Free from Anxiety like Ravens and Lilies

by Herb Montgomery

Featured Text:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you.” (Q 12:22b-31)

Companion Texts:

Matthew 6:25-33: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

Luke 12:22-31: “Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.’”

Gospel of Thomas 36:1, 4, 2–3: “Jesus said, ‘Do not fret, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about your food–what you’re going to eat, or about your clothing, what you are going to wear. You’re much better than the lilies, which neither card nor spin. As for you, when you have no garment, what will you put on? Who might add to your stature? That very one will give you your garment.’”

We can best understand this week’s saying by looking at an interesting detail in Luke’s version of this saying. At the very beginning of this discourse in Luke, we read:

“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’” (Luke 12:13,14)

In Jesus’ audience is a man arguing with his brother over their inheritance from their father. One brother asks for Jesus to speak to the other brother on his behalf and Jesus flatly refuses to arbitrate between them.

Arguments over inheritances aren’t common among the poor or lower middle classes. These are problems that exist among the affluent. My own mother passed away in 2014, a typical Appalachian woman with nothing. I remember having to sort through mail and having to speak with creditors. There was no inheritance to try and figure out; there was only debt to be cleared or written off.

Jesus didn’t see settling disputes between the rich as his purpose. He was a prophet of the poor and called his audience to solidarity with the poor. One example of this is Jesus call’ for the rich to “sell everything you have and give it to the poor.” It was a call for radical wealth redistribution.

It’s possible that those who heard Jesus teach believed that there would not be enough for everyone if we actually did share. This is a narrative of scarcity. It leads people to feel anxious about the future and preoccupied with accumulating as much as they think will insulate them from any negative future events. Accumulating resources and anxiety can grow into the drive to monopolize resources, exploit others and their resources, and uphold this exploitation through violence. However we label this narrative, we must learn to recognize it for what it is: a narrative of scarcity.

Jesus, on the contrary, taught a different narrative, a narrative more like the one Gandhi later taught, that “every day the earth produces enough for each person’s need, but not each person’s greed.” Jesus called us to embrace a narrative of enough or abundance, the belief that there is enough to share. This sharing replaces anxiety with gratitude, generosity, connectedness, community, and hospitality. Rather than monopolies and exploitation, abundance brings distributive justice and replaces violence with peace.

Let’s look at this week’s saying again with these two narratives in mind:

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

Jesus’ “Kingdom,” the “reign of God,” was his way of using the language of his own time and culture to share his social vision of people taking care of each other. James M. Robinson reminds us in The Gospel of Jesus, “This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.”

This is what Pëtr Kropotkin called mutual aid:

“While [Darwin] was chiefly using the term [survival of the fittest] in its narrow sense for his own special purpose, he warned his followers against committing the error (which he seems once to have committed himself) of overrating its narrow meaning. In The Descent of Man he gave some powerful pages to illustrate its proper, wide sense. He pointed out how, in numberless animal societies, the struggle between separate individuals for the means of existence disappears, how struggle is replaced by co-operation, and how that substitution results in the development of intellectual and moral faculties which secure to the species the best conditions for survival. He intimated that in such cases the fittest are not the physically strongest, nor the cunningest, but those who learn to combine so as mutually to support each other, strong and weak alike, for the welfare of the community. ‘Those communities,’ he wrote, ‘which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring’ (2nd edit., p. 163). The term, which originated from the narrow Malthusian conception of competition between each and all, thus lost its narrowness in the mind of one who knew Nature.” (Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution)

In the New Testament book of James, the writer comments on Jesus’ teachings in the sermon on the mount and the narrative of anxiety that leads to exploiting others: “But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (James 2:6-7)

Like the gospels do, James gives a scathing, prophetic pronouncement to those who live by the old narrative of scarcity and accumulation:

“Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation—since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business.” (James 1:9-11)

Even in 1 Timothy, believed to have been written quite a bit later than James, there is a call away from the narrative of scarcity, anxiety, and individualistic trust in one’s own accumulated wealth to insulate one from future harm:

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their trust in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” (1 Timothy 6:17)

Remember, putting one’s “hope in God” according the Jesus of Sayings Gospel Q meant trusting God enough that God would send people to take care of you as you share what you’ve accumulated with those God calls you to give to today.

