8th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matthew 6:24-34
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. […] Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
In the latter portion of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th century, a group within the Franciscan Order felt an intense inspiration to observe the Rule of St. Francis in its primitive severity. They were particularly focused on the life of poverty and, as they understood the Lord’s command, demanded that all Christians forsake private property and embrace the radical simplicity of gospel poverty. This group of Friars Minor, known as the “Spirituals”, was condemned by Pope John XXII in the early 1300s.
We are led to a difficult question when considering the Gospel reading for this Sunday – Does Christ really mean to tell his disciples that they are not to provide for their material needs in any sense? Does the Lord demand absolute poverty from every Christian? Moreover, we might wonder whether it is possible to prepare for the worldly necessities of the future without worrying about tomorrow?
What sort of worry does our Savior condemn?
Fr. Cornelius a’Lapide offers a profitable commentary on Christ’s words, do not worry or be not solicitous: “For, take no thought, the Greek has μὴ μεριμνα̃τε, take no anxious thought, lest, through care, ye be troubled with anxiety and distress; for the desire of gathering wealth divides the mind, and distracts it with various cogitations, cares, and anxieties, and as it were cuts it in twain. Christ, then, does not forbid provident diligence and labour in procuring the necessaries of life for ourselves and those who belong to us, as the Euchitæ maintained, who wished to pray always without working, against whom S. Augustine wrote a book, On the Work of Monks. But Christ forbids anxious, untimely, fearful solicitude, care that distrusts God, a heart grovelling in the earth, and distracted from the service of God.”
Considering our Savior’s words, do not worry about tomorrow or be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow, Fr. Cornelius continues: “Christ here does not forbid all provision for future time, as for instance storing up the harvests of corn and wine and oil: for prudence and economy require this to be done: and this is what Joseph did so prudently in Egypt. (Gen. xli. 35.) Whence S. Anthony (apud Cassian. Collat. 2) says, that some who would keep nothing for tomorrow were deceived, and could not bring the task they had begun to a suitable end. Christ only forbids useless anxieties about the future, unseasonable cares, as when a man is anxious about those things the care of which does not, according to right reason, pertain to present but to future time.
“Solicitude then is of two kinds, the first moderate and business-like, such as right reason dictates ought to be employed for such or such an affair or business: this is laudable and needful, with all prudence and virtue. The other is immoderate, vain, and unbecoming, by which a timid or covetous man vainly torments himself about future events which are altogether uncertain, and can neither be foreseen nor delayed. This sort of care which the Greeks call μεριμνα is anxious care, worry; and it is this which Christ forbids. Whence the Gloss says, ‘Not labour, or provident care, is forbidden, but anxiety which chokes the mind.’”
Is it lawful to be solicitous about temporal matters? -- The example of the birds of the air
To this question, St. Thomas Aquinas first answers in the negative: “Our Lord said (Matthew 6:31): Be not solicitous … saying, What shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? And yet such things are very necessary.”
The Common Doctor gives three senses in which such worry may be sinful (ST II-II, q.55, a.6, in co.): “I answer that, Solicitude denotes an earnest endeavor to obtain something. Now it is evident that the endeavor is more earnest when there is fear of failure, so that there is less solicitude when success is assured. Accordingly solicitude about temporal things may be unlawful in three ways. First, on the part of the object of solicitude; that is, if we seek temporal things as an end. Hence Augustine says (De Operibus Monach. xxvi): ‘When Our Lord said: Be not solicitous, etc. … He intended to forbid them either to make such things their end, or for the sake of these things to do whatever they were commanded to do in preaching the Gospel.’ Secondly, solicitude about temporal things may be unlawful, through too much earnestness in endeavoring to obtain temporal things, the result being that a man is drawn away from spiritual things which ought to be the chief object of his search, wherefore it is written (Matthew 13:22) that the care of this world … chokes up the word. Thirdly, through over much fear, when, to wit, a man fears to lack necessary things if he do what he ought to do.”
In addressing the third of the ways by which solicitude may be immoral (i.e. through much fear at losing temporal goods), St. Thomas continues with a quasi-commentary on this passage of the Sermon on the Mount: “Now our Lord gives three motives for laying aside this fear. First, on account of the yet greater favors bestowed by God on man, independently of his solicitude, viz. his body and soul (Matthew 6:26); secondly, on account of the care with which God watches over animals and plants without the assistance of man, according to the requirements of their nature; thirdly, because of Divine providence, through ignorance of which the gentiles are solicitous in seeking temporal goods before all others. Consequently He concludes that we should be solicitous most of all about spiritual goods, hoping that temporal goods also may be granted us according to our needs, if we do what we ought to do.”
Ought the Christian to be solicitous for the future? -- The example of the ant
Again we turn to a simple insight from the Angelic Doctor (ST II-II, q.55, a.7, ad 2): “Due foresight of the future belongs to prudence. But it would be an inordinate foresight or solicitude about the future, if a man were to seek temporal things, to which the terms ‘past’ and ‘future’ apply, as ends [in themselves], or if he were to seek them in excess of the needs of the present life, or if he were to forestall the time for solicitude.”
Thus, the Christian ought to be mindful and prudent in providing for the needs of the present and even the future – but this “solicitude” must always be directed primarily to the love of God and must correspond fittingly to the due circumstances of time. Recall that that same Wisdom who has put before his disciples the example of the birds of the air, has also recommended the ways of the ant, whence Solomon has written: “Go to the ant, O sluggard, and consider her ways, and learn wisdom: Which, although she hath no guide, nor master, nor captain, Provideth her meat for herself in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest.” (Proverbs 6:6-8)
As Augustine says (De Serm. Dom. in Monte ii, 17), “when we see a servant of God taking thought lest he lack these needful things, we must not judge him to be solicitous for the morrow, since even Our Lord deigned for our example to have a purse, and we read in the Acts of the Apostles that they procured the necessary means of livelihood in view of the future on account of a threatened famine. Hence Our Lord does not condemn those who, according to human custom, provide themselves with such things, but those who oppose themselves to God for the sake of these things.”