Note: This week and next week I have the privilege of sharing some scripture and life reflections with my church community via our weekly newsletter. I’ve been asked to reflect on the theme of epiphany – what do I feel like God is revealing to me, and what do I do with that?I wanted to share these reflections with you, too. Here’s the first.
On New Year’s Day, Pastor Lina preached on the Epiphany story (Matthew 2:1-12). She reflected on the ways God speaks to and through people whom Christians might consider religious “outsiders,” like the magi in the story. God’s wisdom and love is bigger than we often imagine.
As I reflect on the Epiphany story, I notice how the magi set out to worship “the one who has been born king” (Matt 2:2). They talk about birth, so it sounds like they knew he was still a baby. And yet, what must it have been like to actually get there and see that this was the king they came to worship (v. 11)? He was just a tiny infant. Maybe sleeping, maybe crying, maybe breastfeeding.
What did that feel like? What did it do to the magi’s ideas of kingliness—and, more generally, to their ideas about power, and wisdom, and who does or doesn’t have these things?
I used to work in college campus ministry, and I’ve done a lot of listening to people younger than myself—trying to encourage them, root for them, cultivate loving spaces where they can grow and thrive. But sometimes I catch myself assuming I know better than them. Of course I do—I remember how little I knew at their age.
And yet. Wisdom comes through God’s Spirit, who dwells in people of all ages. There is also wisdom that comes from life experience, and older people often have more of this. But people younger than me have had life experiences different from my own, and they have gained wisdom from these experiences. I want to pay attention to that.
In the First Nations Version, the magi say, “We saw [Messiah’s] star where the sun rises and have come to humble ourselves before him and honor him” (v. 2). This translation uses the words “humble” and “honor” where other translations often say “worship.” I like this.
I don’t want to worship people younger than me. But I do want to humble myself and honor them. I don’t want to assume I have nothing to learn.
Dominant U.S. society has norms around who has power, who is expected to lead, who is assumed to have expertise and wisdom, who is followed and heard: white, male, straight, able-bodied, upper-middle-class, ages 35-70.
There is no part of me that truly believes these things are qualifications for leadership. And yet, these subliminal expectations are deeply ingrained in me, and in many of us. Operating otherwise feels like swimming upstream. But this is what God invites us to do.
What to do with this? For me, I think humbling myself and honoring young(er) folks means choosing not to take a piece of writing, a spoken word, a poem, a piece of art, or anything else less seriously when it was written, spoken, or created by someone younger than me. It means listening to people younger than myself not just to support them but also to see what I can learn from them. It means hearing their words of dissent, dissatisfaction, or critique with openness rather than defensiveness.
Humility and honor: this is what we have to offer one another as humans. Across ages, across generations, across race and class and gender and orientation and all the other differences that often divide us. My hope is that a posture of humility and honor comes to mark both my life and our life together as a community.
(31) Therefore y’all may not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?” or, “What will we drink?” or, “How will we be clothed?” (32) For the nations seek out all these things; for y’all’s heavenly father knows that y’all need all these things.
(33) But (y’all) seek first the kingdom [of God] and its justice, and all these things will be added to y’all. (34) Therefore y’all may not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself; the evil itself (is) enough for the day. -Jesus (Matthew 6:31-34, my translation, emphasis added)
When I was translating these verses from the original Greek, I was struck by the fact that Jesus’ two “do not worry” statements (in bold above, in verses 31 and 34) are in the subjunctive form, not the imperative form. This means that “do not worry,” as it usually appears in English, is not quite a literal translation; a more literal translation would be something like “y’all may not worry,” “y’all should not worry,” “y’all might not worry,” “y’all could not worry,” or something along those lines.
Since all of the literal (may/should/might/could) options sound a little awkward—perhaps with the exception of “should,” which kind of starts to sound like a command again—I would suggest something like “y’all don’t need to worry.” That’s how these verses make sense to me. Jesus’ words are not so much a command as a suggestion, or an invitation.
Jesus does use the imperative (command) form to tell people not to worry, but only at the very beginning of the whole passage. That’s in v. 25, where he first says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (NIV). So it’s not that Jesus never straight-up tells people not to worry. But I do think it’s interesting that, by the end of this well-known “do not worry” passage, the tense has changed. The tone has changed.
Jesus isn’t just telling people, do not worry. He’s also giving us reasons why we might not worry. He’s giving us reasons why we perhaps could not worry—that is, hope that we might just have the option, somehow, not to worry. Look at the birds, he says (v. 26). See how the wildflowers grow (v. 28). See how God enrobes them (v. 30). Jesus is giving us reasons why we don’t need to worry.
I hear Jesus asking: What might it be like not to worry? Do you think you could? Why or why not? In the ways it might seem impossible—which are totally legitimate, by the way, and nothing to be ashamed of—maybe I can help.
I like this image of Jesus. He’s the one who reassures us, as often as we need to hear it, that there is hope—that there is the possibility of freedom from the worries that consume us, the anxieties that immobilize us, the stresses that eat away at us. The way of Jesus is a way of peace, of rest, of heavy burdens made light (Matt 11:28-30).