“Ravens and lilies do not seem to focus their attention on satisfying their own needs in order to survive, and yet God sees to it that they prosper. Sparrows are sold a dime a dozen and, one might say, who cares? God cares! Even about the tiniest things—he knows exactly how many hairs are on your head! So God will not give a stone when asked for bread or a snake when asked for fish, but can be counted on to give what you really need. You can trust him to know what you need even before you ask. This utopian vision of a caring God was the core of what Jesus had to say and what he himself put into practice. It was both good news—reassurance that in your actual experience good would happen to mitigate your plight—and the call upon you to do that same good toward others in actual practice. This radical trust in and responsiveness to God is what makes society function as God’s society. This was, for Jesus, what faith and discipleship were all about. As a result, nothing else had a right to claim any functional relationship to him . . . [Jesus] sought to focus attention on trusting God for today’s ration of life, and on hearing God’s call to give now a better life to neighbors . . . All this is as far from today’s Christianity as it was from the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Christians all too often simply venerate the “Lord Jesus Christ” as the “Son of God” and let it go at that. But Jesus himself made no claim to lofty titles or even to divinity. Indeed, to him, a devout Jew, claiming to be God would have seemed blasphemous! He claimed “only” that God spoke and acted through him.” (James Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus, Kindle Location 102)

This is the vision Jesus cast before his listeners of what human society could look like: People taking care of people. In Jesus’ theological language, that was God taking care of people through people. It’s through us, through our choice to be compassionate and just or turn away, that we determine one another’s fate. We have a choice to make. Will we care for someone today, trusting that someone will care for us tomorrow if we have a need?

“Seeking first the Kingdom” is not seeking an artificial quid pro quo where if I help people, I expect God to supernaturally bless me. This isn’t the prosperity gospel. This is more intrinsic. As I take care of others when they need care, I’m setting in motion a world where I’ll have folks that take care of me if I need care. Like we discussed last week, I’m investing in people today. And that will intrinsically create a reality where others will share “all these things” with me if I experience a crisis.

Jesus’ teaching means the creation of human society in which we change the nature of the world we live in, where care and cooperation solve the dilemmas of survival rather than competition, domination, subjugation, and exploitation. This world is not based on a win-lose closed system, but a win-win where we learn to be each other’s keeper. Our world is what we, collectively, choose to make it. For my part, I’m choosing compassion.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you are to eat, nor about your body, with what you are to clothe yourself. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Consider the ravens: They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Are you not better than the birds? And who of you by being anxious is able to add to one’s stature a cubit? And why are you anxious about clothing Observe‚ the lilies, how they grow: They do not work nor do they spin. Yet I tell you: Not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed like one of these. But if in the field the grass, there today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, God clothes thus, will he not much more clothe you, persons of petty faith! So‚ do not be anxious, saying: What are we to eat? Or: What are we to drink? Or: What are we to wear? For all these the Gentiles seek; for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek his kingdom, and all these shall be granted to you. (Q 12:22b-31)

HeartGroup Application

This week, I’d like you to sit down with your HeartGroup and compile a list of needs and abilities that exist among you. Here’s how.

  1. Divide a piece of paper into two columns.
  2. Go around the room and list the needs that members presently have in one column
  3. Next, list in the second column the abilities and talents that people in the room have.
  4. Drawing lines between the two columns, linking needs and group members’ ability to help take care of those needs.

As you do this exercise, not all of the needs will be met, but some of them will. And as we become aware of the needs with each group, we will discover ways to meet those needs. Each group is a microcosm of a world where everyone contributes and everyone’s needs are being met. It’s people taking responsibility for one another. It’s people taking care of people. And once you begin engaging your HeartGroup in this practical, tangible way, it also really becomes fun.

