Trinity V Year A 2020
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.
The Gospel writer tells us that when Jesus speaks of “the cares of the world” as choking off the development of faith, the Greek words that Matthew uses literally mean “being drawn in different directions”. So not the “cares of the world” in the sense of the trials and tragedies that challenge our faith. Those are referred to earlier in the parable, when Jesus speaks of the seed that falls on rocky ground. By “the cares of the world” Jesus means the kind of distractions that were bothering Martha while her sister Mary was paying single-minded attention to him; the dissipation of attention and energy in many directions. Jesus’ words here, and his words to Martha, are a call to singleness of mind and heart; a call to turn from the things which distract us.
The pandemic has in some ways simplified our lives by ruling out many pleasures and activities, and that has not been easy. We have learned to place a greater value on people of whose company we have for a time been deprived, on the creative and restorative activities that we miss and perhaps on the mundane tasks that, in normal times, we would have rushed through in order to see friends and family and pursue outdoor activities. Singleness of mind and heart is difficult at the best of times, and particularly difficult when it comes to domesticity. I have been missing the energetic young man who, until lockdown began, cleaned our house every Monday morning. Deputising for him, not always enthusiastically, and discovering that it takes me three times as long as it took him to do the work, has led to the temptation to see the dusting, polishing and hoovering as a distraction. It has also been a useful reminder that there’s a Christian tradition of seeing mundane tasks not as distractions from the spiritual life, but as a spiritual discipline. St Benedict taught that “to work is to pray”. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Friar whose wisdom is preserved in a short book called The Practice of the Presence of God, wrote that:
“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”
George Herbert also understood that wisdom.
“A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th' action fine.”
The poem from which that hymn is drawn is all about that singleness of mind and heart which is the opposite of “being drawn in different directions. Singleness of mind and heart is not necessarily a good thing. In today’s Gospel Jesus is telling his disciples that those who single- mindedly pursue “the lure of wealth” will not lead fruitful lives. And you only have to tune into the news to be reminded that there are plenty of single-issue fanatics in the world, terrorists willing to kill innocent people to further their cause, and internet trolls turning their scorn and hatred on those who disagree with them on a particular issue. The Parable of the Sower is an invitation to be single-minded in a different way. It is an invitation to hear, receive and understand “the word of the Kingdom”.
Why is that kind of single-mindedness not only acceptable, but desirable? How is it the key to the abundant living of which Jesus is the exemplar and to which he invites us? Those who single-mindedly dedicate themselves to a cause in a way which devalues or demonises people who do not share their opinions are seeking to change the world but see no need for change in themselves. Christians believe that before we can work to change the world, there is a need for change in us, for a healing of our brokenness, for the “turning around” of which Jesus speaks, and which is sometimes translated as “repentance”. That translation isn’t entirely helpful, because by “turning around” Jesus meant more than acknowledging our misdeeds, though that is essential. He invites us to a new way of living, turned towards God, and turned towards our neighbour.
That is the change that George Herbert explores in his poem The Elixir, most of which (though not quite all) has ended up in hymn books as “Teach me, my God and King.” He uses alchemy, the mediaeval and renaissance belief that it was possible to turn base metals in gold using a mysterious substance called the Philosopher’s Stone, as a metaphor for spiritual change. That is the “famous stone” to which the poem refers.
This is the verse that hymn book editors left out:
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest, And give it his perfection.
You can see why they omitted it. The meaning is far from clear to a modern reader. Herbert did not mean “rudely” in the sense of lacking good manners, but rather acting by instinct and without thinking about the consequences. “But still” means doing whatever we are doing quietly, reflectively. This is what pleases (“prepossest”) God and perfects what we do.
The poem can help us to make sense of what St Paul means when he writes:
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
This passage from Romans has sometimes been misread in a puritanical way, as though Paul was expecting his readers and us to set aside physical pleasures. It is more helpful to think of “the flesh” as the human tendency to be drawn in different directions. That might mean being so busy fuming at the lunchtime news bulletin that we eat without really enjoying our food. There’s much to be said for mindful eating and, indeed, mindful housework. Christians take mindfulness an important step further, for our calling is to be mindful of God and our neighbour in all that we do, so that activities which might once have seemed to be distractions become acts of love and service and we are enabled to find, as George Herbert put it in another poem, “Heaven in ordinary”.