How could Jesus Christ expect His disciples not to worry? Word pictures in His Sermon on the Mount help us understand a source of worry—and the solution.
Jesus walked and taught in the turbulent and dangerous first-century world controlled by the powerful—and often ruthless—Roman Empire. And yet, in the middle of what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount, He instructed the multitudes to stop worrying (Matthew 6:25-34).
How could Jesus expect the crowd to live without worrying about physical things?
The answer lies in the metaphors He used leading up to the discussion of worry.
Treasures in heaven
The first metaphor Jesus used distinguished between two types of treasure:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (verses 19-21).
Jesus didn’t explicitly describe the treasures to be stored in heaven or the earthly ones. He focused more on how those treasures may be lost.
The reference to moths identifies a danger posed to fabric, especially clothing. We might not think of clothing as a treasure, but in Judea and Galilee at the time, clothing was handcrafted and expensive. The ordinary person in that setting had fewer items of clothing, and fashion changed far less frequently.
For these reasons, when someone died, clothing that had not worn out might be passed on to heirs. In fact, when Jesus was being crucified, the Roman soldiers cast lots to see who might take His clothing (Matthew 27:35). Moths, then, were a threat to wealth in a way modern readers might not consider. The point is, treasures on earth are vulnerable to corruption.
More durable items are subject to being stolen. The common first-century home offered little security to anyone saving a few coins or some costly ointment at home. A determined thief could break in to take whatever he could. In short, Jesus was pointing out how temporary everything in this material world is.
Rather than identify the earthly treasures, Jesus pointed out their vulnerability to moths and rust, referring to decay, and to thieves. The emphasis seems to be less on the treasure itself, and more on where it is stored.
God or mammon?
Jesus presented another metaphor in Matthew 6:24:
Once we recognize that the spiritual is more important, the value we place on our physical resources changes.“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
To understand this metaphor, we must first know what mammon is. The word is Aramaic, and it refers to riches or material wealth. This verse in Matthew personifies mammon, making it one of the two possible masters—God or mammon.
The word master denotes a lord, ruler or slave owner—one who could tell you what to do. (Slavery was common throughout the Roman world during the first century.) Disciples, subjects and slaves owed absolute allegiance to the master.
Quoting theologian John R.W. Stott, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states that “behind the choice between two treasures (where we lay them up) and two visions (where we fix our eyes) there lies the still more basic choice between two masters (whom we are going to serve).”
The images taken together
What Jesus Christ did was focus our attention on the big picture. We have to decide whether treasures on earth (representing the physical or material) are more important than treasures in heaven (representing the spiritual).
Once we recognize that the spiritual is more important, the value we place on our physical resources changes. That change, in turn, affects how we see and treat other people. In essence, we see our earthly wealth as a gift God has given us, not only for our needs, but as a resource that empowers us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31).
This ability becomes a heavenly treasure, for through this love of neighbor, we demonstrate our willingness to serve and to love the Father:
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20).
Up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount, a listener might have thought, “I don’t make earthly treasures my chief goal in life” or “I’m not greedy.” What Jesus said next, as He launched into a 10-verse discussion of worry, made such evasion impossible.
“Do not worry” Bible verses
In Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus said:
“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
“Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
“So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
“Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’
“For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Worry and greed
He began with a term translated as “therefore” in Matthew 6:25. This word lets us know that Jesus Christ saw a connection between what He had just said and what He was about to discuss. In addition, by mentioning clothing (verses 28-30), Jesus made a clear reference to the earthly treasures discussed earlier (verses 19-21).
What connection does worry have to greed, selfishness and lack of care for others? The relationship becomes apparent when we begin to consider the core motivation of each. Greed, lust and covetousness come from a drive for control over our material needs and desires. The same is true of worrying about material things. In essence, greed and worry can be flip sides of the same coin.
Deep down, greed is driven by a desire to accumulate enough wealth to establish some kind of control over one’s personal circumstances. It might be an effort to create a buffer that shuts out poverty, or it could be an attempt to build status. The core motivation—control—is the same.
Worry about physical things, on the other hand, is the fear of loss of control that leads to undesirable circumstances, such as poverty or loss of prestige. We must let go of any inordinate fears of losing control and immoderate desires to gain control.
Seeking first the Kingdom
Many of Christ’s listeners in the first century would have concluded that they were not greedy. Many of us today would do the same. Few of us, however, would assert that we live worry-free lives.
Through this transition from greed to worry, Jesus made it clear that all of us need to think about where our treasures are and to whom we owe allegiance. Just because we don’t covet more material goods does not mean we do not serve mammon.
None of this means we should live without financial discipline or without planning and hard work. What it does mean is that after we do all we can do, we trust God to provide for us. Jesus Christ assured His listeners that the Father is aware of our needs (verse 32), and He went on to command that we all “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (verse 33).
Recognizing that we cannot have absolute control of our lives takes humility. That’s why the apostle Peter later encouraged Christians to “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7).