Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Birdwatching Spirituality

posted by xscot mcknight

What Jesus taught from watching birds has troubled me for some time. I wonder how you explain it. Before I say anything, let this question be asked because this is what troubles me: in what sense is it true that God provides for all those who trust in him by focusing on kingdom? What about the many Christians who starve or who die of nutrition or whose clothing is inadequate? Is it really so simple as (what the Germans call a) Spaziergang in the park or a light stroll on a Sunday afternoon? Is this teaching simply about provisions in general? Or is it contextually limited?
I learned, while in Seminary, to be a birdwatcher from Kris’ grandma. Shortly thereafter, we got a Roger Tory Peterson Field Guide to Birds East of the Rockies and it has been continually updated ever since. John Stott is perhaps the most well-known ministerial birdwatcher (see his book, The Birds our Teachers or something like that. And Peter O’Brien, the Aussie NT scholar, is also a birder of some distinction. I have a picture Peter once took of a hummingbird. Mine, however is not so refined and is one of amateurish enjoyment, but I do like birds. So did Jesus. In fact, he found them iconic.
Here is what Jesus saw “through” the birds:
1. Pagans worry about the material realities of life too much.
2. Birds don’t; flowers are more beautiful than the clothing of humans.
3. Therefore, do not worry about your food or your drink or what you will wear.
4. Because God, who loves you, will look after you — especially if he looks after birds and flowers.
5. So spend your time on the kingdom of God.
I’ll not get romantic here, which some have a tendency to do — nor will I extrapolate things about spirituality from what they’ve learned about birds. Jesus’ point is far simpler than the many things said of him. All he says that God cares for them, and he’ll care for us.
And Jesus says that, since God provides, his followers can unreservedly devote themselves to the kingdom of God and God’s justice — God will look after them as they pursue that kingdom and that justice.
Perhaps the only way out of the obvious problem this text forces upon us is to say that it applies to the followers of Jesus in their missional work of spreading kingdom living to other Israelites. And it was limited to that sort of context. That is, in a context of general provisions, the followers are summoned to suspend caring about their needs, spread the kingdom, and let God provide.
Does this work for your view of the text?

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posted January 20, 2006 at 7:08 am

I think you are limiting it too much. I think the promise is broader, but in the U.S. we have a tendency to make it too broad and develop a “name it, claim it, stomp on it and frame it” mentality. So, perhaps your limiting it is a healthy corrective…idle musings. Thanks for always being provocative and forcing me to think.

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Duane Young

posted January 20, 2006 at 7:45 am

Generally, Yes. But the difficult part is working on the spread of the kingdom. Is his promise intended to be equally efficacious to “do the work?” When we go way out on a limb to advance the Kingdom, will he always “rescue” us? It gets scary!
And speaking of birds–when my children were young I ran across this little ditty from Victor Hugo and taught them each to memorize and recite it; it fits this lesson, I think:
Be like the bird,
Who halting in his flight
On limb too slight
Feels it give way beneath him.
Yet sings,
Knowing he has wings.

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posted January 20, 2006 at 8:30 am

“What about the many Christians who starve or who die of nutrition or whose clothing is inadequate?”
(I know there’s no way to say this without looking like a typical ivory-tower Yank X’ian who’s had the cultural wool pulled over his eyes, but here goes):
I’m not trying to be argumentative, but to whom are you referring? Do you know of Christians who have starved to death, or is it an assumption? In my brief experience with some of the poorest communities of believers in Latin America, I’ve always taken great comfort in Psalm 37, particularly because it affirms my own observations regarding the household of faith:

If the LORD delights in a man’s way,
he makes his steps firm;
though he stumble, he will not fall,
for the LORD upholds him with his hand.
I was young and now I am old,
yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.


To these eyes, that has always been one of the urgent beauties of Christian community. As in Acts 2, where they “were together and had everything in common,” so it is the natural bent of new creations to care for those with whom they are in fellowship.
If I am a Pollyanna, forgive me, but your supposition rattles the door of my long-held assumption about this.

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posted January 20, 2006 at 8:54 am

My question in regards to that text is how does a believer in say Ethiopia, or Sudan understand that text? Is the way in which God cares for them different than say those in the US? How does cultural context play into the interpretation of this text?

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Scot McKnight

posted January 20, 2006 at 9:04 am

Precisely the issue; hence my concern to contextualize the sayings of Jesus.

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posted January 20, 2006 at 9:17 am

I am so interested in this. It came to my attention again as I was reading (I think) the Divine Hours morning prayers and this passage was included. I thought about the starving, homeless, orphaned people of the world and how God clothes them. Also, do we focus on the kingdom and trust God will provide or do we meticulously raise funds to provide for our kingdom ministry? I will be following this blog.

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Duane Young

posted January 20, 2006 at 9:43 am

I am wondering if the original language, especially in verse 33, gives any clue as to a) the timing of the provision to be expected, or, b) whether physical needs are the exclusive focus of this discussion or whether the matter can be/must be spiritualized. Any thoughts?

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posted January 20, 2006 at 11:42 am

The interpretation I have found most helpful over the years (thought I’m not sure it follows the reasoning of the text from A to Z) is to think that our work in spreading God’s Kingdom is one of the ways that God works to care for the needs of others. It is only through the work of our hands that others who have nothing are cared for. Can we see this as an invitation to participate in the reality of the Kingdom and to join God in his work of caring for the world?

