In my last post, I talked a little about the context of Matthew: how it was written for Jewish Jesus followers and war refugees in Antioch, and how it explores themes of moral responsibility and God’s presence with us, and I told you how relevant I find it for the moment in which we modern people find ourselves.
One of the most important things to know about Matthew, given our context and the gospel’s original context, is this: Matthew argues for what modern Christian ethicists call a “preferential treatment for the poor.”
Matthew’s insistence on this preferential treatment for the poor is clear in Jesus’s first sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, it’s the first thing Jesus says, in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 6:3) These “poor in spirit” are not spiritual poor or theoretical poor people, but very literally the poor people in Jesus’s midst. The Fortress Commentary on the New Testament puts it this way, “The poor in spirit are not to be spiritualized. They are the material poor whose material poverty has crushed their very being. They mourn their desperate circumstances.” And he goes on, addressing the meek (that is, the politically disempowered), the hungry, and the thirsty.
Jesus here is giving desperate people comforting promises in their suffering, but that is not all Jesus is doing. After addressing people defined by their situation, Jesus then shifts to addressing people defined by their action: those who show mercy, those who act with integrity, those who make peace, those who endure hardship to live out their faith.
One biblical scholar put it this way: rather than blessing people in hard circumstance, Jesus here is blessing those in whom “God is reversing human actions [to] manifest God’s empire.” That is to say, Jesus is bestowing blessing on those whose actions are contrary to the cruel things the powers and principalities of this world are doing, and instead whose actions show the grace and compassion of God.
This action piece is important because he then goes on to talk about all sorts of moral lessons for his followers. Jesus is addressing those who are downtrodden, comforting them, and still asking them to reach out to those who are suffering in one way or another. Crisis, anxiety, and suffering did not negate their responsibilities to their neighbors.
But it’s a part of his sermon towards the end that really gets me in our moment, during the Coronavirus. Jesus continues teaching (this is a long sermon), and finally, he gives us some advice that I believe was relevant to this early, Jewish Jesus following community, also to us, living in an age of pandemic and anxiety. He tells them: You can’t serve money and God. Focus on serving God, not just about finding security for yourself.
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Don’t worry? Don’t worry about what I’ll eat? Or drink? Or wear? Jesus, have you read the headlines recently? It’s all well and good for the lilies or the birds – they don’t have to worry about the May unemployment numbers or where the resnt will come from or about riots in the street or food shortages in the grocery stores.
There was a time, for me, when this was a straightforwardly comforting text. As someone who, even in the best of times, has a proclivity towards anxiety, this sounded like a soothing message. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it sounds like a challenge. Back in that grocery store, I felt in my gut the scarcity mindset my neighbors were acting upon, and it ignited my own. In my mind, there was an urgent voice telling me, “There won’t be enough left for you! Take it while you can, while you still have time!” And for the first time in my life, there are discussions of food scarcity across the US, of the SNAP program running out of money, of unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression.
To not worry about my life now is not a comfort, but instead it is a mandate.
Biblical scholars debate fiercely who Matthew is writing for – was his community rich, as many scholars say, or were those Jewish refugees poor, too? One scholar, named David Sim, argues that they were poor, and points to passages like this one to make his point. He writes, “Let us consider Matthew’s theme of discipleship. The evangelist is clear that following Jesus involves major sacrifices and hardships. His followers are expected to leave behind their employment and their families and homes. They are to relinquish all they have… This single-minded devotion to Jesus and the will of God may evoke anxiety about food, drink, clothing, and even one’s life.”
According to Sim’s interpretation, living with some level of anxiety is a natural response that Jesus anticipates from the discipleship he demands of his followers. Coping with that voice telling me “Take as much as you can for yourself – hoard those dry beans!” without living into it is part of discipleship. Like I said, it seems like cold comfort during a pandemic.
But, Jesus doesn’t leave us there. He goes on to say:
Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Jesus isn’t condemning us in our worry about food, water, and clothing; in fact, Jesus reassures us that these are reasonable worries with he acknowledges that we do really need all these things. But he reminds us of our call, as the church, to be harbingers of God’s reversal of human empires, those systems which give some more than enough and others are left poor, disempowered, hungry, and thirsty. By striving for the kingdom of God, by acting for the good of the disempowered when it’s easier to just act for ourselves, we may struggle. But even in our struggles, Jesus – Immanuel, God with us – is with us in those struggles. And Jesus is not promising that it’ll be easy, but promising that it’ll be worth it to be part of God’s kingdom.
I leave you this week with a song from the Poor People’s Campaign, a non-partisan organizing movement that continues the work of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Their aim is to bring a moral revitalization to our nation, so that our nation remembers the poor and makes policy changes for their good.
In it, the organizers sing that Everybody’s Got a Right to Live. And it makes me think of those Beatitudes: the poor have a right to live. The disempowered have a right to live. The hungry and thirsty have a right to live. And what a gift it is that we have an invitation be part of God’s kingdom.
Next week, we’ll look at the ways Jesus is inviting us to that table through communion and explore how this dinner invitation of Jesus’s is so different from the one the powers of this world offer us.
 Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, 138.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 2000). 134.
 Unidentified Flemish painter. Rich and Poor, or, War and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55707 [retrieved May 12, 2020]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Arm_und_Reich_(fl%C3%A4misch_17_Jh).jpg.
 David Sim, “Wealth and Poverty in the Gospel of Matthew” in Prayer and Spirituality in the Early Church Vol 5: Poverty and Riches (Strathfield: Saint Paul’s Publications, 2009), 84.