Question: In the Gospel of Matthew the Lord says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (6:25). But how do we explain all the people who are suffering for want of these things?
— Kay Hall, via email
Answer: It is possible with a biblical passage that we can miss its central point and focus on secondary issues. The point in this passage is to address the human problem of worry or anxiety, not to deny that hunger or nakedness will ever exist. Jesus elsewhere acknowledges the realities of destitution (e.g. Mt 25:41-46; Mt 26:11, etc.) and summons us to care for those who suffer in this way.
The overall context of the verse from Matthew is the call to be increasingly free from anxiety by developing a deep relationship with the heavenly Father. And this relationship with him will do a number of things. It will put an end to the hypocrisy and posturing that reveals our obsession with the praise of others rather than God.
And the more we love God and seek him, our treasure will be with him rather than with the uncertain and decaying trinkets of this world (6:19-21). This in turn will make us generous with others instead of fearfully clinging to our money and things. We will look to the poor man who begs from us and not avoid eye contact, because we are prepared to be generous. Our fear abates since we realize God provides and because we no longer need to hoard. Our generosity flows from our freedom from fear (6:22-23).
Further, knowing God as our Father and seeking only to please him heals our divided heart wherein we seek to please both God and man. And this division is the source of many anxieties and fears (6:24). Thus, the remedy for all the anxious maladies listed is to know and have a tender relationship of trust with the Father, which can even alleviate fears about losing our life or being bereft of needed food or clothing.
The point is to be free of our obsession and fear with these things. The point is not that famines never come but that our worry about these things not preoccupy us. Our life is not fundamentally about this world at all but about God and the good things waiting for us in heaven.
The text ends with an admonition (put God first), a general norm (God provides what is necessary for us to be holy and inherit the kingdom), and a call (thus, don’t worry): “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (6:33-34).
So our goal in this life is the kingdom of heaven. The worst thing this world can do to us is kill us. But if it does (and it will), then we get to go home to God who is our heart’s truest desire. And in this way, we are less anxious for the things of this world realizing that even tragic things can work for our good if we love and trust God (see Rom 8:28). God will provide us with the things we most need (not necessarily all the things we want) until he chooses to call us home.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org.