What is the most repeated phrase in the Bible? “Do not worry.” In this part, we continue from where we left off with Jesus’s statements on justice, analyzing his approach to anxiety. In the previous part we saw how one section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:19–34) can be applied to one common form of anxiety—negative self-image—and here we will turn to worries about material well-being and the future. Another focus of this and the next part is the virtue Keith Ward terms nonpossessiveness (2011, 115). The parable that most directly commends this virtue is Luke 12:13–20:
Someone in the crowd said to [Jesus], ‘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?'
Among the dozens of parables, this, the Rich Fool, is notably the only one in which God plays an active role. Superficially, its message appears to be typical of the “heaven and hell” style of religion we are overly familiar with. Something to the effect of: “Do not be greedy because God might decide it is your time to die and then you will be in trouble.” (Though, personally, I think what the man says about engaging in conversation with his own soul are at least as concerning as his greed!)
Jesus’s statement in Matt. 6:19–21 parallels this parable, urging that we should not “store up” material wealth because it is fragile and ephemeral. Instead, he says, we should seek and indeed store up “spiritual treasure” in our heart. Given what we have seen previously about the “heart,” this treasure could be moral virtue (this also recalls the parable of the Treasure in the Field, Matt. 13:44). Again, this message is clichéd, as we could expect to hear it from any spiritual teacher. But the reason for this is that it is so fundamental to any kind of “examined life,” and that as much as we may know and believe that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15 above), most of us cannot deny that our behavior often suggests the opposite. However, I am not here to give you a sermon, but anxiety.
The Virtue of Nonpossessiveness
Jesus has the rich man thinking aloud, and a deeper reading of the parable attends to the psychological attitudes that this displays. The man is worried, not that he or others will go hungry, but that he will not have enough room to accumulate all the goods the land produces. Combined with the presumptive attitude he has toward controlling his future enjoyment, this establishes that he is very attached to material things, that his thinking is dominated by possessive thoughts. Such thoughts can be every bit as pernicious as depressive thoughts of low self-worth that tend to be those most associated with pathological anxiety. A firm disposition of character against these possessive thoughts is what is meant by the virtue of nonpossessiveness. As monk Christopher Jamison says, for Christianity, “the presence of these thoughts does not mean that a person has done something wrong; they are present in everybody’s life” (2008, 45). We all experience alienation from things we desire and feel would make us complete, and hence possessiveness may be a virtue that all of us should cultivate.
That the rich man’s death is immediate and unexpected can highlight for us that indulging anxious thoughts is self-defeating. In Jesus’s teaching on anxiety—in Luke’s version of which the parable is located—he points out that worrying does not extend our life (Matt. 6:27), rather it wastes precious time and energy. Indeed it is irrational because in doing so it increases rather than decreases the problems that have given rise to worry. Of course, this platitudinous knowledge is not practical advice for one suffering from acute anxiety. A more practical statement, if no less of a platitude is:
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today (v. 34).
This is sometimes portrayed as irrational, world-denying advice, not to think or plan about the future, but put into context as a counsel for anxiety, it is really advice to live in the present in the sense of focusing one’s attention on completing the work of the day so as to avoid worrying about the future. This theme of taking life one day at a time is also present in Jesus’s teaching on prayer earlier in this chapter of Matthew: “give us this day our daily bread” (v. 11). For those of us to whom this “Lord’s Prayer” is familiar, it may seem surprising to think about the words in this way, but in urging us to concentrate on our daily bread—our food for that day only—Jesus is encouraging us to limit the possessive tendencies of our desires and our worries about the future. Regarding worry about food, Jesus also says:
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (v. 26)
Although this is more a metaphor than a parable, it does contain a number of points to unpack. First, together with the Rich Fool there is a hint of a critique of lifestyles where work and the accumulation of goods become an end in themselves, rather than means to an end. Second, in this verse together with verses 28–30 where the corresponding point is made for clothing, Jesus’s choice of metaphors perhaps suggests striving for harmony with nature. Both of these can also be interpreted as forms of the same a minore ad maius argument (related to a fortiori) as can Matt. 7:9–10 and the parable of the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:3-6), as we saw in part 4. There, the argument would be that if even sinful humans are capable of a little care of others, God—being God—will be much more caring toward us. Similarly on anxiety, here the argument would be that if even plants and animals are provided with enough food and “clothing: by God, because human beings are more valuable creatures (cf. Gen. 1:27), God will ensure at least as great provision for them.
