The following homily was delivered by Jim Penczykowski at Sunday Assembly on February 27, 2011. The readings from the lectionary schedule that day were Isaiah 49:8-16a, 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 and Matthew 6:24-34.
“We pray with confidence in the words our Savior gave us, …”
These are the words that introduce the prayer of Jesus in the Roman Rite. It is a phrase I wish to meditate on with you today, for our readings from the prophet Isaiah and from the Gospel of Matthew are all about having confidence in what God is bringing about. A scripture scholar of some note, Richard Sklba, taught me that the prayer of Jesus springs from a confidence that God will not only bring about what we need someday, but also has already brought about what we need for this day.
There is a movement in our readings from an understanding of God’s provident care for the People of Israel collectively to an understanding of
God’s provident care for the individual human being. Isaiah has God saying to the faithful remnant of Israel during the Babylonian Exile, “I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages.”
A little context is in order here.
In all probability this author has already witnessed the first wave of returnees to the area around Jerusalem. One might imagine that those returning from exile would be happy to return home, but home is not a very nice place as it turns out. The Babylonian ruler has allowed the Israelites to return only to the scrubland around Jerusalem with no care at all for how they will eke out an existence.
Others more favored by the ruler have taken over the best land for farming and pasturing flocks of sheep and goats in their absence.
The author of this second hymn of the Suffering Servant has his work cut out for him – how to boost the morale of a people who have been kicked
around at every turn.
The author composes the most touching expression of divine love in the bible, “But Zion said, ‘The Holy One has forsaken me, My God has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her nursing child, or show no tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name; Your walls are ever before me.” This is no abstract sort of love.
This is the most concrete statement of our God working on our behalf in time and space. This is God who chooses to be up close and personal.
Not to be outdone, we have Matthew expanding on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to also boost the morale of his community. Matthew has Jesus
addressing not just a collective of followers, but each individual follower, “…do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” “And can any of you by worrying add a single hour [cubit] to your span of life?”
This portion of the sermon makes a connection between two important concerns: single hearted dedication to the reign of God, and the practical
needs of everyday living. The Gospel does not ignore the practical necessities of food and clothing but places these cares in the perspective of faith. The accumulation of wealth and possessions is a trap that robs us of the physical, mental and spiritual energy we need to dedicate ourselves to the reign of God.
The act itself of accumulating beyond what I prudently need is part of the problem; the other part of the problem is the attention that my accumulated wealth requires so that I may keep it safe and secure. The reign of God is the only security worth striving for. No one can attempt to put priority on God and possessions without suffering a divided heart. We should not be concerned with the cares of food and clothing as if God
did not exist. This is not an invitation to passivity. The Sermon on the Mount is a call for action – action that proceeds from commitment to the reign of God. Such commitment frees each of us to live fully in the present, rather than be diverted by anxiety about the future.
By way of more concrete application of this text to our lives, let me also present some context of an economic sort. Most of the original audiences for Matthew’s gospel were laborers and peasants with no prospect of social or economic upward mobility; the vast majority of listeners of that gospel would have been the same up until the late middle ages of the European experience. A feudal system kept most people “in their place” economically and socially so that the preacher’s task often came down to telling the serfs to not envy the noble landowner who was ordained by God to oversee possessions, including the serfs.
The European feudal system broke under the weight of commercial interests and the protestant reformation (and the success of the monastic system). The industrial age of the last 150 years produced 3 classes economically, the haves, the have nots and the have a little/want mores. I submit to you that the vast majority hearing this Sermon on the Mount today fit into that last category. Our economic system depends on us ‘have a little/want mores’ to prop up a belief in meritocracy, that if I only work hard enough and smart enough, I will prove I am worthy of the things I can acquire with the money I earned by the sweat of my brow (or the sweat of others’ brows).
The laborer or peasant in Matthew’s time had only the Sabbath day itself as a time of leisure to dedicate to the reign of God. In our own day, many have not even that because they’ve fallen into the trap of acquisition of and accumulation of possessions.
Neither Jesus nor the gospel writer was primarily an ethicist or a moral theologian. Each presented a challenge to followers to cultivate just relationships with others.
Each of us might ask ourselves, “Am I anxious about the right things?” and “Do I dedicate my life to things that are worthy of my call to follow Jesus?”
So I bring this back around to the Prayer of Jesus. This Sunday and the previous 3 Sundays explored the Sermon on the Mount of Matthew’s gospel. The glaring omission in the series is that part of the sermon where Jesus’ followers ask him how they are to pray. Jesus breaks open for his followers not just words but a direct connection with the God of Sarah and Abraham that requires no other intercession than that of the community of believers. It begins with the word “our abba”, not “my abba”. This is the prayer of a community of believers who trust in an up-close and personal God who provides what we need to follow and persevere in The Way of Jesus.
You call us to herald your good news, make us strong and faithful messengers of your reign, free of all anxiety that might be an obstacle to our
calling, we pray … Send your Spirit on the leaders of the world, turn their eyes toward the poor and suffering, we pray … Protect and defend those who are discriminated against because of race, color, class, language or religion, that they may be accorded the rights and dignity which are theirs, we pray … For what else shall we pray? God of tender mercy, give to us, your faithful, a powerful spirit of gratitude; as we celebrate the resurrection of Christ Jesus, help us spend this day in the spirit of joy he bestowed on us. We ask all these prayers in Jesus’ name.