By Marc Turnage
Jesus lived during the tumultuous days of the first century, in which the Jewish people lived under Roman occupation: a situation that created political, economic, and social unrest. In the midst of this turmoil, He instructed His followers, “Do not be anxious about your life … do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:25,341). He reflected a stream of thought that emerged within Judaism that emphasized the holiness of the present day. Each day contains its own sanctity; therefore, we should praise God for the present. This ideology did not come from a utopian ideal; rather, it emerged from a creative exegesis of Exodus 16:4 and a profound conviction about the character and nature of God, who is intimately a part of human history and the source for all sustenance.
The contemporary, first-century B.C. sages, Shammai and Hillel, provide a contrast of ideologies regarding the sanctity of the present day: “It was told of Shammai the Elder: Whenever he found a fine portion he said, ‘This will be for the Sabbath.’ If later he found a finer one, he put aside the second for the Sabbath, and ate the first; thus, whatever he ate, was meant for the honor of the Sabbath. But Hillel the Elder had a different way, for all his works were for the sake of Heaven; he used to say: ‘Blessed be the Lord day by day’ ” (b. Betzah 16a).
Hillel’s actions stemmed from his view that one should praise God for the present because of the sanctity of each day, which he derived from Psalm 68:19, “Blessed be the Lord, day by day.” Hillel’s emphasis on the sanctity of the present day expresses a firm belief and an unrelenting trust in God. Hillel’s understanding of praising God only for the present day and its provision is reflected in his interpretation of another psalm: “Hillel the Elder used to say: ‘Bad news shall have no terror for him (i.e., the righteous man), because his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord’ (Psalm 112:7). He who is trusting in the Lord, bad news shall have no terror for him” (y. Berachot 14b). Whether or not the bad news is true, according to Hillel, one who trusts in God becomes immune to bad news because such a person cannot be “anxious about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34).
Hillel’s emphasis on the immediacy of the day and God’s provision recalls the miracle of manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16:4–10) where God commanded the Children of Israel to go out “and gather enough for that day.” The people had to depend on God for their daily sustenance: “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not” (Exodus 16:4). Later, Moses recalled the ordeal of the Children of Israel in the wilderness recounting God’s provision for them: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna ... in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:2,3; cf. also Luke 4:4).
Commenting on the phrase “a day’s portion every day” (Exodus 16:4), Rabbi Eleazar of Modiin said, “This means that a man may not gather on one day the portion for the next day. … He who created the day has also created its sustenance. … He who has enough to eat for today and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ Behold he is of little faith” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 16:4). Similarly, Rabbi Eleazar the Great said, “Everyone who has food in his basket today and says, ‘What will I eat tomorrow?’ — behold, he is among those of little faith!” (b. Sotah 48b).
Philo, the first-century Jewish historian who wrote from Alexandria, Egypt, interpreted the episode of the manna as an expression of faith: “He that would fain have all at once earns for himself lack of hope and trust, as well as a great lack of sense. He lacks hope if he expects that now only, but not in the future also, will God shower on him good things; he lacks faith, if he has no belief that both in the present and always the good gifts of God are lavishly bestowed on those worthy of them” (Leg. All. 3.164).
Philo, Eleazar of Modiin, and Eleazar the Great, like Jesus, all identified those worrying about the sustenance of “tomorrow” as “those of little faith,” while in contrast, faith is an unrelenting trust in God for today as the giver and sustainer of life, letting “the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:34). In another passage, Philo articulated the essence of this conviction: “We have gladly received and are storing the boons of nature, yet we do not ascribe our preservation to any corruptible thing, but to God the Parent and Father and Savior of the world and all that is therein, who has the power and right to nourish and sustain us by means of these or without these” (Spec. leg. 2.198).
Jesus embraced this worldview: “O you of little faith! Therefore do not be anxious, saying: ‘What shall we eat,’ or ‘What shall we drink,’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ … For ... your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. ... Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matthew 6:25–34; see Luke 12:22–31). The first part of Jesus’ saying, where He highlights God’s care for the “birds of the air” and the “flowers of the field” is similar to a saying of Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar: “In all the days of your life have you ever seen a wild animal or a bird laboring in a vocation? Yet, they are provided for without anxiety. They were created to serve me, but I was created to serve my Maker. How much more then should I be provided for without anxiety” (m. Kiddushin 4:14). By recalling God’s provision for animals, both Jesus and Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar emphasize God’s care for humanity, and, by extension, enjoin their followers not to be anxious.
In the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:11), Jesus drew a more radical conclusion from the idea that the present day contains its own blessing: “Give us this day our daily bread.” He instructed His disciples that when they pray, they should pray only for the food of today. Jesus’ mention of “daily bread” recalls God’s daily provision for the Children of Israel through the miracle of manna. Behind the Greek phrase “daily bread” lies the Hebrew idiom, חוקינו לחם, literally “the bread (or food) that is needful for us.”2 By instructing them to pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” He articulated their dependence on God and a deep trust in Him as the daily source of provision. To seek His provision beyond the day expresses anxiety, which, for Jesus, marks one as being “of little faith.”
Jesus’ outlook stemmed from His deep trust in God as the source of all provision. He expected His followers to concern themselves with those things that mattered to God, for it was God’s responsibility to care for the daily needs of His children: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (i.e., what we shall eat, drink, and wear) shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:33). According to Jesus and His Jewish contemporaries, God’s reign (Kingdom) was established wherever His people obey Him, and His righteousness appears wherever His people show charity (almsgiving) to others in need. According to Jesus, if we focus on those things important to God, He will take care of our daily needs. Jesus’ message grew out of His conviction of blessing God for the present day.
Like Jesus, Hillel used to stand in the gate of the city seeking to bring others near to the Torah: “He [Hillel] stood in the gate of Jerusalem and met people going to work. He asked, ‘How much will you earn today?’ One said, ‘A denarius,’ the other said, ‘Two denarii.’ He asked them, ‘What will you do with the money?’ They answered, ‘We will pay for the necessities of life.’ Then he replied, ‘Why don’t you rather come with me and gain knowledge of the Torah, that you may gain life in this world and life in the world-to-come?’ Thus Hillel was wont to do all his days and has brought many under the wings of Heaven” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan version A 27, version B 26). Hillel, like Jesus, did not want people to act irresponsibly in their duties; rather, he sought to remind his contemporaries that their first responsibility was to God, the true sustainer of the day (Matthew 6:33).
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai commented on Exodus 16:4, “Only to those who have manna to eat is it given to study the Torah. For behold, how can a man be sitting and studying when he does not know where his food and drink will come from, nor where he can get his clothes and coverings?” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 16:4). Rabbi Shimon’s saying uniquely conveys the idea: only the one who rightly understands God’s daily provision can be a true student of the Torah. The one worrying about the necessities of the day misses the heart of the Torah, which communicates God’s character, nature, and desires.
We live in challenging days, in a world gripped by fear and restless anxiety. Into such a world, Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” To His first-century audience, He compared those “of little faith” to Gentiles, pagans, who did not believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I was sitting in the Jerusalem home of the late Professor David Flusser and listening to him say, “All of Jesus’ teaching can be summarized in one word, ‘Relax.’ ” This is not born out of the “power of positive thinking,” but rather comes from a deep and abiding confidence and trust in God. By looking at Jesus’ words within the context of first-century Judaism, we gain insight into the character of His faith and the source of His convictions.
If those who follow Jesus allow the anxiety and worry generated within our world to overcome them, how are we any different from those around us? What difference does our relationship with God make? When Jesus commanded His disciples, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16), He expected that His disciples’ relationship with God would stand out as a beacon to those around them. What would the impact be on our world if people around us saw us reflect the deep and unrelenting trust in God expressed in the words: “Give us this day our daily bread”? In everyone’s life, God leads us into the wilderness. Sometimes it even feels like He abandons us there. Even in these times, Jesus taught us to look to God as the source and provision of life, to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” to “not be anxious about tomorrow,” and finally to pray, “Our Father in heaven. ... Give us this day our daily bread!” So, relax, and be well.
1. All Scripture verses are author’s translation or paraphrase.
2. This unusual Hebrew phrase appears in the words of Agur from the Book of Proverbs: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that I need (חוקי לחם)” (Proverbs 30:8). Jesus’ allusion to Proverbs 30:8 most certainly recalled the entire context of Proverbs 30:8,9 into the minds of His disciples.