The Birds & The Lilies

Robert TannehillNote:  This little book has instructed my soul.  I am grateful for it.  JWS

MATTHEW 6:25-33 from The Sword of His Mouth,  Robert Tannehill

25Therefore I tell you,

       Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat [or what you shall drink,]

        Nor about your body, what you shall put on.

        Is not life more that food,

        And the body more than clothing?

Matt. 6:25 attacks squarely the anxiety which springs from man’s insecurity with respect to such basic needs as food and clothing.  This is a very powerful enemy to attack, for our anxiety is very deep.  It suffuses our personal and communal existence, shaping the life of society and individual.   It leads to the development of elaborate systems of production, and of equally elaborate systems of protection from those who might take our products always.

[George Carlin had a commentary on “stuff” that was telling.  I will post it.]

 We are hardly able to change our world view with one simple command, “Be not Anxious!”  This can only be true is we have a new world view – if we can see the world in a fundamentally new way.   We must be shown a reality which we do not now recognize as real.

 Here Jesus uses images.  He takes ordinary things, birds and lilies and each section beings with strong words referring to perception:   LOOK & CONSIDER.  We are not to look casually but observe carefully, so that we will understand the hidden meaning which we ordinarily overlook. 

 26Look at the birds of the air:

        They neither sow not reap nor gather into barns,

        And yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

        Are you not of more value than they?

Birds and Lilies are contrasted with the life of humans.  The elaborate structures of care in which we are involved are absent, and yet life goes on.  A strange fact when we begin to think about it!  This makes the birds and flowers seem strange to us.  Or, perhaps, they make our world seem strange.  When this happens, they are taking on the force of images of change. They are becoming heavy with meaning, for we see that our sense of reality is itself at stake.

27 [And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?

28 And why are you anxious about clothing?]

       Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow,

        They neither toil nor spin;

[We can argue wth the text and point out that birds are also concerned with food; indeed, they spend most of their day seeking it.  Even so, the contrast remains between man’s elaborate structures of care and the comparatively simple, direct supplying of needs in the lives of other creatures, and it is on this contrast that the text wishes us to mediate.]  [It is also true that birds do not always get enough to eat, nor do flowers always grow to full beauty.  Nevertheless, they do about as well as care-ridden man, and the text assumes that, on the whole, their existence is good, not tragic. ]

 29Yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Here the lily is elevated by extravagant language to mythic heights. God’s lavish nature is seen. 

  •  “O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men – to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us – with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.”

Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection

The simple comparison between man’s care/anxiety and the simple existence of birds and flowers is not likely to have the desired effect.  Our ways of seeing and thinking are too deeply ingrained for that.  It is necessary to turn up the volume.  The pattern is used twice and then turned upside down.  The glorious lily is now “grass” that abides for a brief time. This is not tragic but the grass has a life span appropriate to it.  But even in its short life there are signs of God’s care. 

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field,

        which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,

        will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?

31Therefore do not be anxious, saying

‘What shall we eat?’

Or  ‘What shall we drink?’

Or “What shall we wear?’

32 For the [Gentiles seek all these things; and] your

        heavenly father knows that you need them all.

33 But seek first his kingdom [and his righteousness.]

        And all these things shall be yours as well

 We begin to wonder which is the real world, the world of our anxiety, or this other world of which the birds and flowers are images.  Thus the text induces a sense of strangeness about our life and a sense of the presence of something more, something deeper, which offers an alternative for action and makes finally unimportant our structures of care.  We experience a heightened awareness and the disturbing impingement of another reality.  This opens a new possibility for life, a possibility which the text describes as seeking the Kingdom. 

 While the direct command at the beginning of the passage is unlikely to be effective, when that command returns in Matt. 6:31, there is a greater change that we may consider this a serous possibility, one founded on a realty deeper than our reality, provided the intervening worlds have done their work.  This is a highly personal experience, reaching to the depths of personal existence, and whether it will indeed take place depends not only on the text but also on us.  However, the form of this passage indicated that it is striving for this goal. 





“Security is mo…


“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” — Helen Keller