Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Matthew 6.24-34
Epiphany 8 - Year A

Other texts:


For most of us, preaching on this text will be new ground. In 16 years of creating these "Gospel Notes," this text has never come up. In 32 years of preaching, I've never preached a Sunday sermon on this text. (I have used part of this text for a Thanksgiving Eve sermon and I did a Lenten series on the Sermon on the Mount so these verses were part of that five-part presentation.)

Our text consists of two different sayings:

  1. Serving Two Masters -- 6:24 // Luke 16:13 // Thomas 47:1-2

  2. On Anxieties -- 6:25-34 // Luke 12:22-31 // Thomas 36

Because these sayings are not connected in Luke (or Thomas,) we might conclude that Matthew put them together. They are meant to be connected. Verse 25 begins with dia touto (= "because of this" or "on account of this" -- this phrase is often translated "Therefore". My first class on a method of Bible study suggested that we should always ask, "What is 'therefore' there fore?" It indicates that what follows comes as a result of what went before.

(I note that the parallel in Luke 12:22 also begins with the same words. Luke intends his readers to connect the "anxiety" verses with those what precede it.)

Another indication of how sayings of Jesus were adapted is the version in the Gospel of Thomas. It combines other canonical and non-canonical sayings of Jesus in this one speech:

Jesus said: "A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows.

"And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other.

"Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine. Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil.

"An old patch is not sewn onto a new garment, since it would create a tear." (47)

The version in Thomas is shorter and uses different words (honor & offend) than the sayings in Matthew and Luke.

GOD VS. MAMMON (6:24)

The first thing I notice in 6:24 are the different tenses of the verbs. They may be significant. The first phrase is in the present tense. This implies continous or repeated actions: "No one is continually able to serve to masters/lords."

The grammar could imply that it is possible for a short time to serve two masters/lords, but in the long run, problems develop. Those problems are in the future tense: "He will hate" vs. "he will love"; "he will be devoted to" vs. "he will despise"

I does happen that what starts out as a hobby (or even a job) can end up becoming one's master. What we believe is innocent diversion, becomes a power over us.

Another observation is that the subject changes in the last line. The saying begins by talking about a generic "no one". It ends by talking about "you". The verb is again present tense. "You are not continaully able to serve God and Mammon."

What is "mammon"? The word only occurs here in Matthew and three times in Luke (16:9, 11, 13).

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament indicates that the Greek mamonas comes from the Aramaic noun mamon, whose derivation is uncertain, "though most likely comes from 'MN = 'that in which one trusts' (J. Bustorf).

Why didn't they use a Greek word, such as ousia = "property, money, wealth" for the Aramaic? Perhaps because mamon had already picked up a negative connotation. In the Targum, mamon "denotes the dishonest profit which a man makes in a matter or transaction by selfishly exploiting the situation of another." [TDNT]

The Ronsvalles' in Behind the Stained Glass Window, have important comments about this verse:

This increase in affluence becomes significant to the degree that the Bible suggests that money has a spiritual component. For example, in Matthew 6:24 Jesus tells his followers, "You cannot serve both God and Money." French philosopher Jacques Ellul points out that in this text, Jesus personifies mammon "as a sort of god," a force that is competing with God for our souls. Ellul suggests that Jesus' choice of words "reveals something exceptional about money, for Jesus did not usually use deifications and personifications. What Jesus is revealing is that money is a power."

In Matthew 6:21 Jesus also describes another aspect of money, that it is an important indicator of our heart's condition: "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Money is a measure of devotion, the way we spend it indicating something about us -- sort of like a spiritual thermometer -- according to Jesus. In a consumer society, such as the United States, it may be the intentional measurement available. [p. 29]

Johnson (Luke, Sacra Pagina) makes a couple similar statements concerning the parallel passage:

both God and Mammon: The capitalization is required here because the form of the statement as well as the reaction to it in 16:14 demand that "Mammon" be taken as an idolatrous power that can compete with God for human allegiance. [p. 246]

The final saying shows the profound seriousness with which Luke regards this symbolic use of possessions. "Mammon" in 16:13 is personified as an idol, the service of whom is the rejection of God. If giving away possessions in almsgiving secures a place with God, the worship of possessions and a clinging to them as ultimate means separation from God. [p. 248]

Wealth, money, can become one's master/lord a breaking of the first commandment. Perhaps "MasterCard" is more prophetic with its name than they intended.

