by Elton HiggsI’d like to present this week another theme associated with the word and the concept of “more” in Scripture: the way God regards people and the lives they live. This theme comes through especially strong in the words of Jesus in the Gospels (especially the Sermon on the Mount), which often show God’s use of comparatives and superlatives in what are to human thinking counterintuitive or even paradoxical ways. Early in His ministry, Jesus challenged ordinary human opinions about the value of material comforts.
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious 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? (Matt. 6:25, ESV, emphasis mine, here and in all other quotations)
Jesus poses these as rhetorical questions, inviting agreement, but they challenge the anxiety manifested by most humans in seeking to feed and clothe themselves. Fallen people look not to have “more” with the peace of mind that Jesus points to, but strive for the “more” of accumulating goods so that they can feel secure by their own efforts. Jesus seems to be saying that until we accept the sufficiency of what God gives us apart from our merits, our material resources will be a worrisome snare to us, rather than a blessing that brings contentment.
Jesus goes on to argue that if God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field with complete sufficiency and even beauty, “Will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matt. 6:30). He concludes this instruction by admonishing His hearers to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (v. 33). In our human pursuit of enough, we feel it necessary to add ceaselessly to what we already have; but in God’s economy, only those who seek first the things of His kingdom can experience the security of having all we need added to us through God’s generosity.
Jesus takes this line of teaching a step further later in the Sermon on the Mount:
9 Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7:9-11)
If earthly, flawed fathers can be counted on, normally, to respond to the requests of their children with true concern for their welfare, cannot God be counted on, in all His wisdom and power and love, to respond to our requests with what is truly good for us? Once again, our experiencing the blessing of God’s sufficiency depends on our perceiving and trusting the goodness of His gifts to us. Although it is not a part of Jesus’ point here, a corollary of this teaching is that just as a human parent will sometimes give his child what he or she really needs, rather than what the child has asked for, so our submission to God in offering our requests to Him includes our acceptance that what He chooses to give us is appropriate to our need, whether or not we understand it to be so at the time.
There is much else that can be said about Jesus’ use of “more,” but I want to conclude this session with a reference to His parable of the workers in the vineyard, for it illustrates perfectly the difference between the human understanding of “more” and God’s. You will remember the story in Matt. 20 about a landlord who recruited workers for his vineyard several times at different hours of the day, from early morning to the last hour before sunset. He contracted with the first group to pay them what was the going rate for a day’s work, a denarius. With subsequent groups he merely promised them “whatever is right” (Matt. 20:4). So when the end of the day came, the foreman was instructed to pay first the workers who had been hired last, and each one received a denarius. When down the line the same amount was given to every other worker, quite naturally,
when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. 11 And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” 16 So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matt. 20:10-16)
The contrast here is of course between what the workers believe they deserve, based on their comparative efforts and merits, and the leveling effects of the vineyard owner’s indiscriminate generosity. As an allegorical equivalent to God, the vineyard owner is showing the quality of generous grace, which takes no account of what people deserve. Even on the human level, the vineyard owner tells the disgruntled workers that he has fulfilled his promise to them and has paid them what was agreed on, which they evidently had no problem with at the time he took them on. “I am doing you no wrong,” he continues; “Do you begrudge my generosity?” And then, Jesus makes the amazing counterintuitive application: “The last will be first, and the first last.
Jesus’ central point is that the human connection of reward with work and merit is set aside by God’s grace. Human effort cannot provide the “more” that we truly need, but our loving heavenly Father knows how to give us good things beyond what we deserve. So it behooves us to cease our worry and rejoice in His generosity!
Image:By Andrey Mironov 777 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24843092