I think of The Nap Ministry—I’ve been enjoying following them on Instagram (@thenapministry). As Tricia Hersey, creator of The Nap Ministry, writes, “you are not a machine. You are a divine human being.” We were not made to run around worrying about everything all the time. Life is more than that.
The way of Jesus is a way of pushing back against the forces that tell us to go and go and do and do. (That’s what this prayer on stillness is about.) It’s a way of liberation from our society’s nasty habit of defining our worth by the quantity of things we produce and consume. It’s a way of knowing our value as God’s children, full stop.
How does it change things for you, to hear Jesus say not just do not worry but also you don’t need to worry—or, perhaps, you have permission not to worry? How does that feel? What’s life-giving about it, or challenging—or totally offensive because there are so many legitimate things to worry about? I’d love to hear!
It’s been a minute (or more precisely, about a month) since I’ve posted a reflection on the “do not worry” passage in Matthew 6:25-34, but I know you’ve missed them. So here’s another!
(30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, little-faith-ones? -Jesus (Matthew 6:30, my translation)
As far as I can tell, ὀλιγόπιστος—the Greek word often translated as “you of little faith”—is a word Jesus made up. It’s only used five times in the New Testament, and each of these times it’s spoken by Jesus. (Two of these uses—Matthew 6:30 and Luke 12:28—are the same teaching of Jesus in different gospels.)
Just because it’s fun—and by fun, I mean potentially helpful in terms of seeing familiar texts in fresh ways—to offer alternative translations that are a little different from the norm, I’m going to refer to this word (ὀλιγόπιστος) as little-faith-ones.
When we hear Jesus say “you of little faith”—or y’all little-faith-ones, if you will—we might hear this as a bit of an insult, or at least a chastisement. Y’all don’t have enough faith. Why don’t you have more faith? I can’t believe you don’t have more faith. Bad, bad, bad.
I want to challenge that. For one thing, there’s another Greek word (ἄπιστος: “without faith”) that means something more like “faithless.” When Jesus uses ὀλιγόπιστος, then, he isn’t calling people faithless. He isn’t saying that the people he’s talking to have no faith. He’s just saying they have little faith. It’s much gentler.
What I really like, though—even more than the fact that little-faith-ones sounds nicer than faithless ones—is the pattern I see throughout the gospels when Jesus calls people little-faith-ones. I’m looking at what Jesus does right after he uses this word.
In Matthew 8:26, Jesus is with some disciples in a boat, and a storm comes up. Jesus is obliviously sleeping through the storm while the boat looks like it’s about to sink. The disciples wake Jesus, saying “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”—to which Jesus replies, “Little-faith-ones, why are you so afraid?”
But Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He gets right up, rebukes the winds and waves, and makes the formerly-stormy sea completely calm.
In Matthew 14:31, then, the disciples are in a boat again (this time without Jesus), and in the wee pre-dawn hours of the morning Jesus comes walking across the lake to meet them. At Jesus’ invitation, Peter hops out of the boat and briefly walks on water himself—before realizing that this is absolutely terrifying, at which point he starts to sink. Jesus says to Peter, “You little-faith-one, why did you doubt?”
And as he says this, Jesus is also reaching out his hand and catching Peter. He doesn’t let Peter keep sinking. He helps him make it back to the boat and climb back in.
In Matthew 16:8—the third and final time little-faith-ones is used outside of the “God enrobes the grass” teaching—the disciples misunderstand something Jesus says about the yeast of the Pharisees. They start talking instead about how they didn’t bring any bread. Jesus says, “Little-faith-ones, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?”
And then he reminds them about that one time when he fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, and that other time when he fed four thousand people with seven loaves.
It turns out that Jesus doesn’t just call people little-faith-ones and then leave them there in their little-faith-ness. He calls them that, and then he immediately does something that just might increase their faith. He calms the storm. He lifts Peter out of the water. He reminds everyone that he can feed multitudes with just a few small loaves of bread.
Maybe little-faith-ones isn’t so much a chastisement as an invitation to a more expansive faith. An invitation to watch God do something that seemed impossible. An invitation to remember what God has done in the past that amazed and inspired us.
After all, this same Jesus tells the disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matthew 17:20, NIV). Jesus isn’t looking for big flashy faith. He’s looking for little mustard-seed-sized bits of faith, with an openness to more.
I like that, because it seems doable. I could be a little-faith-one. I am a little-faith-one. And that seems to be cool with Jesus. God can work with that.
God enrobes the grass of the field, and God takes care of the little-faith-ones like you and me.
This is part of what Jesus means when he invites us not to worry (Matt 6:25). This is Jesus’ invitation to a brave and expansive faith that can’t help but start out the size of a mustard seed. God loves us little-faith-ones and moves in response to the little faith that we have.
Thoughts about being a little-faith-one? Do you find it freeing? Inviting? Insulting? Intriguing? Holler in the comments, via email, or otherwise!
(28) And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. (29) But I say to y’all that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these ones. (30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, y’all of little faith? -Jesus (Matthew 6:28-30, my translation)
I didn’t realize, until I translated this passage, that the verb in v. 30—translated above as enrobes—is different from the verb in v. 29, translated as clothed. I thought Solomon in his glory was clothed, and so the wildflowers, too, were clothed. But even more gloriously.
