If we are not going to pursue material things, then how should we deal with our physical needs? Jesus' answer to this question is really fairly simple: "Trust God." Using creation as the example, Jesus points to the tender care of the heavenly Father and asks people to consider how gentle God is. If God can care for his other creatures, he can care for you.
This passage's basic exhortation is Do not worry. Given God's care, we can be generous with the things God provides. The contrast between Jesus' attitude here and that of the rich fool could not be greater. Jesus' concern is with food and clothing (v. 22), the basics of life, a perspective Paul also shares (1 Tim 6:7-10). Jesus' exhortation begins with a call not to worry (me merimnate). He uses a present imperative in Greek to indicate that a constant attitude is in view. Paul has a similar exhortation in Philippians 4:6-7.
Jesus explains his call away from worry by noting that life is more than food or clothing. The deepest dimension of life is relationship with God and with others. In 10:25-28 Jesus made it clear that real life has to do with relationship. Living is more than having; it is being in relationship with God and relating well to others. Placing concern for our daily needs in God's hands is part of what it means to have relationship with God (11:3-4).
Jesus now turns to support his exhortation with three illustrations from natural life: the birds (v. 24), the lilies (v. 27) and the grass (v. 28). Ravens refers to a wide variety of crows that inhabited Palestine. Interestingly, they were unclean creatures in Old Testament thinking (Lev 11:15; Deut 14:14; Job 39:13-14; Ps 147:9). They were among the least appreciated of birds, so the example is important because of the cultural perception of these creatures. Jesus has gone to the "bottom of the creature barrel" for this example. God cares for them by giving them food, and just think how much more valuable you are than birds! In other words, if he cares for them, he certainly will care for you.
Beyond the illustration from creation, there is a practical reason not to worry: it does no good. Does worrying "add a cubit" (Greek) to one's span of life? Now a cubit is about eighteen inches. There is debate whether Jesus is using the term to speak of ability to increase one's stature or the length of one's life. Neither option alters Jesus' point, though the more natural possibility is the idea of adding to the length of one's life (so NIV). Either way, worrying does not help! In fact, anxiety should have a surgeon general's or health minister's warning attached to it: "Warning: anxiety may be harmful to your health." Jesus does not issue such a medical warning, however, only a practical one.
If worrying is futile in adding even a small increment to your life span, why do you worry about the rest? Worry is wasted energy, an emotional investment that yields nothing. Worry actually reflects the tension we have when we feel that life is out of our control; it is the product of feeling isolated in the creation. Disciples, however, should know that God cares for them. Biblically, the opposite of worry is trust. That is why after offering some more illustrations Jesus addresses his audience as you of little faith in verse 28. He wants them to come to trust God again.
So Jesus turns to his second and third natural illustrations. Both the lilies and the grass manage to be clothed with beauty. Lilies are arrayed more beautifully than courtly garments in the golden age of Solomon. Grass is cared for, even though it is soon tossed into the oven for fuel. Grass is often a figure for what is transitory in creation (Job 8:12; Is 40:6-8). If God cares for these basic, short-lived plants, how much more will he clothe you. Just as the ravens illustrated God's care to feed, so the lilies and the grass picture God's ability to adorn. Food and clothing are basics God knows we need. With them we are adequately adorned.
So we should not be anxious. "Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it." Such an attitude may be hard in our culture, where unemployment and the future are often not very secure. But Jesus is calling on disciples to realize that the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. It is no accident that Jesus refers to God as the Father in this context, for our intimate relationship with God should encourage us that we will receive his care. Once again, security comes from our relationship to God.
Seek his kingdom: disciples' priorities differ from those of the world. Unlike those in the world who consume themselves with the pursuit of food and clothing, disciples are to focus on seeking God's kingdom. This means we pursue relationship with God, his will and the evidence of his rule and guidance in our lives as we seek to serve him. Matthew 6:33 has a longer form of this saying: to pursue God's kingdom is to pursue his righteousness.
Jesus offers a promise with the exhortation: God will provide these other things as well. We can major on what God desires for us because he is committed to our care.
As Jesus concludes his exhortation, he turns more directly to the application. Little flock, his address for the disciples, suggests imagery of tender, easily frightened sheep who need the care of a shepherd. Jesus is deliberate in comparing believers to these fragile creatures rather than to lions or bears. The Father is the shepherd (Ps 23), and he promises to give everything associated with the kingdom to his sheep. We may be fragile, but God promises to care for us and make us strong.
Jesus' statements here fit well in a context of persecution and rejection. Whatever risk comes from trusting Jesus, whatever ostracism and isolation, know that God will care for you. Kingdom blessing will be provided. This is not a promise of abundant material blessing but of sufficient provision to do what God really desires.
In fact, so certain can we be of this care that we can be generous with what God provides. Jesus encourages the disciples: "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" (Greek "give alms"). The stress here is on how unattached disciples should be to the world, since they serve the kingdom of God. The virtue is not in giving up one's possessions but in being generous with resources, as the mention of alms indicates (on alms see 11:41).
There are two kinds of treasure: that which grows old and rots and that which lasts. Trust in God frees us to treasure the relationships that are at the center of life. To serve for the sake of God is to live. Do we value others, so that we serve them in giving and through service? Or do we value self and things, so resources are hoarded? Jesus says, Look at your treasure and what you do with it. That will show where your heart is. Since the Father gives, so should the disciple. (Zacchaeus becomes an example of a commended giver in 19:1-10.)
Jesus is talking about our basic approach to life. Are we anxious and lacking trust in God, constantly trying to gain control of things that often are beyond our control? Or do we trust God to provide and concentrate on honoring relationships by pursuing righteousness and serving others with our resources? Two things tell us the answers to these questions: our heart and our pocketbook. Our heart can tell us if we are anxious, and our pocketbook can tell us if we are generous. Both tell us if we are trusting God.