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J. B. Hood

posted January 20, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Great comment–I think that’s related to Matthew 19:28-29; we inherit so much because of the way the Xian community is supposed to provide for one another. Scot has a killer quote on Paul’s collection for the poor from IVP’s Dict Paul and his Letters, I think, that’s relevant, although I could be thinking of someone else.
Anyway, back to the birds. One point, at least, is that I need a heart oriented in the right way far more than I need anything else–even if I’m on the brink of dying and under extreme temptation (see Matthew 4!). Jesus says that life is more than food and drink and clothing–this is true whether I have these things or not. If they’re really what I need, He’ll provide them without fail. If not, I still have him and the promise of future inheritance (which Jesus applies to Ps 37, Dorsey–see Matt 5:5). Phil 4:11-13 and other Pauline passages suggest that Paul leaned this direction. Divine grace via corporate grace, divine grace in provision, and divine grace in the absence of provision are all possible for the Christian.
The passage is framed by exhortation to 1) not worry and 2) seek the Kingdom, so that our trust in the Father and concentration on other matters take precedence over the sometimes myopic focus on “what I need.” I say this as someone who taught the poorest kids in America for four years, and who sruggles with trust in God’s provision in my own life. I, and they, desperately need to hear this over and over again.

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Scot McKnight

posted January 20, 2006 at 2:49 pm

Jim and Julie,
I agree; God expects us to care for others. The issue that must be faced is this one: “Where was God?” My own theory, though at one time I thought the community provision was the heart of the issue, is that this text has to be limited in its general import: Jesus is talking to follower for whom starvation and the like were not an issue. Food was there, but it would come to them by trusting God to provide through those who responded to the gospel.
Your point gets at this from other texts (I believe in life everlasting), but does not really solve the issue for this text. At least as I see it.

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posted January 20, 2006 at 3:24 pm

I look at this section the way I view the entire sermon: Jesus isn’t stating “laws” for people (or for God or the universe as a whole) in the sense we tend to think of it, but, similar to the proverbs, he is giving insights to a reality (the kingdom, in which God, the Father, is the major player) that generally hold true. For example, I don’t think that getting our way with God is a simple matter of “keep on asking”, but that the passage still reveals an important aspect of God’s character that Jesus thinks we need to know and act upon. He’s getting us out of our pagan (or now, darwinian) thinking and the ethics that go with it by accurately describing a reality we can enter, and telling us what actions make sense in that reality.
And I agree that there is something of an implied mission limitation in the “seek first” language, but not in the narrow way we typically think of what joining him in mission means. I think the danger of adding too much of a mission limitation to “seek first” is that people will hear that this promise of provision only applies to “full-time minister” types, while the rest of us are stuck in a darwinian reality. I think there’s a bigger integration of average people’s lives with this verse that’s possible and encouraged here and now. I personally left a law firm to start my own practice to create time and freedom to “seek first the kingdom” in and out of my practice of law. The short version is that he pays the bills. “Trust Jesus” has become and is becoming the holistic enterprise that I had hoped and believed it could be.
Quick note, I’ve always taken this passage to be a serious announcement that the curse was being undone, that we were invited out of it (back into the reign of God). I took the healings and raising from the dead to be further evidence of that–of what the kingdom is like. This isn’t name it and claim it; it’s the general character of the kingdom that has come (back) to earth. Good news, right? Thanks for the post.

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Scot McKnight

posted January 20, 2006 at 3:29 pm

Good thoughts. Your point about not restricting it too much, or applying it to full time ministry, is a good one. My post is open to that, but in my mind is more the missional sense of his followers.

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posted January 20, 2006 at 3:56 pm

I think I get your point and from a personal standpoint that’s how this text worked out in my life…this text was one of the fundamental texts that changed my mind about pursuing a call to the ministry.
I was struggling with the call to go to seminary and threw out all sorts of material excuses “I’ve got too much debt”, “I’m 30 and not married (as if only married MEN could be called to ministery!)”, etc.
I remember one day reading this passage in Bible Study and coming under the conviction that surely if God is calling me to ministry God will provide everything I needed to make that calling a reality in my life.
Now, I didn’t immediately rush off to school at that point, but that was my first surrender to God’s call and provided me with the impetus to set somethings right in my life.

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Faith K.`

posted January 22, 2006 at 4:20 pm

You got me thinking, Why are so many people in the world starving? Are we as Christians (Christ workers) doing our job 100 percent or are we letting Christ down? Why can’t people in a rich country like the USA share with those that are starving? Or are we letting those other countries down? Is this scripture to just be applied on a personal basis? Or should we visit these countries to personnally help out? Does Jesus just want us to realize that he has our back? Or should we concentrate on feeding the world missions? What was the first mission assignned to the first christian? Or didn’t it fail when Ananias lied (Acts 5) to the Holy Spirit? Were no more added to the church in common after this (Acts 5:13)! Or have we forgotten our calling in Matthew 28:18-20? If we get these answers correct, would we add to the church? Or are we so divided in My church and your church that we’ll never get this right? Or my idea and your idea? You know if we got that last one right, what would happen? I’m thinking, but which road should this pilgrim go down?

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