This was a reasonable thing to think, given that the NRSV translates both verbs as clothed, and the NIV goes for dressed when it comes to Solomon and clothed when referring to the grass.
I kind of like the translation enrobes for the grass, though. I feel like it adds another dimension, another flavor. It isn’t just that the wildflowers are clothed even more beautifully than Solomon. They aren’t just clothed, like he is. They’re enrobed.
This word that I’m translating as enrobed is ἀμφιέννυμι. And to be clear, ἀμφιέννυμι could also be translated as clothed. But it would be a little odd for Jesus/Matthew to use two different verbs in adjacent sentences to mean the same thing. We might do this in English for style points, but people didn’t really do this in Koine Greek.
I also think it’s interesting that this word, ἀμφιέννυμι, comes from a root that means “to invest.” I like the possible implication: that God enrobes the wildflowers in a way that evokes the concept of investment. God invests, or God is invested, in the wildflowers—even if by typical capitalist standards it may be an unwise investment; after all, the wildflowers pop up among the grass of the field, and the whole lot of it is here today but burned up in the furnace tomorrow.
I also find it interesting that ἀμφιέννυμι is used only four times in the whole New Testament. It isn’t one of the usual words for clothing. (In comparison, the word that describes Solomon being clothed in v. 29 is used 24 times in the New Testament.)
And it’s really just used in two different stories.
There are Jesus’ words about the wildflowers here, and his very similar words in Luke 12:28.
And then there are Jesus’ words about John the Baptist in Matthew 11:8 (and his very similar words in Luke 7:25): As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt 11:7-8, NIV).
“A man dressed in fine clothes”—or, more literally, “a person enrobed in soft clothing.” Or something like that. Rich folks who hang out in kings’ palaces are enrobed in the same way the grasses of the field are enrobed. (Side note: check out this post for more thoughts on Matthew 11:7-8 and the surrounding verses if you’re interested.)
Or, to look at it another way, God’s plant creations, like wildflowers, are enrobed in beauty—while God’s prophets hang out far from kings’ palaces. An interesting contrast.
Anyhow, I like the idea of short-lived and fragile wildflowers being enrobed with the kind of beauty even the richest humans only dream of. That’s cool.
And I like that we’re talking about wildflowers, here—the kind of plants not intentionally cultivated by humans. The kind we easily overlook. The kind we don’t even try to save from the furnace as they get thrown in to be burned up alongside the grass.
I think of the landscaping we inherited when we moved into our home. We have several rose plants, and they’re very pretty—but also (in some cases, anyway) very high maintenance. They want to be deadheaded constantly, fertilized every few weeks, watered on hot days (but not during the heat of the day), cleared of blackspot-infected fallen leaves, pruned yearly.
The rose plants are so needy. In contrast, there’s a sweet pea plant that seems to just magically grow back year after year. It’s more like a weed, really—and a tenacious one. It takes over an impressively large space if I don’t cut it back. And it’s also really beautiful.
I wonder if this is the sort of thing Jesus is thinking of when he talks about God enrobing the lilies—not the plants we intentionally cultivate for their beauty, but the ones that just grow on their own. Is a rose more beautiful than a sweet pea? I’m not sure. I feel like they’re both gorgeous in their own ways. God enrobes them both.
Maybe the rich kingliness of the word enrobe can help us see wildflowers—and the natural world in general—closer to the way God does.
Solomon was just clothed. But the wildflowers are enrobed. God treasures them, holds them, doesn’t just take care of their needs but makes them glorious. And this is God’s heart toward us as well.
Have a favorite wildflower? Thoughts or feelings about roses or sweet peas or Solomon or clothing and robes? As always, feel free to holler in the comments or via email!
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin… -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, NRSV)
Here’s another angle on Jesus’ words about worry: What if Jesus’ question why do you worry? isn’t a purely rhetorical question? What if it’s an actual invitation to ask ourselves: why do we worry?
Many of us have likely learned to hear this question as something akin to, stop that worrying right now, y’all. You shouldn’t be worrying. Or even, maybe, it’s unfaithful to worry. Faith-filled people don’t worry. Jesus tells us not to worry. So we shouldn’t worry. End of story.
I wonder, though, how it would change the narratives we tell ourselves (and hear, and tell others) if we took Jesus’ question at face value. Maybe he really is asking what it sounds like he’s asking. Maybe his question—why do you worry?—isn’t an exhortation to beat ourselves up for worrying, but, rather, a real invitation to explore the reasons why we worry.
We might follow Jesus’ lead and ask ourselves: what kinds of things do we tend to worry about—and why? What are we worried about right now, and why?
What is going on in our souls when we worry? In our minds, hearts, bodies, spirits? In our relationships, our work, our community?
We might ask ourselves, what are some of the fears behind our worries? What do we fear losing? What do these fears reveal about us—about what or whom we love and value, what or whom we care about deeply?
Who knows—maybe some of these questions can help unearth passions, steering us toward the next faithful step in our lives. Maybe they can help us become more aware of what’s going on in our souls—maybe a need for rest, or alone time, or reaching out to a friend.