Jesus’ solution to challenges we face was each one of us. Jesus’ hope for our world is us.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

The Tree Is Known by its Fruit

Grape VinesBY HERB MONTGOMERY

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Sayings Gospel Q 6:43-45)

Companion Texts:

Luke 6.43-45: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

Matthew 7.15-18: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”

Matthew 12.33-35: “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”

Gospel of Thomas 45: “Jesus says: Grapes are not harvested from thorns, nor are figs picked from thistles, for they do not produce fruit. A good person brings forth good from his treasure. A bad person brings forth evil from the bad treasure that is in his heart, and in fact he speaks evil. For out of the abundance of the heart he brings forth evil.”

The saying we’re considering this week answers a question that typically arises when I invite people to be open to more theological perspectives and to listen to the marginalized. People want to know, “How do you know which person’s interpretation of the Bible is correct?”

The good thing about this question is that it comes from people who understand that we all interpret the Bible. All sacred texts need to be interpreted, but sometimes, we confuse our interpretations with the text itself and fear that if we come to understand the scriptures in a new way that means the scriptures themselves are being threatened. Over the years, I’ve often been accused of “throwing out the Bible” or “ignoring what the Bible teaches.” But that isn’t the case at all.

I may challenge a certain interpretation of a Bible passage because the interpretation is destructive or harmful and, when applied to the lives of real people, results in death rather than abundant life. But that is very different from throwing out the Bible.

I may embrace a different interpretation of a text than the ones I used to teach or that some of my readers (or accusers) take for granted. But that is very different from ignoring what the Bible teaches. In order to consider interpreting the Bible differently, I first have to take the Bible seriously.

Because I take the scriptures seriously, I believe it is important, as I shared last week, that we learn how people who experience life differently than us read, hear, and understand the scriptures we have in common.

The scriptures shape our lives, and so we don’t just need to know “which person’s interpretation of the text is correct.” We also need to ask “Whose interpretation is not correct? And how can we know?” Jesus teaches us how in the saying we’re looking at this week:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

Jesus invites us to look beyond what teachers say, to look at what is left in the wake of various textual interpretations. Are lives being enriched or destroyed?

European, colonial, and patriarchal theology, which is often privileged by being referred to simply as theology with no adjective, has been the source of much harm in our world. I came to learn this through sitting at a shared table where I could hear non-homogenous voices speaking on their respective experiences. As we learn to listen to those who differ from us, we can understand what consequences scriptural interpretations and policies we’ve built on them have had for different sectors of the human family.

From this posture of listening to the stories of one another, we can begin to discern which interpretations of sacred texts are “healthy trees” bearing “healthy fruit” in people’s lives, and which interpretations are “decayed trees” producing “rotten fruit.”

Jesus’s principle is true of all religions and all of the texts that each religion holds sacred. Again, sacred texts and the interpretations and explanations of those texts are not the same thing. Every religion contains various interpretations of its texts. As followers of Jesus, we must have our blind eyes opened through perceiving the fruit of these different interpretations and having the courage to choose interpretations that are truly life giving rather than “rotten“ for all people.

Wisdom Teachings

This week’s saying from Sayings Gospel Q is included in Matthew, Luke, and the Gospel Thomas. It is classified as part of Jesus’s “wisdom” teachings (as opposed to apocalyptic teachings). We’ll discuss the differences between Wisdom sayings, Apocalypticism, and Platonism in much more detail as we continue along in the teachings of Sayings Gospel Q. For now, though, what you need to know is that the early Jesus communities saw this saying as an ethical teaching that enabled them to find the “way” that leads to life rather than to self-destruction.

It is as true for us today as it was for them. There is no such thing as an “objective” interpretation of sacred texts, and theologies tell us far more about theologians than they can ever tell us about God. As James Cone states in God of the Oppressed, “The assumption that theological thinking is objective or universal is ridiculous” (p. 41).  A few pages before this statement he explains why, “Because Christian theology is human speech about God, it is always related to historical situations, and thus all of its assertions are culturally limited . . . Theology is not universal language; it is interested language and thus is always a reflection of the goals and aspirations of a particular people in a definite social setting.” James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed (p. 36).

