Sermon Starter

Key texts: Matthew 6 v 25-29 and Matthew 10 v 28-31

Maslow turned upside down

These two short extracts from Matthew’s Gospel are part of the teaching material that is also found in Luke but not in Mark (or John). There are a variety of views on the origin of this material but it is agreed that much of it is in the form of Jewish wisdom teaching.  The reference to lilies (krina) in 6:28 conjures up strong associations with the Song of Songs (where they are mentioned six times) and, if this weren’t enough, immediately afterwards there is an explicit reference to Solomon, the archetypal wise man. All this alerts us to the fact that Jesus is talking about wisdom. The first passage is about life wisdom and the second passage is about death wisdom.

This is about growing up to be who we were meant to be. Scholars argue about whether the word translated ‘hour’ (v.27) is actually a unit of length. But the ambiguity holds an important truth. Jesus is telling his listeners that they need to come to full maturity (Matthew 5:48), and this means both being riper in years and taller in stature.

What does this look like in practice? Fundamentally, it seems to involve getting one’s priorities right. It’s not that food and clothing are not good (this is made clear in v32) but that there is something even more important. This kind of wisdom inverts Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy,[1] which assumes that basic needs (for physiological sustenance and physical safety) have to be met before one is in a position to engage with higher needs for belonging and self-worth, which in their turn must be met before one has a chance to achieve self-actualisation. Jesus seems to be telling his hearers exactly the opposite: to go for the ultimate values embodied in the programme he calls the Kingdom of God; if we do this we will find that these other needs will also be met. This is subversive wisdom.

Subversive wisdom makes us anxious because it goes against conventional norms; and anxiety means that we cannot pay full attention to what is really important. That is why Jesus warns against worry and fear. Interestingly, his argument is centred on one of Maslow’s needs: self-worth. We do not need to be afraid because we are worth something; we matter. This doesn’t depend on anything that we do. We matter because everything in creation matters to God and is under his sovereign authority; even little birds that you can buy two-a-penny; even ephemeral wild flowers. God is seen to have taken great trouble in creating these things (another theme from the Hebrew wisdom literature), endowing them with beauty and providing them with sustenance as part of the natural order. This is equally true of humanity, the crown of creation, but even more so because we have been bought at great cost (1 Corinthians 6v20). God thought we were worth that.

The reference to the hairs of our heads in 6v30 seems to indicate that God is focused on the individual. He has created each flower, each bird, each person, each hair. He has made us each unique (Psalm 139v13-16), and that seems to be part of the reason that we are so precious to him. Yet Jesus talks about lilies and birds in the plural, and all the ‘you’s in these passages are Greek plurals. Just as each flower has its place in the ecosystem that is the meadow, and each bird has its place in the flock, so we each have our unique place as a worker for the Kingdom of God, our unique place as a member of the body of Christ, our unique place in the cosmos. And here we are back with Maslow, who identifies ‘belonging’ as a major human need, closely related to love. God shows his love for us by coming to pitch his tent among us and redeeming us through his death; but he also shows it by drawing us into a community whose members are enough like us to gives us a sense of solidarity, yet different enough from us that we can find our unique place, and with it, dignity.

This message of the Kingdom as an inverted Maslow’s triangle is important for all people, but it is a particularly powerful message for those who are in situations of poverty, chronic sickness, political oppression, exploitation, and persecution without hope of human intervention (Jesus’ original audience). It tells us that we can still grow up into self-actualisation – a life full of dignity and meaning – even if many of our basic needs have not been met. And of course this is the story of so many of the great saints, creative geniuses, and political reformers of history: we can triumph over our circumstances and be liberated from them. This is perhaps what Jesus is emphasising in 6v28; if others deprive us of food, clothing, safety, love, belonging, and self-worth, we need not despair because we belong to Christ, who gives us all.

And if we are fortunate enough to have most of these material and social blessings, like many in the developed west, we do not need to be afraid of losing them. We are freed from lives dominated by anxiety for the future and, above all, by the threat of death. Once we grasp this deep truth about the kingdom we no longer live under death’s dominion. Living out this reality means that we cannot be forced to do anything because the ultimate sanction – fear – has been removed. We are no longer slaves but we give of ourselves freely (Matthew 5v39-41; John 10v18), and we do this not on our own but as salt and yeast in company with other kingdom people. Here the economy of the kingdom flies in the face of conventional logic; these free acts of self-giving don’t, as we might expect, serve to perpetuate the unjust structures of this world, but – as Mary proclaims in the Magnificat – to challenge, break down, and ultimately transform them.

[1] A. Maslow (1954). Motivation and personality. New York: Harper.

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