We can share our worries with trusted people in our lives and perhaps find some healing or solace in the sharing. And as we dig deeper into all the things that lie behind our worries, we might find ourselves able to share more of ourselves and our journeys. We can better articulate where we’re at, what’s important to us, what we need.
As we explore these kinds of questions, we might even find insight into what might actually help us worry less. (Hint: it isn’t pretending the worry isn’t there.) Maybe we realize we need to ask someone for help with something. (For many of us, this is truly revolutionary.) Maybe we realize we want someone to text us when they get where they’re going, so we know they’re okay. Maybe we realize that we’re worried about money but we also aren’t very aware of where our money is going, and it might help to sit down and make a budget or revisit an existing budgeting process.
These kinds of questions can also operate on a bigger picture level. Why do we worry—not just about ourselves and our own circles, but also about others beyond these circles, about our communities, about our world?
Every time we look at the news, there are more things to worry about. There is so much to be anxious about—and legitimately so.
At the same time, we all experience and process these things in our own unique ways. We might find ourselves worrying more, or less, about different things. Maybe the things we are most anxious about are also a hint toward the good we could do, the things we deeply want to make better, the things to dig into and see if we might be able to make a difference—even if that difference feels like a very small one.
Perhaps the question why do we worry? is an opportunity to reflect on our worries, to bring them to God in prayer, to share them with trusted friends and community members. To look them in the face. To be aware of them. To experience freedom from the shame we might feel about them. To accept them—that they are something we carry, and that is okay. It’s part of being human in a world where there is so much to be anxious about.
Maybe it’s not so much worry in general that we want to avoid, but unexamined, ignored worry. Worry shoved under the rug, stuffed and forgotten—but not really—on a tall shelf, hidden in a closet. It’s this kind of anxiety—the unacknowledged, unprocessed kind—that eats away at us. And this is what I think Jesus wants to free us from.
In taking a closer look at our worries, we may find a kind of freedom. It might not be the kind of freedom where we never worry again. But maybe there’s another kind of freedom—the kind where our worries are aired in the open, given breathing room, acknowledged, accepted, understood, held together in community.
How does it change things to take why do you worry? as an honest question from Jesus—as an invitation to reflection rather than a chastisement? Holler with your thoughts!
And about clothing, why are y’all worried? Learn thoroughly from the wildflowers of the field, how they grow; they do not labor nor spin. -Jesus (Matthew 6:28, my translation)
In my sermon on Matthew 6:25-34, I suggested that when Jesus says do not worry (v. 25), we might quite naturally reply, “okay Jesus, but…how??? How do we not worry?”
And I suggested that this question is perhaps answered (at least in part) by Jesus in v. 28, when he says, consider the lilies. Or—since the word translated “lilies” could also be translated “wildflowers,” and the word often translated “consider” or “see” is really quite a strong word that comes from the same root as “learn” or “disciple”—examine the lilies carefully, or learn thoroughly from them. Jesus says, learn from the wildflowers.
I was aiming for a 7-8 minute mini-sermon, so I wasn’t able to go into much detail about what it might actually look like to learn from the wildflowers. But I have some thoughts, and I’d love to hear your thoughts too!
How do we learn thoroughly from the wildflowers—or at least take some steps in that direction? These are some of the things I think about:
Spend time in nature
It’s good for the soul!
In some ways, this is more accessible for some than others. But around the Seattle area, at least, even if it’s hard to find time (or transportation, etc.) to get out to the bigger woods and mountains, there are so many gorgeous local parks.
I saw an article a few weeks back—in a Seattle-based newspaper or magazine, I forget which one—about beautiful places to visit in South King County. I was both amused and offended that some people responded with the “laughing face” emoji! Their loss. South King County is full of beautiful nature-y places. It may not rival Issaquah or Woodinville as far as forest-to-urban-space ratio goes—but we’ve got our share of parks and walking trails, and they’re lovely.
Anyhow, I realize it’s December and we’re far past peak wildflower season, but I think it’s worth getting out there anyway. Jesus may have chosen wildflowers as an example of a created being that’s short-lived but beautiful—but I wonder if he was just looking around for inspiration and chose what happened to be closest to him as he was speaking: birds and wildflowers. He probably could have picked any number of organisms, some of which we still see in winter.
Let’s get outdoors this winter and see what we can see. I like (or at least I want to like?) the Scandinavian saying, “there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” This might be more true some places than others. But in the Seattle area, it sounds about right. The weather rarely throws conditions our way that a few layers, a raincoat, an umbrella (to hell with umbrella shame!), and some gloves can’t handle.
I think our souls need time outdoors—even if it’s a neighborhood walk or a visit to a local park more often than a hardcore hike. Even if I’m mostly just noticing plants in random people’s front yards in Normandy Park (seriously, does everyone garden there?) rather than truly wild wildflowers. There’s something to learn from it all.
Pay attention to indigenous wisdom
What better way to learn from the wildflowers than to learn from the people and communities who have been learning from the wildflowers for years and centuries longer than I have?