The word translated "serve" in the NRSV is not the usual word for serve (diakoneo), but douleuo, which more literally means, "be enslaved to" or "be controlled by." The same word is used in Luke 15:29 of the older son stating to his father: "For all these years I have been working like a slave for you." One cannot be controlled by God and mammon (perhaps = "dishonest profits" or "greed"). In essence, I think, this verse relates to the first commandment: We can have only one God -- and it shouldn't be wealth.

Is it possible to love two "lords"? Is it possible to love God and mammon? Does one have to despise one or the other? Can't there be a middle ground -- loving them both like loving two children? Jesus says, "No."

ON ANXIETIES (6:25-34)

The two times I have preached on this text (for a Thanksgiving Eve service and as part of a midweek series on the Sermon on the Mount,) I titled the sermon, after the saying of Alfred E. Newman of Mad Magazine: "What! Me Worry?" This was on the cover of every edition of the magazine. It was easy for Alfred to say, "What! Me worry?. He was a made-up character. A cartoon on a magazine cover. What did he have to worry about? We are real people. We worry.

I share my thoughts from these sermons -- so these following "notes" will sound more like a sermon than an exegetical paper.

We do worry. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus had talked about treasures on earth (6:19). We do store them up; and we worry about protecting them. We lock our doors and windows. Some may even have alarm systems to protect our treasures. We put our money in a bank where there are large vaults and locks to protect our treasures. We have insurance policies so that if something happens to our treasures we can replace them. We worry about our treasures and seek to do everything possible to protect them.

In contrast to this, I thought about houses in third-world countries. Sometimes they are nothing more than cardboard boxes no windows to shut; no doors to lock. The same is true of many of the huts I've seen in pictures. Such people have no treasures to protect. They do not worry about protecting their treasures. Are they more faithful believers than we with all our possessions?

It's not likely, because in our verses Jesus talks about worrying about food or drink and clothing. People in third-world countries do worry about whether they will have food to eat or water to drink. They worry about warm winter clothing or shade from the hot summer sun.

People in richer parts of the world worry about what type of steak to prepare tonight or what restaurant to eat at, what type of wines should go with each course of their meal, or what's the appropriate set of clothes they should wear for the upcoming function. Whether rich or poor, people worry.

I think that most of us want to obey Jesus' command not to worry about life. We just can't do it. We may tell ourselves over and over again, "Don't worry. Don't worry. Don't worry. Don't worry. Don't worry. Don't worry." That usually doesn't help much. Those words keep reminding us that we are worrying. Then we worry about worrying too much.

When we tell ourselves not to do something, the opposite usually happens. For example, when I say to you: "Don't think of a large, pink elephant," what pops into your head? Couldn't the same thing happen when we tell our selves, "Don't worry"? Our mind automatically things about worrying.

Jesus tells us to look at the birds in the sky. Jesus tells us to learn from the plants of the field. Jesus does not tell us to become like wild birds or plants, but to look at them and learn from them. In fact, I think that Jesus is telling us to be different from the birds and plants we see. I've seen birds kill themselves by crashing into windows. I've seen dead baby birds who were pushed out of the nest by their parents. I've seen plants destroyed by hail storms or bugs. The lives of birds and plants are not all that great.

Jesus makes it clear that we are worth more than those wild birds and plants. I don't know about you, but I'm glad that God thinks I'm more important than a weed or a pigeon.

What are we to learn from the wild birds and plants? There are two contrasts that I see between us and birds and plants.

One contrast is that we can see and know and believe that it is God who cares for plants and animals and provides for them. I don't think that a bird cares much about God. I don't think that a bird gives God any credit for providing seeds and worms and other dead animals to eat. I doubt that a plant in the field has any thoughts about God providing the nutrients in the soil or the rain or the sun that give it life.

We can recognize the wonder of God's hand and actions in creation. Beyond that, we can respond to God with thanksgiving for all of creation, for what we have to eat and drink, for the materials and skills that make homes and clothing that protect us from harsh weather. We can even thank God, as Martin Luther said, "for our daily work." (However, when does that daily work become the powerful Mammon that competes with our allegiance for God?)

I don't believe that you can get rid of worrying by telling yourself, "Don't worry." To use another illustration one I saw many, many years ago. A speaker held up an empty glass. He asked, "How can I get the air out of this glass?" He turned it over. The air didn't pour it. It stayed there. He shook it up and down, and the air stayed in it. Finally, he turned the glass right-side-up. He got a pitcher of water. He poured the water into the glass. The water forced the air out of the glass.

