Following Jesus if I’m anxous

Anxiety and especially about money seems to be so common. We live in a rather fragile economy, essentially by definition. We seem to be a rather anxious generation in an increasingly anxious time. We are worried about our future, we are worried about our debt, our unemployment, our health. Part of that anxiety comes from the fact that we have access to so much diagnostic information. You can probably make yourself sick if you look up your random physiological symptoms right now.

It’s a big problem, I think. I’m not sure that money is the only thing we are worried about, but I think we worried about our own life and livelihood and survival. In broad terms, it seems to me like the perfect antidote to anxiety is faith in God.

The wickedness of anxiety creeps in when we begin to cope with it in ways of the world. We begin to find security of the perceived future threat with things that are, to put plainly, not of God. We form patterns of coping that don’t even involved God or prayer or community. We put our faith in other things. But God insists otherwise.

The Bible, and Luke in particular, is written to relatively downtrodden people who would be anxious. Luke’s whole audience are like the anxious poor. And the circumstances that cause them anxiety, the global economy and the Imperial politics, aren’t so easily undone, so they really have to reframe how they see the whole world and rely on the deliverance of Christ.

In Luke 12, Jesus is instructed his disciples and a crowd of thousands about this basic reworking. In v. 4 he tells them not to fear those that threaten their bodies, but rather to fear and respect God. God who loves and cares for sparrows, he cares for us. He further instructs them not to worry when they are dragged out to the rulers and authorities—do not worry about what you will say, God will give you the words. He is emphasizing that antidote that we were just talking about, that faith in God is how we can overcome our own anxiety.

I just want to note that that kind of language isn’t even spoken about anymore. We have a whole new narrative for how to explain everything. And we are called foolish for believing in God and not, like, capitalism. The government is the major agent of change that is supposed to offer us the protection that will ease our anxiety. Don’t worry about what you’ll say in court because a lawyer will say it for you. Jesus is giving us a whole new narrative. You might even feel embarrassed saying that. God really may be providing an antidote to cope and overcome our anxiety, but saying that just makes us a laughing stock.

Farmer with a Pitchfork, 1875, Winslow Homer
Farmer with a Pitchfork, 1875, Winslow Homer

More than just a laughing stock tough, we might not even believe it. We might think our faith is a nice additive to our life or a remnant of a different life. We lost it like we lost Santa Claus.

Let’s go to the text.

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Luke 12:13-21

Jesus gets abruptly interrupted here. Some people think the man interrupting Jesus’ teaching is rude and audacious. I get the feeling that he is a little anxious, certainly self-centered, but his family problem is preoccupying his mind so he has to get in there. You know when that happens, even in your cell, someone’s anxiety becomes the center of the evening or many evenings and it becomes like a little support group for the person who is most demanding.

The problem that Jesus is describing here is not new. It is a problem that the writer of Ecclesiastes, with which Jesus’ Jewish audience would be familiar (maybe not Luke’s), but the writer wonders what the purpose is of toiling under the sun when it is all going to burn anyway. His goal is to eat, drink, and be merry, in fact. Which is the goal of this wealthy farmer.

The farmer doesn’t know what he is to do with his wealth and so he decides to build bigger barns. There are many problems with this. First, he is preoccupying himself with wealth and not God. He doesn’t trust God, he trusts his wealth. Although the farmer is smart, he is greedy. He is storying up extra food around him when the economy requires him to share with them because they are starving. This is odd, at least, but perhaps evil and wicked. Jesus and Luke’s audience would have their blood boiling too. The farmers’ self-involved soliloquy, his self-talk, is also negative in ancient literature and in Luke. The fact that he is storing up his goods, too, is a sign that he wants the people around him to come and beg him for resources and to be further indebted to him.

He figures out how to take care of himself without God. He did not consider that his life was on loan from God. He is another example of the wealthy person overwhom “woe” is pronounced. What will happen to his wealth when his life is taken from him? God speaks to him directly, but passively. He tells him his life will be taken (bear in mind, it is not necessarily God that is taking his life away).

The Queen of Sheba Before King Solomon, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
The Queen of Sheba Before King Solomon, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Jesus continues though, readdressing his disciples. Someone else:

He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, 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, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:22-34

Jesus offers offers them the basic teaching: life is more than food and the body more than clothing.

Jesus than makes a few more arguments. First is natural. The raven, a creature that is not generally favored, but God still favors them. They aren’t accumulating their wealth and they are OK. You are much more valuable than them (if you go back earlier in the chapter, remember how he compared the people to sparrows too).

Then he gives them a rhetorical argument that references the past parable. Who by worrying will add a second to his life? The wealthy farmer in the story actually loses his life. And it is through following the Way and Jesus that we will gain ours.

Then he proceeds to describe the lilies of the field. The lilies of the field which are clothed even better than Solomon! These lilies will burn up too (just like the material possessions of the wealthy farmer, mind you). Jesus argues that the lilies are greater than Solomon, and that the people are greater than even the lilies.

Jesus contrasts the way of the world with his way. Strive for the kingdom, not for the things of the world. We needed fear because God is inviting us to share in his realm. Anxious care about this necessary human activity diverts one from our primary purpose.

Life oriented around material abundance is self-defeating and it gives no actual basis for security. That’s the lesson from the parable.  Life oriented around trust frees one from preoccupations and worries that opposite authentic and joyful living.

He ends with phrasing. He tells them to sell their possession and to give charitable donations. Why? Because empty purses don’t wear out, and they don’t attract moths or thieves. Simple living is another antidote to an anxiety-ridden life. Where your treasure is, so will you heart be. .

The purpose of this post isn’t really about economics. But so plainly in the United States economics are connected to our anxiety. We don’t live in an economy where it is shameful to store up extra stuff, we do it for the sake of security in our banks. We don’t live in an economy where greed is known to be wrong, it is in fact trusted to be right. We live in an economy where self-service is, really, the only way out of our anxiety.

We actually think if we simply change our circumstances—who we’re married to, where we live, our jobs, and so on—we’ll be free. If we work harder, make more money, we will rid ourselves of anxiety. Our lives, we think, are in our own hands. Therefore, we are responsible for not being anxious. Jesus’ point is that the ways of the world of futile. And so is worrying about meeting those standards. Our worry and anxiety is probably inevitable. I’m not sure Jesus gives his worried people much of an answer beyond hope in him and his body. But that isn’t something to be scoffed at. Relating to God is a big deal.

Relating to Jesus transforms us and our outlook in the world, making the accomplishments, the preoccupations of this world futile. He will provide for us and he’ll change the way we even consider what provision means. It isn’t about storing up our crops in barns or our money in banks. It isn’t about power acquisition or making sure we don’t get hurt. It’s about sharing with others, giving of ourselves and welcoming others into our lives. It’s about losing the value we place on this so fragile life. No matter the circumstance, the battle has been won, eternity granted. And so even if that is a final resort, his plan will be to deliver you, although I think your faith in him will bring deliverance right here and right now.

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