I went to an art and holiday gift fair at the Duwamish Longhouse & Cultural Center last week (very cool!), and I got to hear quite extensively from a mother-daughter duo who make all sorts of medicines and salves from Devil’s Club. Before that conversation, I had only known Devil’s Club as a “do not touch!” sort of thing. But apparently its roots and stem have healing qualities.
Talk about learning from the wildflowers. Sometimes we only see one side of something (or someone), but there is so much more to it (or them) than that.
Indigenous communities often have so much wisdom about these things. We are surrounded by plants that might be able to help heal us if we knew where to look and what to do.
Even beyond the realm of herbal medicine, plants have so much to teach us about, well, pretty much—to borrow a phrase from The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy—life, the universe, and everything.
As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants:
“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out…Plants know how to make food and medicine from light and water, and then they give it away.”
Plants have been here longer than we have, and they’ve had time to figure things out. I like that. I’d also highly recommend Braiding Sweetgrass in general, if you haven’t encountered it yet. Kimmerer models learning from plants so brilliantly.
Nothing makes me pay attention to plants like growing them does. Whether it’s a hanging basket with some flowers, a railing planter box with a few herbs, or a full-on garden, we learn so much from growing (or at least attempting to grow) plants.
We learn their names, their seasons, their preferences. We get excited about each new leaf, each new bud that we hope will open into a flower (and maybe even become a fruit). We gain a deeper appreciation for each part of the plant that we get to eat.
Growing vegetables helps me appreciate where my food comes from, and how long and arduous a process it often is. It has been kind of funny and kind of weird, in the last few weeks, to see sugar pie pumpkins selling for $2 each at the market…after I spent literally 5-7 months growing a handful of them at home.
Anyhow, I know gardening is more accessible to some than others. But many of us can grow something, even if it’s just a basil plant indoors on the windowsill. And I think it can help us pay attention.
Appreciate plants for who they are, not just how we might use them
I was walking with a friend in the woods recently (Paradise Valley Conservation Area in Woodinville, to be precise), and I appreciated that there were various signs along the trail, pointing out different kinds of plants. But I also noticed something about these signs. They were all about what people—mostly settlers, I think, not so much indigenous people—like to use these plants for. I felt the gorgeous alder trees being reduced to cabinetry before my eyes.
I found myself wishing there were also signs about the ecosystem, the interactions among plants and animals, the life cycle of the trees—or something, anything, about the plants around me that didn’t reduce these living beings to the ways humans have used and monetized them.
This may seem at odds with what I was saying about indigenous communities’ knowledge of healing uses for local plants like Devil’s Club. But I think there’s a difference between knowing and appreciating the gifts a plant has to offer, versus only seeing that plant as something to use—and often something to use to make a profit. It’s a different kind of relationship. And I think the difference is important.
I want to learn to appreciate plants for all of who they are, not just how they might be used.
Look to plants as signs of how we’re doing
I recently saw this NPR article about some of the ways in which rising sea levels are impacting coastal communities in South Carolina.
For one thing, I had no idea that there was a community of descendants of enslaved Africans who have a (badass computer scientist) queen. That’s cool.
I also learned about ghost forests. Apparently, when sea levels rise and begin to flood into salt marsh areas (a la Where the Crawdads Sing), the salt water slowly kills the trees there, leaving chalky white dead tree skeletons behind. According to the article, this has been happening for a long time, but its pace has accelerated dramatically in recent years.
Ghost tree forests are kind of alarming. They’re a strikingly visible sign of the damage that has been caused and will continue to be caused by rising sea levels.
And they’re another reason, I think, to learn from the wildflowers—to examine the plants around us and learn carefully from them.
Plants can help us know how we’re doing. If native plants that have thrived in a place for who-knows-how-long are being killed by salt water, or are otherwise not doing well, this is a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s a sign that our relationship with the natural world around us has gone awry. It’s visible evidence of injustices that need to be righted so that we all can thrive—plants, animals, and humans alike. Learn from the wildflowers.
These are some of the things I think about, some of the ways I’m trying to hear Jesus’ words about learning from the wildflowers. It’s all a work in progress, for sure.
What does learn from the wildflowers mean to you? What does it look like in your life, in your community? I’d love to hear!
And who from among y’all, by worrying, is able to add one cubit to their stature? -Jesus (Matt 6:27, my translation)
Now that I’ve spent a minute reflecting on Jesus’ words about how worry (or at least the bad kind of worry) doesn’t add single hour to anyone’s span of life, I have a small monkey wrench to throw into the whole situation. The original Greek text doesn’t actually directly say anything about lifespans, or about time.
Instead, it uses a word often translated as “stature” or “maturity” (although it also could mean “age”), and a word that means “cubit,” which is a length of measurement around 18 inches. So, what Jesus literally says in Matthew 6:27 is less can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?—and more can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature?
I suggested in my post last week that there are productive kinds of concern, for ourselves and for our communities, that might add something to someone’s life—and that these are the kinds of concerns we want to direct our efforts toward, rather than spinning in circles of unproductive, immobilizing kinds of worry. I suggested asking ourselves, is it adding an hour to someone’s life?
I fully believe all that. And I think can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? is probably a reasonable idiomatic translation of Jesus’ actual words. At the same time, though, I think it’s also interesting to consider what Jesus’ words might imply if we translate them more literally.
