There’s a radical edge to Jesus that familiarity can obscure. We love to hear him say, “Consider the lilies”. It’s good advice against fretting and worrying – a comforting insight. We might easily miss what comes before and after it.
What comes before is the kind of stern clarity that Jesus expresses from time to time. You can’t he says, have it both ways. What follows is his insistence the his followers distinguish ourselves from the worried Gentile preoccupation with food and clothing and entrust ourselves to the care of God. So we can’t just treat this “lilies” passage simply as advice for coping in lives that are otherwise committed to business as usual. What is at stake, Jesus insists, is the fundamental orientation of our lives. Will we live our lives and direct our energy towards God, or towards wealth? That is, will we seek first the kingdom of God, or will we serve the other kingdom – the kingdom governed by greed, governed by fear? It’s not a choice that churches have always made clear. In fact, for long stretches of our history, we have tried to have it both ways – making our living in the kingdom of greed and fear, setting aside some time on Sundays for God, and praying “thy kingdom come” with a secret hope that it won’t, at least not yet.
I wonder centuries of partnership with empires (both political and economic) have caused us to forget or lay aside the radical decision that precedes the comforting advice. “Decision” – de-cidere – means, after all, “to cut away”. Can’t have it both ways. Have we allowed one part of Jesus’ message, the comfort, to overshadow the more demanding invitation to repentance?
Because repentance has been his message since the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. His first public proclamation (Repent, for the kingdom has come near) might help us to remember that Jesus isn’t here simply to help us find comfort within a broken world, but also to invite us to become part of its healing – its redemption. When we turn from a kingdom governed by stuff, status and power – and by the powerful fear that we might lose them – and take on the ethic of compassion and justice that govern the kingdom of God, we are in the world in a new and transformative way. I think it was pretty hard for our churches to teach this sort of repentance while colluding with empires, and maybe that’s why we reduced the scope of repentance to a few pretty well universal human frailties associated with appetites.
The truly good news is that the empires don’t want or need our collusion any more. So we’re free to tell people what Jesus asks us to tell them, instead of just the part of his truth that passes imperial inspection. We’re released from our own bondage to the kingdoms of this world, and we’re free to proclaim Jesus’ call to repentance and offer of redemption – to enter into the healing of purpose that allows us to participate in God’s mission in and for the world. The empires once welcomed our carols, but they never welcomed the fullness of our proclamation.
But that proclamation has been kept alive, sometimes in surprising places – in Anabaptist traditions including Moravians and Mennonites, in Christian liberation movements, and on the fringes of the formerly mainline churches. And we know that Gandhi, a Hindu, loved the Sermon on the Mount, and quoted from it extensively and often. Though he thought about becoming a Christian at one point, he encountered, before he could get in the church door, rejection on the basis of his race. And so, later in life, when asked by a Christian missionary why he quoted the words of Christ so much, but refused to become a Christian, he replied, “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.”