Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

Considering the Lilies of the Field

Posted by • May 15th, 2009

In a previous issue, I distinguished between two approaches human beings have used to understand the world around them: mythical thinking (mythos) and logical thinking (logos). Other writers have made similar distinctions using different labels like subjective/objective, romantic/classical, or idealistic/pragmatic. Many scholars have adopted the mythos label because this type of thinking about the world often leads thinkers to produce mythical narratives, but I think it is worth noting that many of the products of mythical thinking are not narratives at all. Proverbs and other aphoristic sayings often result from the same intuitive, subjective approach to understanding the world as myths do. Using analogies and metaphors, puns and riddles, mythical thinkers communicate their poetic insights or challenge their hearers to consider their world differently.

In this article, I want to look at a non-narrative teaching from the well-known “Sermon on the Mount” in the Gospel of Matthew, written sometime before the end of the first-century CE. This teaching, attributed in the text to Jesus of Nazareth, results from using mythos to think about an object found in the natural world, lilies growing in the wild:

Why are you worried about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? (Matthew 6:28-30)

Speaking to an audience worried about clothing (as well as food and other necessities, according to the surrounding passages), Jesus used the lilies of the field to turn them away from worry to trusting in God. It may have even been from observing and meditating on the beauty of the lilies of the field that Jesus first felt through intuition that the world was sustained by a compassionate creator who related to humanity as a loving father (Weeden 85). Jesus’s teaching works analogically, finding similarities between lilies and humans. God created and cares for both lilies and humans. Looking at the lilies, we can see that God cares enough for them to clothe them: since God cares more for humans, we can then extend the similarities to conclude that God will also clothe humans.

However, if we look at this teaching from the perspective of logos — as if it were a philosophical argument — we would have to conclude that it is unsound. Most importantly, lilies do not actually have any clothes. It might seem natural to understand their petals or their beauty metaphorically as clothing, but metaphor lies outside the realm of pure logos. If we want to prove that God will give humans literal clothing, we cannot begin the argument with a premise about metaphorical clothing. Another problem arises when we look at another logical conclusion that should follow from the analogy. If God cares more for Solomon than for lilies, shouldn’t God clothe Solomon more gloriously than them? But Jesus said this is not the case. If God clothes Solomon less gloriously than the lilies, how much less gloriously will God clothe other humans?

Looking through the results of a quick Google search reveals that even today Jesus’s teaching about the lilies of the field provides instruction and inspiration to people from diverse backgrounds, Christian and non-Christian alike. I imagine that this popularity comes from the fact that Jesus’s observations resonate with the feelings and intuitive insights of others.  Some may reject Jesus as a bad logician based on an analysis like the one above, but I think treating this teaching as a product of mythical thinking provides a better way to understand it and appreciate its meaning than to treat is as a product of logical thinking.

This is not to say that analogies are illogical: indeed, they start from a set of known similarities and proceed logically to derive unknown similarities. However, these known similarities are not observed in the same way that scientific phenomena are observed: often these similarities are hidden, obscure, or metaphorical. The thought process that uncovers these hidden connections and produces these analogies is more akin to the thought process that produces myths (mythos, mythical thinking) than to the thought process that produces scientific experiments and philosophical proofs (logos, logical thinking).

Jesus observed that God gives clothes to lilies without the lilies toiling or spinning, which has caused many Biblical commentators over the years a great deal of concern. One might easily conclude from this observation that God will also provide humans with clothes without the humans working for them — maybe humans should even stop working to be more like the lilies of the field. This conclusion would contradict other passages in the Bible, however, particularly instructions about working by St. Paul; it would also be socially disruptive. St. Augustine, writing in the late fourth century CE, addressed this concern in two ways. First, he pointed out that since God has given humans the ability to work, the results of our working should still be seen as God’s provision:

Concerning birds of the air and lilies of the field […] no man may think that God careth not for the needs of His servants ; when His most wise Providence reacheth unto these in creating and governing those. For it must not be deemed that it is not He that feeds and clothes them also which work with their hands. (“On the Work of Monks” ¶35)

