Today’s Gospel reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is Mark 4:1-20 – Jesus’ parable of the sower.
As Jesus outlines the various soils that the seed of the word falls on, he says that some falls among “thorns.” The seed that falls here produces plants, but the thorns grow up and choke the plants, so they don’t bear grain.
The thorns that choke us
In other words, the thorns create a situation where the plant is allowed to grow, but it never actually produces any fruit. The plants never become fully mature, able to fulfill their function and reproduce. There’s no real fruit there, just an inert plant.
Jesus explains the parable to his disciples, and names these thorns that make the word unfruitful in people’s lives. He says they are:
- The worries of this life,
- The deceitfulness of wealth, and
- The desires for other things.
To alliterate this (probably something I attempt a little too much), the thorns that choke us and make our lives unfruitful are Worry, Wealth, and Wanting.
So even if we are “hearing the Word,” if we don’t do something about these thorns, we’ll never produce the fruit we were made to produce. We have to find a way to deal with these fruit-choking thorns.
The disciplines of Lent confront the thorns
I was struck as I read this today that the traditional disciplines of Lent (prayer, giving, and fasting) directly confront each of these thorns in turn.
Since we’re in the middle of Lent, let’s explore how each of these dynamics works.
Worry confronted by prayer
The first thorn Jesus mentions is “the worries of this life.” Every day we’re confronted with a thousand things to worry about. Will we make enough money this month? What will the diagnosis be? Will I get the promotion? Will my spouse be in a good mood when I get home? What if my kid gets bullied at school? What if my boss won’t let me take the extra days off?
When we allow these worries to run their course, we find ourselves constantly stewing internally about them. We map out scenarios and create contingency plans and try to foresee every eventuality. But in the end it doesn’t actually help us. The disasters we try to anticipate rarely occur, and we’re rarely prepared for the bad things that actually happen to us.
The worries of this life choke us! The Lenten discipline of prayer can help us.
Prayer is intentionally participating in the life of God, walking with him, listening to him, both in solitude and in community. The Apostle Paul helps us understand what to do with worry in these words to the church in Philippi:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:6-7).
We worry reflexively. We don’t really intend to worry, it’s just a habit we’ve developed. We’ve practiced it for a long time, so it happens more or less “automatically.”
But we have something we can do about it. When a concern presents itself to us, instead of diving into worry, we can pray. Whatever we’re concerned about can be brought before God by prayer and petition (with thanksgiving, don’t forget).
The result will be that the peace of God guards our hearts. Our anxiety dissolves into trust as we learn to pray instead of worry.
The deceitfulness of wealth confronted by giving
The second thorn Jesus names is “the deceitfulness of wealth.” Not just wealth, but its deceitfulness. In other words, wealth is dangerous because it’s deceitful. It tends to give us the impression that we have everything we need.
Having a lot of money isn’t wrong per se, but it will always pull you toward believing that your life consists in the abundance of your possessions (Luke 12:15), that “you have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” But it’s a lie.
The deceitfulness of wealth chokes us. The Lenten discipline of giving can help us.
Giving is direct participation in the generosity of God through giving away our resources in love to our neighbor. The deceitfulness of wealth convinces us that we should “build bigger barns” with our surplus, but giving to others helps to break the lie of wealth and remind us that we rely on God and one another for our life.
The desires for other things confronted by fasting
The final thorn Jesus mentions is what he calls “the desires for other things.” He seems to be referring to our tendency to get attached to things or relationships in unhealthy ways.
It could be an attachment to food (eating ice cream when you’re stressed) or drink (several glasses of wine to take the edge off the anxiety). It could be an attachment to “being connected” (you break out in cold sweats if you can’t find your phone or haven’t checked social media all day).
We look to objects and people that aren’t God to give us what only God can give (identity, significance, and security).
These “desires for other things” choke us, but the Lenten discipline of fasting can help us.
Fasting is the intentional abstaining from food or other kinds of consumption for the purpose of feasting on Jesus.
As we purposely deprive ourselves of something we would normally partake of, the ways we’ve misdirected our desires become evident.
- In fasting from food, I realize that I’m longing for comfort, but I’ve attached that longing to certain foods. Fasting helps me realize that food is never going to comfort me, not really, and in the empty space that fasting creates, I can turn to Jesus for comfort.
- In fasting from social media, I realize that I’m longing to know that I matter, but I’ve attached that longing to how many likes and comments my posts get… Fasting helps me realize that likes and comments are never going to give me significance. In the empty space that fasting creates, I can turn to Jesus for my significance.
Keep fasting, praying and giving!
At this point in Lent, I am often tempted to “back off” on my commitments to fasting, giving, and praying. Maybe you are, too.
I want to encourage you (and me!) to keep going! Your fasting, praying, and giving are providing space for God to do a work in your life that you can’t readily see. He is pulling the thorns that make you unfruitful.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).