A trip to the cardiologist is rarely routine. Usually a precipitating episode or a prior procedure prompts the appointment, and we are eager to receive a reassuring assessment. We know that the condition of the heart determines our health, and we listen with rapt attention to learn how we are really doing.
This past winter while teaching at Conception Abbey, I had a viral infection that mimicked some sort of heart trouble. Being taken to the infirmary in a male monastery was exciting for all concerned — monks and patient alike. I got to see parts of the monastery that are off-limits for women, so I dutifully closed my eyes (well, most of the time). Thankfully, all checked out well after a trip to a regional hospital and a follow-up with my cardiologist. Truly, I gained a new appreciation for my heart.
The Bible speaks of the heart frequently, making it the most common anthropological term in the Scripture. It is the vital center of a person, and it supplies the nourishment that is life-giving. In our time, we think the brain to be the center of human activity, directing the rhythms of an individual’s body; from the ancients’ viewpoint, the heart was the central organ that moved the rest of the body.
Scripture also speaks of the heart as the source of emotional, intellectual and moral activities. Thus, it plays a significant role in spiritual health, as the heart gathers up one’s whole being. It is the locus of faith; it orients a person’s life, and we should be wary of giving our heart to other than God. As Martin Luther said, belief is “that upon which we lean our heart.”
The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday includes the parable of the sower. Jesus speaks of varied responses to the word of the coming reign of God, and he warns how hard it is to be faithful to it, for “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Matthew 13:22). The word intends to rehabilitate the human heart, which can be “hardened,” “wicked,” “godless,” in biblical parlance.
When one broadcasts seed rather than carefully spaced planting, seeds can end up in varied contexts. Good soil can encourage growth, but rocky soil or a thorny patch or a trodden path make it very hard for the seed to bear plentiful yields. Varied elements conspire to keep the seed (the word) from accomplishing its true intent, to renew the heart by grace.
Responding to the word of God is not an easy thing, for it puts us at odds with the dominant culture of our world, which is all about acquisition, comfort and personal security. Jesus warns that the claim of this word is difficult: “When anyone hears the word of the basileia (the reign of God) and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart …” (v. 19).
Consumerist Christianity has performed a convenient work-around so as to ease the burden of Jesus’ claim. We have relegated his warning to the status of “interim ethics.” Jesus could only expect his followers to be radical in their fidelity because the world would soon end; he would return and rescue them from the challenge of living in a world of competing claims. He surely could not have meant for people to live in the economics of grace long term.
Wallace Hartsfield II suggests to his preaching students at our seminary that one who proclaims must find the original claim of the text on the hearer, the claim for the hearer today and the claim upon the preacher. This parable would make more sense in an agricultural setting; however, its pungent insights remain and call hearers of the word to examine their response and think about what issues forth from the heart, as well its chief longing.
I recently had the opportunity to write a blurb for an important book authored by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty. In her forthcoming text, The Problem of Wealth, she challenges assumptions about why people are in poverty and calls for a new vision of community requiring economic justice. By delineating the problem when theology and economics are not integrally related, she is echoing the teaching of the parable. Wealth is the problem, she contends, for it tramples compassion for the economic other. Once again, it is a matter of the heart.
When the word of God takes lodging in our hearts, we are beckoned toward generative living, little satisfied with only the world’s goods. Where the heart is located and what fruit it bears makes all the difference for the treasure that is God’s emerging reign.