When a non-homogenous community can analyze the fruit of various perspectives, when that community includes diversity of race, sex, gender, orientation, and identity, we can begin to create interpretations of sacred texts that are life giving for the whole human family, not just some sectors of it.

As individuals, we do not see things as they are but rather as we ourselves are, not initially, privately, or personally. Does this mean that subjective theologies are without value? No, all theologies have moral value: they either trend toward life, or lead toward death. We determine together the value of interpretations that our communities hold sacred.

Let me give three concrete examples.  There are various interpretations of the Bible texts that some people use to address same-sex relationships and people who identify as transgender and/or gender non-conforming.  Here are the facts.

  1. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people from ages 10 to 24. Suicide is the leading cause of death of LGB youth nationally. LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times more likely to have attempted suicide than their peers who report zero to low family rejection. Many of these parents feel they must choose between their faith and their children. (Learn more here.)
  2. LGBT youth are twice as likely to end up homeless than heterosexual youth. 20% of homeless youth are LGBT, yet only 10% of the general youth population are LGBT. And on top of this, once they are thrown out by their families, 58.7% of LGBT homeless youth have been sexually victimized compared to 33.4% of heterosexual homeless youth. No wonder LGBT homeless youth commit suicide at higher rates (62%) than heterosexual homeless youth (29%). (Learn more here.)
  3. Last year, more than 22 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. alone. The number of these hate-crimes continues to grow each year at an alarming rate.  (Learn more here and here.)

When an interpretation of any sacred text in any religion produces this type of fruit, that interpretation must be deemed “destructive.”

We could also use other examples of destructive interpretations.  Interpretations have been used to justify racism, xenophobia, subjugation of women, and the economic creation of poverty.  And that is only a few.

With this in mind, we examine the sayings and teachings of Jesus in their own social setting. Jesus was a poor, Jewish man in a 1st Century Palestine that was under Roman political and economic control. His wisdom teachings helped his followers to create an intentional community that embraced their interconnectedness with and interdependence on each other as a means of survival. Stephen J. Patterson in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins puts it quite nicely.

“To seek the empire of God might just mean seeking out that way of life by which all have access to the means to life, even the poor and the hungry . . . Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive— which is to say, salvation. (p. 74-75)

Ponder that last phrase for a moment, “ A way to survive—which is to say, salvation.”

Liberation and survival are two separate things; thriving is not surviving. And while the ultimate goal is to thrive, the “in between” goal is to survive in the process of getting there.

So for all those working toward a safer, more just, more compassionate home for us all, and especially for those who are allowing the teachings of Jesus to matter in their lives and shape their perspectives and behavior, Sayings Gospel Q states:

“No healthy tree bears rotten fruit, nor, on the other hand‚ does a decayed tree bear healthy fruit. For from the fruit the tree is known. Are figs picked from thorns, or grapes from thistles? The good person from one’s good treasure casts up good things, and the evil person‚ from the evil treasure casts up evil things. For from exuberance of heart one’s mouth speaks.” (Q 6:43-45)

 HeartGroup Application

This week, contemplate what it means for you to begin evaluating Biblical interpretations and their effects not just on yourself but also on the most vulnerable communities in our society. One good way to do this is to continue what you started with last week’s HeartGroup application.

  1. Keep reading the book your group chose! Keep listening!
  2. Begin journaling the insights, questions, and feelings that you experience as you work through the material.
  3. Circle in your journal entries what you want to share with your group when you review together next month. Review week is now only three weeks away.

To you who are joining us on this journey through Sayings Gospel Q, thank you! I’m so glad you are tracking with us.

Keep contemplating the “fruits” of your interpretations. Keep listening. And keep living in love, till the only world that remains is a world where only Love reigns.

I love each of you, dearly.

I’ll see you next week.