I don't think that we remove worry from our lives by trying to remove it. We push it out by replacing it with something else. That something else is thanksgiving.

Worry usually deals with what we don't have. Thanksgiving deals with what God has given us. Worry usually thinks about what bad things might happen in the future. Thanksgiving trusts that the future is in God's hands.

There was a lady who came to my office. She was worried about many things. Her husband had told her that there was nothing to worry about. That didn't stop her worries. I suggested that she try to replace her worry with thanksgiving. Think about the good thinks God has given her. Picture herself and her loved ones being in the hands of God, and give thanks.

I don't know if that suggestion helped or not, but she never came back to talk about her worries. When she did face some worrisome health problems, there was a sense of comfort at being in God's hands, even though there were anxious moments and complications with her treatments. We continually gave thanks for the doctors, for each improvement when they came, for the family who was supporting her. We found much to give thanks for.

Someone may ask, "But what good does it do to give thanks? It doesn't change anything." I'll respond, "What good does it do to worry? It doesn't change anything either. Jesus even says in our text: "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?"

Some years ago I read the following in a business magazine:

98% of the time our worrying doesn't accomplish anything, yet we continually worry. We worry about our treasures, our homes, our possessions. We worry about finances, about children, about parents. We worry about our health, our futures.

At the beginning of this year, our older son was laid off from work. He has a number of monthly debts. We worry about him and his finances. We worry about our selves, since we co-signed most of his loans. Will our worrying change anything? Probably not. We can give thanks to God that we are able to help him at this time in his life.

Near the end of our text Jesus says: "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

What does it mean for us to be seeking the kingdom of God and God's righteousness? Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, God's righteousness is described as something that God gives us as gift. Righteousness is about our relationship with God. Another difference between us and birds and flowers is that while we are all creations of God, only we humans can become God's children. God establishes a relationship with us that nothing else in creation has.

I also note that the subject of this verb and of all of the commands in our lesson is plural. Jesus is giving these commands to all of us together. It isn't just for me to seek the kingdom of God and God's righteousness by myself. It isn't just for each of you as individuals to seek these things. It is a command for all of us to do together.

Also, most of the commands are in the present tense. In Greek this implies continuous or repeated actions. We can translate it then with: "All of you keep on seeking the kingdom of God and God's righteousness." It's not something that we do once and then we've arrived. It's a continuous action. Something we have to keep on doing throughout our lives. It is something we do together.

What does it mean for us to be seeking the kingdom of God and God's righteousness? Another way of answering that is that it means providing and caring for others just as God provides and cares for wild birds and plants.

Jesus' first command in our text follows this same grammar, "You all are not to keep on worrying about your life, what to eat or drink or wear." We know that the early church shared with one another so that no believer would be in need.

We give to the food banks, so that others may have food and drink. We make donations to thrift stores so that others might have clothes. We work for Habitat for Humanity, so others might have shelter. We call or visit people, so that others might have friends. By our actions, others may not have to keep on worrying about their life. Their worries can be replaced with thanksgiving for the generous gifts that others offer to them.

What! Me worry? Yes, I do, but that's not quite the right question. This text is about what we do together as believers in Christ, as children of God, as a community of faith. We are people who seek to replace our own worries with thanksgiving to God, who cares for us and all of creation. We are people who seek to replace the worries of others with thanksgiving to God, because, we, God's children, also show our care and provide for others.

Thanksgiving can drive away a lot of our worries.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS

I struggle with these texts because, while I don't want to serve Mammon or fall into the sin of greed, I also know that having sufficient funds removes worries and anxieties from life. How strongly should a pastor negotiate for adequate compensation from a congregation? How bravely to we stand up for synod compensation guidelines? The only reason we were able to help our son during his unemployment and with his move to a new location was because I had accepted a call with a sizeable increase in pay. (He is now employed -- and making more than I did at my last Call. However, he had an emergency appendectomy last week and we don't know if his insurance will cover it -- had hadn't been at work for a month yet. Yes, we worry.)

In this text, Jesus hints that the disciples might be people of "little faith" (6:30). Four more times that will be brought him in this gospel (8:26; 14:31; 16:8; 17:20). It is likely that our anxieties, and our worries, are indications that we are people of "little faith". We do not have the faith to "move mountains" or to provide for our needs. A conclusion that I have reached is that we don't really have enough faith to save our selves. Thus, we need to be thankful for God's grace that grasps us even with our "little faith" that allows worries and frets and concerns to become parts of our lives.


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com