May 21, 2009
by Patrick Lafferty
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.
Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Need” tells of a farmer named Pahom who lives in a commune in pre-revolutionary Russia. When opportunity arises to improve his farm, Pahom displays well-cultivated industriousness in enlarging and enriching his holdings. And he takes right and proper satisfaction in his labor: “When he went out to plough his fields, or to look at his growing corn, or at his grass-meadows, his heart would fill with joy. The grass that grew and the flowers that bloomed there seemed to him unlike any that grew elsewhere. Formerly, when he had passed by that land, it had appeared the same as any other land, but now it seemed quite different.”
But as the story proceeds, another opportunity for enrichment deforms that commendable resourcefulness into an ominous avarice. Word reaches Pahom of nearly limitless land held by an ethnic people willing to sell it for a pittance. He leaves all he has behind and journeys to the remote soil of the Bashkir people. There he is presented an offer he can barely believe but which he can hardly refuse: he may have all the land he can circumscribe on foot between sunrise and sunset of a single day. Trembling at the prospect of immeasurable holdings, Pahom takes the challenge and sets out one morning at dawn to stake his claim.
Walking mile after mile, his prospective land increasing with every step, Pahom travels so far that as the sun heads towards twilight, he realizes he has but little time to return to his starting point. His pace accelerates to a fevered pitch, his would-be benefactors cheering him on. Soaked with sweat and nearly out of breath, Pahom arrives in a heap as the last glimmer of sunlight recedes beneath the horizon. Exhausted, Pahom falls down there—dead. And there they bury him in a six-foot plot. That was all the land he needed.
Tolstoy is careful not to paint a one-dimensional character whose every ambition smacks of greed. This simple farmer knew his capabilities and used his resources well, and he was able to derive sincere delight in their proper use. When the common things began to obscure greater truths, though, he ended up losing even more than he thought he could gain.
Finding an analogy in seed sown among thorns, Jesus warns of common things stifling more substantial things. He speaks of the “cares of this world” and the “deceitfulness of riches” squelching the godly life His Word intends to produce in those who hear Him. But it’s important to note that the cares (merimna) and the riches (ploutos) He speaks of have no stifling quality intrinsic to them.
The cares are just the concerns pertaining to the responsibilities, relationships, and roles that comprise a given life. The apostle Paul uses the same word to refer to his concerns for the churches he’s served (2 Corinthians 11:28). They only become prohibitive when one lets them eclipse the larger context of God’s sovereignty and one’s identity. That’s why both Paul (Philippians 4:6) and Peter (1 Peter 5:7) call us to “cast” our anxieties upon God by seeing them in that larger context.
As for riches, the New Testament typically uses the word to refer to those eternal benefits God gives us in Christ (e.g. Romans 11:12, Ephesians 1:7), but Paul elsewhere instructs those with earthly riches not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on them, but to be rich in good works and generous (1 Timothy 6:17–18). As Jesus’ instruction on wealth corresponded to the bearer of that wealth (cf. the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus), so Paul’s instruction reveals that the usefulness or deceptiveness of wealth depended on the heart of the one who possessed it.
If neither cares nor riches necessarily stifle the godly life intended by His Word, how then do we know when either devolves from something commendable into something dangerous, as it did for poor Pahom?
As Mark reminded us last Sunday, it’s not so much what you produce by your cares and wealth that matters but what your cares and wealth produce in you. The fruitfulness Jesus produces in us is neatly and comprehensively summarized in what Paul outlines in Galatians 5:22–23. Its presence or absence reveals a great deal.
What is your present pace in life producing in you—peace or irritability? What does your pursuit of a living produce in you—generous goodness or self-indulgence? The internal harvest reveals what you believe. Those who believe He is sovereign see fretfulness over what you cannot control as myopic and futile. If you believe He is sufficient, you will labor for yourself with an overarching desire to labor for His glory.
Scripture places no monastic call upon its saints—no command to seclude oneself in order to remain unattached to anything that might taint or distract. But to monastic moments and cycles we are indeed called—both by ourselves and with a few other like-minded pilgrims; they rescue us from becoming too encumbered by the cares or too enamored by the riches common to our existence. In those times of regular and sustained stillness we can see whether our cares or riches have begun to undermine what He intends: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Such is all the fruit you need.