Can any of you by worrying add a single cubit to your stature? In this case—assuming we’re talking about adults and not kids—the answer really is a firm “nope.” There are things we can do that might add an hour to someone’s life—but there really isn’t much we can do to add 18 inches to our height.
Of course, many of us probably wouldn’t want to be a foot and a half taller, anyway. I’m about 5’6”, and I have no particular desire to be 7 feet tall.
But there are other aspects of who I am that I sometimes wish I could change.
Jesus’ question about adding a cubit to one’s stature helps me think about these things. There are so many aspects of who we are that we can’t change. Not just height, but other aspects of physical appearance as well. And not just physical appearance, but personality traits, gifts and passions, sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural background—just to name a few.
As a swimmer, for example, I might wish I had bigger hands or feet so that I could swim faster, more easily. I don’t exactly want Michael Phelps’ size 14 feet or (totally bonkers) 6’ 7” wingspan—but maybe something a little more in that direction.
Or, as a slightly more serious example, I might wish I thought faster on my feet. Sometimes people associate this ability with intelligence—even though it really implies nothing of the sort.
We all have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. We all have an interest in some things and a lack of interest in others; preferences for some things over others; natural abilities toward some things, while other things we can perhaps learn over time but with difficulty.
Of course, some of these things are influenced by culture, society, family, upbringing. I’m not trying to say they’re purely genetic. At the same time, many of these childhood influences—the aspects of our surroundings that made us who we are—were out of our control. They’re things we can’t go back and change. They’re built into us, sometimes so surely it feels like they might as well be genetic.
I wonder what life would be like if we really knew that we can’t change the things that are core to who we are. And, really, if we found that we didn’t actually want to change these things.
I think of this quote from Black mental and emotional health advocate Yolo Akili: “Sometimes I wake up and have to remind myself: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ME. I have patterns to unlearn, new behaviors to embody, and wounds to heal. But there is nothing wrong with the core of me and who I am. I am unlearning generations of harm and remembering love. That takes time.”
I like how Akili puts it. There is nothing wrong with the core of who I am. There is room for growth and change—plenty of it. But there are also things I can’t change, and don’t want to. There is a basic beauty and wondrousness to who I am. As the psalmist puts it in the Hebrew scriptures, I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
I don’t need Michael Phelps’ foot size or wingspan or unusually flexible ankles or any other of his physical characteristics that are uncannily well-attuned to moving quickly through the water. I can just enjoy swimming at whatever speed I’m able to swim at.
And I don’t need to impress people with how fast I can think on my feet. I can learn to appreciate that one of the gifts I bring to a group is a slower-paced thoughtfulness, wanting to consider as much information and as many angles as possible before weighing in with an opinion or making a decision. (For more on this, I liked Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.)
We can’t add a cubit to our height—and maybe we weren’t meant to. Maybe we weren’t meant to be taller or shorter, or more extraverted or introverted, or louder or quieter, or more quick-thinking or deliberative, or bolder or gentler, or more planning-oriented or spontaneous, or different in any other way from the way we are. Maybe we’re meant to be exactly as we are.
And our communities, whether or not they know it, need us to be exactly who we are. Our strengths fill in for one another’s weaknesses, and our communities need all of the different gifts each person brings.
We might not always be who others want us to be, or what they project onto us, or what they expect from us. We can’t please everybody. We are always “too [insert adjective here]” for somebody.
But in the end, as Jesus says, all our worries about these things can’t add a cubit to our height. We can learn to be considerate of others and attentive to our impact on a community, while also staying true to the core of who we are. We can, to borrow Akili’s words, unlearn the patterns we need to unlearn, embody the new behaviors we want to embody, and move toward healing the wounds we need to heal. And we can do all of this—maybe we can only do all of this—while knowing that there is nothing wrong with us.
Like the birds and the wildflowers that Jesus goes on to talk about in the next couple of verses, we too have been created wonderfully and beautifully. We are unable to change—and, at our best, we are uninterested in changing—the way we were made to be.
Does this resonate? Hit a nerve? Do you wish you were a cubit taller, or had size 14 feet? Feel free to drop a note!
Jesus asks, can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? To which the answer is meant to be, “nope, not really.” Or something like that.
What’s striking to me, though, is what Jesus’ question seems to imply about what worry is, and what worry is not. Or, what some good kinds of worry might be, and some not-so-good kinds.
I think Jesus’ words about worry not adding a single hour to our span of life can help us understand—a little more clearly, a little more specifically—what he means when he says “do not worry.” Out of all the things we might think Jesus is telling us not to do, what is it that he is actually telling us not to do?
Here’s one way of answering this question: Jesus is telling us not to engage in the kind of worry-ful activity that does not add a single hour to our span of life—or, I would add, to anyone else’s span of life.
I think there’s a difference between an unhealthy, unhelpful, un-life-giving, spinning-our-wheels kind of worry that doesn’t actually benefit anyone, versus a productive (or at least potentially productive) kind of worry that might actually help someone. This latter kind of worry is the type that might actually contribute to our own wellbeing, or someone else’s wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the community—that is, that might actually add an hour to someone’s life.
This feels important to me because I think it’s possible, for many of us, that we could hear Jesus say “do not worry,” and we walk away thinking, well, then, I’ll just go on my merry way as if there isn’t anything legitimately worrying, terrifying, awful, unjust, or otherwise deeply concerning in our world. As if it’s okay that a white dude can walk into a crowd of protestors, kill two of them, and be acquitted for it. As if it’s okay that a black dude was hours away from being executed for a crime he did not commit.
(Don’t get me wrong—I’m thankful and relieved that Julius Jones’ death sentence was commuted; at the same time, he never should have been sentenced to death in the first place. And while we’re at it, can we get him out of prison for the crime he didn’t commit, and can we provide some semblance of restitution for the nineteen years he’s been unjustly imprisoned?)
I don’t think Jesus is telling people not to do anything about issues that we find concerning. I don’t think he’s saying “don’t worry about it” in the sense of “everything’s fine,” or “that doesn’t concern you,” or “it’s not your problem.”
Jesus was always concerning himself with other people’s business. He was always eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, paying attention to people no one else paid attention to, calling out leaders on their hypocrisy, touching oppressed people’s lives in healing and liberating ways. I don’t think he wants us to do any differently.
I also don’t think Jesus is telling people not to plan or prepare for the future. This feels important to me as someone who likes to plan—and who sometimes gets the impression that some Christians think things are more holy if they’re spontaneous, as if the Holy Spirit only works on a whim and not also through thoughtful preparation.
When Jesus says “do not worry,” I don’t think he’s necessarily against us making choices, making moves, exercising agency, hustling, working, strategizing, scraping together, making ends meet. These are the kinds of things, after all, that really can perhaps add an hour to someone’s lifespan—ours, or others’ in our communities.
In a similar vein, I don’t think Jesus is saying we shouldn’t take care of ourselves. I’m thinking of things like grocery shopping, cooking, supporting local restaurants, exercising, eating healthy foods, resting, playing, doing all the things that make room for us to flourish. These, too, are things that just might add an hour to our lifespans. And that is good.
Worry might be involved in some of these things. We might worry about the fate of a death row prisoner, and so we call or email the governor of Oklahoma to advocate for his sentence to be commuted. We might worry about someone else’s wellbeing, and so we text them or send them a card or bring them something they like to eat. We might worry about our own wellbeing, and so we decide to make a change, like walking more, or having a salad with that frozen pizza (a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with what my husband and I ate for dinner tonight). These are all good, productive things.
Of course, when it comes to the length of a life, there are so many things we have little to no control over. But there are some things that just might add an hour. And there are other things that definitely don’t.
There’s a kind of worry that can motivate us to go and do something good. And there’s a kind of worry that can immobilize us—a kind of worry that does nothing to move toward justice, nothing to concern itself with others’ wellbeing, nothing to prepare for the future, nothing to take care of our own wellbeing. A kind of worry that doesn’t move toward health, wholeness, flourishing—that doesn’t strengthen us or strengthen our communities.
I think Jesus calls us—as much as we’re able, which is different for everyone—to let go of our immobilizing worries, and to take hold of a kind of healthy concern for ourselves and our communities. The kind of concern that moves us to do good.
I think Jesus invites us to be people on the move—toward justice, peace, honesty, relationship, health, community. And maybe sometimes, by moving in these directions, we just might add an hour to someone’s life.
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? -Jesus (Matt 6:26, NIV)
I was surprised to find, while reading Matthew 6:26 in its original Greek, that the word translated as “more valuable” (NIV)—or “of more value” (NRSV), or “more important” (NASB)—is one that I was taught simply meant “differ.” We might read Jesus’ question as: Are you not, rather, different from them?
I thought this was interesting. But I also remembered that there’s also another passage where Jesus says we’re more valuable than many sparrows. I thought, maybe the Greek is more clear in that passage—which might suggest that this one should be translated as it usually is.
So I looked the other passage up. It’s Matthew 10:31: So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (NIV). It turns out, though, that here too the word translated as “worth more” is the same word used in Matt 6:26—the one that could be translated not as “worth more” or “more valuable” but just as “different.”
Same thing with the similar stuff Jesus says in Matt 12:12 (How much more valuable is a person than a sheep?), Luke 12:7 (Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows), and Luke 12:24 (And how much more valuable are you than birds?). It’s all the same Greek word.
I’m not saying there aren’t potentially some good reasons to translate this word as “more valuable.” But does seem interesting that it could be just “different.”
I think about the idea that humans are “more valuable” than birds or sheep or other creatures, and I wonder if it plays into the global climate crisis we’re in—that is, into the damaging mindset that has gotten us here. I wonder if it isn’t terribly helpful to keep thinking of the world as a hierarchy of species, where humans are more valuable than other creatures—to keep thinking of humans as if we are separate from the rest of the created world, as if we are better, as if we are free to do whatever we want without considering its impact on other species and on the land.
Yes, humans are valuable. And so are birds. And so are wildflowers, and so is every other aspect of the natural world that surrounds us. And the reality is that we are all dependent on one another. We all flourish together, or none of us flourishes.
