The Lilies of Matthew 6

By Cassandra Farrin | 2.24.2017

“Don’t fret about your life—what you’re going to eat or drink, or about your body—what you’re going to wear,” reads Matthew 6:25–34, “There’s more to living than food or drink, isn’t there? Take a look at the birds of the sky: they don’t plant or harvest or gather into barns. Yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You’re worth more than they, aren’t you?

“Can any one of you add an hour to life by fretting about it? Why worry about clothes? Notice how the wild lilies grow: they don’t toil and they never spin. But let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of them. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and thrown in an oven tomorrow, won’t you even more, you with your meager trust?”

I have a morning poetry habit, and I was reading Rilke for a while, but lately I’ve returned to Walt Whitman. The two poets share a sense of belonging to the expansive world and celebrating it, often collapsing God and world into one, but for me Whitman is the epitome of this passage from Matthew 6. Here are a few words from his gorgeously sensual 1855 version of Leaves of Grass: “I am satisfied . . . . I see, dance, laugh, sing; / As God comes a loving bedfellow and sleeps at my side all night and close on the peep of day, / And leaves for me baskets covered in white towels bulging the house with their plenty, / Shall I postpone my acceptance and realization and scream at my eyes, / That they turn from gazing after and down the road, / And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent, / Exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?”

Here the narrator imagines himself lying with God, sharing the night. Perhaps they were close as good friends are close, whiling the night away in conversation, perhaps lovers whether homoerotic or not—God is not a “he” here, though many of the bodies celebrated by Whitman are—or perhaps mystically in the spirit of Teresa of Avila: “God / dissolved / my mind – my separation. / I cannot describe my intimacy with Him. / How dependent is your body’s life on water and food and air? / I said to God, ‘ I will always be unless you cease to Be,’ / And my Beloved replied, ‘And I / would cease to Be / if you /died.’” (In the same spirit Rilke declared, “Even when we don’t desire it, / God is ripening.”)

The ripening in Whitman is of baskets of food, an allusion to Jesus’ multiplication of loaves of bread into enough to feed the masses. It’s a nice juxtaposition with Matthew 6 because it brings together trust and abundance. Don’t fret … there is plenty. What I particularly love about Whitman’s rendition, though, is the anguished question about how he should respond to the gift of the baskets “bulging the house with their plenty,” shared here again, but in verse:

Shall I postpone my acceptance and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the contents of one, and exactly the contents of two, and which is ahead?

What I love about this is that Whitman is gazing “after and down the road,” presumably in search of God, longing for the one who has departed. He's posing a rhetorical question for us: Should I stop myself from longing to chase after God and instead catalog this gift I’ve been given, down to the cent?

I could paraphrase, would it be ungrateful to wish I still had you?

Whitman captures the “consider the lilies” passage of Matthew 6 in the most optimistic sense possible because he acknowledges that human beings are not all just whiling away their hours fretting for nothing. The commonplace reading of Matthew 6 is to stop at a curmudgeonly idea of human character as frivolous in its worries rather than deeply invested. I like to think we worry because we care so deeply, for one another and for the world. In the original meaning of the Matthew 6 passage, is a more optimistic reading possible, given that, after all, one is to "seek God's empire and his justice first, and all these things will come to you as a bonus"? I like that Whitman implies such a good conflict at heart: I want to be with you, my love, but you’ve left me a gift in your absence and I also want to cherish that. In other words, the person in Matthew 6 who wants food and clothes must have enough hope to bother caring, so the fretting isn’t inherently void of meaning: one can both cherish the gift and happily chase the giver.

Bibliography

Ladinsky, David. Love Poems from God. New York, NY: Penguin, 2002. [Original: 16th century]

Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels. 4th ed. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Book of Hours: Love Poems to God. Trans. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 1996. [Original: 1905]

Schmidgall, Gary, ed. Walt Whitman. Selected Poems 1855–1892: A New Edition. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing Director of Westar and Editor of Polebridge Press. Her poetic retelling of the Nag Hammadi text "On the Origin of the World" is forthcoming in Gender Violence, Rape Culture, and Religion (Palgrave McMillan). A US-UK Fulbright Scholar with more than ten years' experience with cross-cultural and interfaith engagement, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University.

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
1 reply
  1. Gene Stecher says:

    Hi Cassandra,

    Have you considered that the lilies passage might be all tongue in cheek, a poetic farce. After all, in “real life,” no one would suggest being unconcerned about the need for one’s own effort to meet basic needs. The story about the Shrewd Manager certainly pictures a man acting in a panic, but goal directed, to avoid having to turn to begging.

    Or perhaps this passage is a hint at ideas of communal life which developed in the early church, a common sharing of resources to assure survival, while awaiting the Son of Man’s return.

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