray, as we forgive others. God’s righteousness is about forgiveness. Faith is trusting in God and forgiving those who have wronged us.
"And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." Why would God lead us into temptation? The Bible is filled with stories of temptation, and often these are understood as a test of faith. We face choices daily, and not all of them are good for us or for others. The first three gospels of the New Testament tell of the temptation of Jesus, before he began his ministry. This story confirms his humanity. Life is God’s gift to humanity, and life is full of temptation. We pray to God to strengthen our faith, so we might resist temptation, renounce evil, and live more righteously.
Yes. Christians are "do-gooders," or should be. The next time someone accuses you of being a "do-gooder," tell them you’d rather be a "do-gooder" than an "evil-doer." And if they say you’re being unrealistic, just say that responding to evil and corruption in the world by doing good is clearly the best choice. What else might overcome evil? Greater evil?
The gospel of Matthew was written not long after Peter and Paul had been executed, as threats to the Empire. More terrifying, perhaps, the Romans had put down the Jewish revolt in 70 CE, crucified thousands of Jews, and destroyed the Jewish temple. Now recall that Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jews, and the Christians for whom the gospel of Matthew was written were Jewish Christians. Furthermore, the Roman Emperor was demanding that he be worshipped as Lord and Savior, and that everyone in the Empire put their faith (in Greek, pistis) in him.
The Christians at the end of the first century, who are reading the gospel of Matthew, have much to be anxious about. The "Lilies of the Field" passage is telling them to put their faith (pistis) in Jesus Christ, and despite all the dangers they face to strive for God's kingdom and righteousness in their life together.
2 Peter appears not to have been written by Peter, but by a Christian living after the failed revolt of the Jews in 132-135 CE. The revolt was sparked by a Jew named Simon bar Cochba, who declared that he was the Messiah (the Christ). Jews had rallied to his cause, and even the respected Rabbi Aqiba had supported Simon bar Cochba's claim. When the Romans put down this second Jewish revolt, all Jewish residents of Jerusalem were driven out and forbidden to return. 2 Peter counsels those waiting for the day of the Lord, when Jesus Christ (Messiah) would come to judge the living and the dead, to not lose hope, but instead to live with faith and righteousness. For if they do this, 2 Peter says, they will enter "into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 1:11)
In our time, we need not fear of imperial oppression or persecution, yet there is much about life that is uncertain. The end of the Cold War has brought hot wars, and the superpower status of our nation has made it the target of terrorism. Are we now, as the disciples were two millennia ago, men (and women) of little faith? Or, will we strive to realize God's kingdom and God's righteousness?
Christian faith does not offer a false hope. It is not unrealistic about the world. Christian faith is rooted in good sense and good will, and it appeals both to our heads and to our hearts. Let’s not be apologetic about being Christians. Our faith is worth living, worth proclaiming, worth sharing. Trusting in God’s righteousness is a way of living that will make a difference — in our lives, in the world, and in the life to come. Amen.
November 11, 2001