In our post-Darwin world, the first premise of this second argument seems completely implausible. Nature is full of wasteful suffering, often due to hunger. But a more fundamental problem with both these sets of verses when interpreted as logical arguments is the attitude they encourage. It is a superstitious kind of fatalism, a blind faith that no matter what you do, God will provide for your survival. Such a belief is more than just false, it is dangerous as advice because it is also so imprudent and irresponsible, just as “do not worry about tomorrow” (v. 34) would be if interpreted according to some critics of Jesus, as mentioned above. But perhaps both these interpretations of Jesus’s message as an irresponsible fatalism are incorrect, and for the same reason that they are overly literalistic and generalizing. A more charitable interpretation would see verses 33–34, which end Matthew chapter 6 and the section on anxiety, as contextualizing verses 26–32 by summing up the meaning of the whole. Consider verse 33:
strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
The reference to the mystery of “the kingdom of God” reminds us of the parables and that we are in the register of figurative language. Hence, although Jesus makes occasional philosophical arguments, in this section it may be inappropriate to translate one from the logic within his grammar. How I interpret verse 33 is that a chief way to mitigate anxieties about food and clothing, etc., is to strive above all to live justly (“righteousness” is an antiquated term for justice) and build up a just community. And if we make this our single-minded goal (cf. Matt. 7:13/part 2) and the passion of our lives, then we should find that we have enough of “all these things” that we need. Not so much because goodness will be rewarded (Jesus would have been conscious—from Ecc. 8:14, for example—that that is not always the case, at least not before death), but because those who strive for justice should be more mindful of sharing and of how little they truly need.
To suggest this message as the context for Jesus’s statements on worry is not to deny that he believed in the power of prayer, or even that aspects of his “worldview” may have been unrealistic, with regard to nature, for example. The idea instead is that God’s activity be perceived in our collective struggle, uniting our passion with “God’s dream of justice” (Borg, 137), rather than in miraculous interventions to feed and shelter us. This is supported by the message of taking a spiritual rather than materialistic perspective on life, which was interpreted from Matt. 6:19–24 in the previous part.
My suggestion is furthermore that verses 26–32 should be read, like many of the other statements of the Sermon, as hyperbole. And that the attitude commended behind this rhetorical device is humility, as also emphasized in Matthew chapter 6 in Jesus’s teaching on prayer. Discussing this in part 5, we saw that Jesus strongly rejects ideals of self-dependence or reliance, and hence his call here to total reliance on God could well be a hyperbolic way of conveying that. In part 5 we also saw that humility involves living in faithfulness to what we are grounded in (Ward, 136), but rather than this meaning blind faith, it is the term in the New Testament translated as “faith” but which means trust, for which “the opposite of faith is not infidelity, but … anxiety.” (Borg, 121) The Christian concept of faith can be hence be interpreted as a state of trust that resists anxiety or bad thoughts.
 Jesus continues, saying “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21), but I do not have the space (or insight) to speculate about the significance of this.
 Seriously, though, while the bizarre sound of that clause is in all likelihood a quirk of translation, no doubt someone somewhere has interpreted it as a hint that his mental faculties have been twisted by his greed (like Tolkien’s Gollum). Alternatively, perhaps it could be seen as a proud attempt at humor on the man’s part—either could be fruitful musings.
 The “Bread of Life Discourse” in John 6 builds on this theme: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life” (v. 27a).
 Another function of this message is to increase, through mindfulness, our solidarity with those among the poor who do not know where their food is coming from from one day to the next.
 See Jamison (2008) for an excellent exposition of Christian morality in this vein.
The Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (1993), Geoffrey Chapman, London
Borg, Marcus J., (2011), Speaking Christian, HarperOne, New York
Jamison, Christopher, (2008), Finding Happiness: Monastic Steps For A Fulfilling Life, Orion Books Ltd., London
Ward, Keith, (2011), The Philosopher and the Gospels: Jesus Through the Lens of Philosophy, Lion Hudson, Oxford