Second, he pointed out that the similarities Jesus observed between humans and lilies (that God created and cares for both) do not extend into their capacity for work: no lilies can work, but humans can work. There are some similarities between humans and lilies, and those similarities include the fact that God will clothe them both. But there are also obvious differences, and those include the mechanism God uses to clothe them: lilies, God clothes naturally; humans, God clothes through the works of their own hands. But some humans, like lilies, do not have the ability for work; Augustine did think that God would provide for these humans in the same way God provides for lilies:

If any […] shall raise a question concerning the birds of the air, which sow not nor reap nor gather into stores, and concerning lilies of the field that they toil not neither do they spin; [Christ’s disciples and others] will easily answer, If we also, by reason of any either infirmity or occupation cannot work, He will so feed and clothe us, as he does the birds and the lilies. (“On the Work of Monks” ¶36)

All this uncertainty and subjectivity might make logos-thinkers nervous. If we cannot look at the lilies of the field and conclude — in some objective and universal way, for all people at all times — that God will provide all humans clothing, then what good is this teaching? I will close with an example particularly relevant in these recessionary times: should we worry about losing our jobs? Using mythos, some people might look at the lilies of the field and decide not to worry because God will provide. Others might decide to quit their jobs and stop working altogether because God will provide even if they don’t work, while still others might decide that they should worry because God takes better care of the lilies than humans. Using logos, many people will look at the stock market or the unemployment rate: for some, the likelihood that they will lose their jobs will be above some threshold that causes them to worry; for others, it won’t. Others, also using logos, might instead look at psychology studies and decide not to worry because people who worry are unhappy, less likely to perform well at work, and more likely to lose the job they are worried about losing. Worry is a subjective response to the world, and even those using the objective tools of logos can respond to it differently. The more subjective and intuitive approach of mythical thinking seems well-suited to address this subjectivity: Jesus, as a mythos-thinker, shares his intuitive insights gleaned from observing the world with others in order to affect their subjective experiences of it, to turn them from worrying to trusting in God.

Works Cited

3 Responses »

  1. Hey Randy, we’re watching You Can’t Take It With You tonight (one of my very very very favorite movies) – and I had forgotten about this great “lilies of the field” reference in there; Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff is trying to lure a man named Poppins away from his tedious accounting job so that he can come live in the big old house where Grandpa and all his family and friends just do whatever they want – for the sheer joy of it. Here is how Grandpa explains it to Mr. Poppins – and when in the next scene Mr. Poppins joins Grandpa in the elevator he says, “I’m a lily!”

    Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: How would you like to come over to our house and work on your gadgets? Poppins: Your house? Well I don’t know, thank you. Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: Oh go on, you’ll love it. Everybody at over at our place does just what he wants to do. Poppins: Really? Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: Mmm-hmmmm. Poppins: That must be wonderful. But how would I live? Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: The same way we do. Poppins: The same way? Well who takes care of you? Grandpa Martin Vanderhoff: The same One that takes care of the lilies of the field, Mr. Poppins, except that we toil a little, spin a little, have a barrel of fun. If you want to, come on over and become a lily too.

  2. Laura, what a wonderful movie that is! My father-in-law had recommended it to us I don’t know how many times, and we finally saw it sometime last year. It was so wonderful, too, to see Lionel Barrymore playing a part so different from his more notorious turn in It’s a Wonderful Life, eight years later.

  3. Jason, Lionel Barrymore is one of my film heroes! As his arthritis got worse and worse (and he also suffered broken hip), he still kept on acting – on crutches (which they wrote into the script of You Can’t Take It With You – it was not part of the Broadway play), and then later in the wheelchair. There are two AMAZING films of his I can recommend – Captains Courageous (a beautiful film for which I think Spencer Tracy may have won an Academy Award), and also On Borrowed Time. On Borrowed Time is a film worthy of Journey to the Sea – a mythological encounter with Death himself, who climbs up in Lionel Barrymore’s apple tree and doesn’t come down! It’s a gem: