They toil not…but then they burn?

GardenAs a teenager my parents struggled to get my brother and me to mow the lawn and trim the hedges. Over the course of my life, however, I took increasing interest in developing whatever potential our home had for growing a garden. I embraced my part with an interest that surprised even me – mowing, planting, transplanting, watering.

I daily check what Anita and I have planted. And – don’t laugh – I chat with my flowers when I water them. The bougainvillea I planted struggled at first, but with love and care, and talking to, it looks like they’ll make it. I look at flowers differently (like the picture featured here, from a planter outside the window inches from where I’m writing this note). I don’t just stare at them because they happen to come into view as I’m on my way to seeing something else. I contemplate them intentionally. I go looking for them. I don’t know what word to use other than ‘love’ to describe this, though obviously it’s not equivalent to what I feel for the people in my life. But neither is it entirely something else.

As I tended to my garden this morning, Jesus’ words in Mat 5 came to mind: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these [flowers of the field].” I paused to enjoy the moment and affirm it. How true it is that these flowers are more beautiful than any man-made jewelry. The best that we clothe human royalty in can’t exceed the flowers outside my window.

However, just then my thought was disturbed by what Jesus says immediately following his statement about the incomparable beauty of flowers: “If that [the beauty of the flowers of the field] is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?”

I’ve been thinking about this all morning. Perhaps it’s a bit of a philosophical abstraction, but I feel it personally. I talk a lot here about the theology of beauty, the implications of our perception of beauty, the redeeming/healing properties of beauty. Suddenly it bothered me that Jesus juxtaposes the incomparable beauty of flowers with their being discarded into the fire so nonchalantly. There’s no disagreeing that the beauty of flowers are a fleeting thing and that we have to discard them when they die. But for me there’s something to truly grieve here, and I don’t see the grief in Jesus’ comments. Even if the overall point is to reassure us that God will care for us more than he cares for the flowers of the field, somewhere along the line the reassurance became a warning: If the flowers are here today and tomorrow are tossed into an oven, what might happen to me? Maybe the beauty I constitute for God is disposable too. How would I know if God is OK with so obvious and excessive a beauty as flowers being here today and gone tomorrow?

I didn’t feel reassured. But I suppose the reassurance is in the fact that the flowers parallel not me but rather the clothes, food and shelter we seek for survival’s sake; so if we seek first God’s kingdom God will clothe and feed and shelter us (more than he does the grass of the field?). Well, OK. But then, I thought, seeing the beauty of flowers as exceeding Solomon’s is the Kingdom (i.e., is the Kingdom come in the shaping of our aesthetic perceptions and valuation of things). And that gets tossed into the fire? The Kingdom tosses the Kingdom? You might respond, “Well, those are flowers being tossed, not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is something else. It’s bigger and more important.” Really?

I guess my question is: How’s the passing of such beauty (the perceiving of which is the Kingdom) into the oven shape our understanding of beauty and the way we’re to value it?

6 comments on “They toil not…but then they burn?

  1. Thanks Tom,
    Who tosses them into the fire, God or us?


    • Tom says:

      We do, of course, after they die.


    • Tom says:

      I wasn’t trying to fix blame on God for the fact that we end up disposing of beautiful things; I was wondering what the fact that we do this (and the fact that it forms a part of Jesus’ argument) tells s about beauty/aesthetics.

      I’m not expressing it well.


      • Hey man,
        No, I didn’t express myself well, let me have another go.
        I don’t get from this story that God doesn’t care for this beauty, or is ambivalent toward it rather that Jesus is making the point that if God is prepared to put so much care into these things KNOWING THAT WE will just cast them away without a thought, how much must he be putting into us?
        Also the death of beauty resulting in the birth of yet more future beauty is another theme that occurs to me from this episode.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While I am not incline to push Jesus’ comparison too far here, I do think there is something to be said for not only the beauty of the infinite, but the fragile beauty of the impermanent. Like the beauty of the flower, even the splendor of Solomon’s kingdom is buried under meters of dirt in the Levant – but even these point to the longing of something more permanent than the castles of sand that we dwell in. I’ll post one of my favorite poems without further comment; it’s by Pulitzer winning poet Lisel Mueller titled In Passing:

    How swiftly the strained honey
    of afternoon light
    flows into darkness

    and the closed bud shrugs off
    its special mystery
    in order to break into blossom:

    as if what exists, exists
    so that it can be lost
    and become precious

    Liked by 1 person

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