Humans are different from birds; we are different from every other species, just as each of these species is different from one another. But we aren’t part of a special privileged class of species that isn’t affected by the earth’s sickness. We are affected—especially the materially poor among us, and especially communities of color.
I think about the biblical creation story. I used to think God only declared creation “very good” after God made humans (Gen 1:31), which meant that humans were especially awesome. Now I see that when God declared creation “very good,” God wasn’t just talking about humans. God was speaking of the whole world and all its beings as a collective whole—not just humans, but also plants, animals, sun, moon, stars, water, land. A unified, interconnected, interdependent whole. This is what was—and is—“very good” indeed.
God is the creator and the good caretaker of the birds, and the waters, and the plants, and the humans—of all God has made. All of these creations are gloriously unique, each different from the other. Does one have to be called “more valuable” than another?
Each species has different needs, different gifts, different challenges, different kinds of goodness and beauty to offer. God sees and honors all of it. God feeds the birds and God feeds the humans, in the different ways we need to be fed, the different things we hunger for.
Certainly humans have different needs from those of the birds. But is one better, or worse? Worth more, or less? It seems like a bit of a human impulse to label things in this way—and perhaps especially the impulse of a certain kind of human who has lost a sense of connection with the natural world.
But we are not disconnected from the natural world. Living as if we were has brought us to the precipice of a terrifying new era of natural disaster. There may still be ways to walk back from this precipice—but we’ll need to make some deep changes to our ways of thinking, our ways of being, our ways of relating.
Maybe we can start with rethinking the hierarchies we’ve created among species. We can learn to see humans as an interdependent part of the natural world, not separate from or better than the rest of it. We can learn to see ourselves as different from birds, but not necessarily more valuable.
And maybe, in so doing, we can learn to see the God who loves and longs to take care of us all—of the whole “very good” creation God has made.
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. -Jesus (Matthew 6:26, NRSV)
Or, in my translation: “Y’all, look at the birds of heaven, because they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and y’all’s heavenly father feeds them.”
The “birds of heaven” thing might sound weird. But the word usually translated as “air” when it comes to the “birds of the air” is very closely related to the word translated as “heavenly” when it comes to God, the heavenly father.
So I’m not sure which is weirder: writing “birds of heaven,” or translating the same word two different ways within the same sentence.
Alternatively, since this word for “air” or “heaven” could also be translated as “sky,” perhaps we’re talking about the “birds of the sky” (makes sense)…and God the “sky father” (atypical of Christian language). I’ll just leave that there.
Anyhow, since we’re talking about God our heavenly (or sky?) father, let’s talk about what this father God does, according to Jesus: God is the one who feeds the birds.
As Jesus preaches his Sermon on the Mount, he wants his listeners to know that they have a God who pays attention to the birds, a God who takes care of the birds—and, to be specific, a God who provides food for these birds.
I think it’s interesting to think about God as one who feeds.
The God of the Bible has both masculine and feminine aspects—or something like that. It’s clear, at least, that both male and female humans were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27).
But when you try to get into any sort of specifics about what those masculine and feminine aspects might be, it starts to get kind of dicey, kind of fast. It’s hard to talk specifics without wandering haplessly into the realm of gender essentialism—the idea that men always have one set of characteristics and women always have another. I’m not about that.
So I guess I’m not really into descriptions of God that try to specify which aspects of God, exactly, are more masculine, and which are more feminine. I think the concepts of masculine and feminine are culturally determined; they’re defined very differently by different communities in different places and times.
At the same time, I recognize that, in most times and places and cultures, the work of food preparation—of cooking and serving food to families and communities—has tended to fall primarily to women. I think about this, when I think about God feeding the birds.
It strikes me that, while Jesus does use the word “father” to refer to God, really, his point is not particularly to masculinize God. His point is to put words to the kind of parent/child relationship he has with God: Jesus is a child of God, family of God, kin of God. Jesus is as intimately connected with God as a child to a parent.
I don’t mind picturing God as an awesome (heavenly) father figure who loves to cook up meals of seeds and worms and such—generously offering food for his family, the birds, to eat.
On the other hand, I’m sure it wasn’t lost on Jesus that the women in his world were usually the ones responsible for meal prep. Could God, then, be a (heavenly) mother figure just as much as a heavenly father—cooking up delicious meals for her family, the birds, to enjoy?
I feel like this adds some texture to the image—a different angle, and a little more fullness. We can picture God as an awesome (heavenly) mother figure who loves to provide nourishing meals for her (avian) family. God is doing “women’s work” here; why not imagine God as feminine?
I wonder what insights, thoughts, or feelings this kind of image might evoke. How might it help us relate more fully, more wholeheartedly, to the fullness of who God is? How might it change our view of the God who is Jesus’ heavenly parent, and ours—of the one who takes care of the birds, the one Jesus invites us to trust for our own care and nourishment?
I wonder how spiritual life is different when we remember that God is as feminine as God is masculine. I wonder what this might mean for women—and for people of all genders, and for churches as a whole. Maybe we’d picture God differently; maybe we’d picture God a little more fully.
Thoughts? Feelings? Accusations of heresy? I’d love to hear!