‘Take …no thought for your life….Take no thought for the morrow’ – that was what generations of English-speaking men and women have heard Jesus to say in today’s Gospel. But does the King James Bible tell it as it is? Several centuries earlier, St Francis stopped the cook from preparing the brothers’ meal the night before in obedience to what he understood by these commands of Christ. His friars were likewise to beg only for what they needed that very day. Was he right? Could we really be supposed to ignore today what tomorrow may bring? While the original Greek can just about bear the sense given to these verses by Francis and later by the English reformers, it more commonly meant what we in fact heard in the Revised Standard Version this morning: ‘do not be anxious about your life…do not be anxious about tomorrow’. That sounds much less problematic in theory – who wants to be a worry-guts? But when does thinking responsibly about something tip over into anxiety? Is it wrong to worry over something? We surely have proper cares and concerns.
If we set these words back in their context, Jesus clearly wishes to free his disciples from an inhibiting concern for their material security. To focus upon what each needs for food, drink, and clothing will be to frustrate the proclamation of His Gospel. That preaching has to come first, and God’s providence will then ensure that their material needs will be met. We can place what Jesus teaches here alongside his instructions to the twelve whom he will send out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel in chapter ten of Matthew’s Gospel: ‘You received without paying, give without pay. Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for the labourer deserves his food.’
The message is for the Church as a missionary body. If we organise ourselves first and foremost to proclaim the Gospel and to worship God in singleness of heart, God will see to it that we do not lack the means to live in His service. You might say that proper care and concern for tomorrow, and for our practical needs, tip over into wrongful anxiety when they lead us to neglect our evangelical calling today.
That seems straightforward, but the first reading today reminds us that trust in God’s providence is not so easy. The prophet has to reassure his hearers of God’s abiding love for the chosen people. How easily, then, do we, too, fall into patterns of thought, of despair, similar to that of the ancient Israelites? ‘The Lord has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ Our modern culture is often short on the crucial virtue of hope. That’s in part because hope rests on faith. Let me remind you of some lyrics from ‘The Beautiful South’:
‘As she held her hand out to him
As he drove around the block
He mouthed through the window ‘just hold on’
‘I’ve held on many years now and I haven’t found a lot’
Hold on, hold on to what?’
In the absence of Christian faith and the practice of mutual charity, or of such truth and goodness as are to be found in other religious traditions, what is there to enable people to ‘hold on’ in hope? This both makes our preaching all the more urgent, but also impedes it, for we do not live as a Church in an impermeable bubble, untouched by the dominant patterns of thought and feeling.
All this has obvious and important implications for an Order of Preachers. We might be tempted simply to live and work within the limits set by our existing means. Jesus, however, calls us to be ambitious in preaching His kingdom, confident that if we set out to do what we recognize as urgently needed, we shall find the support which we need.
There is a story once told by a Dominican friar in medieval Cambridge. It featured in his pocket book of stories, moral exempla, for insertion into sermons. It was about a man who saw two friars out on their preaching round of the towns and villages, and who determined to show them hospitality, and give them a proper meal to help them on their way. The trouble was, he didn’t have the cash, so he sold his wife’s cloak in order to buy the necessaries. I’m not sure what his wife thought about this, but, sure enough, his virtue was soon rewarded when a vineyard that he owned suddenly and miraculously fruited allowing him to harvest a bumper crop of grapes.
Now, you might say that the friar had a distinct interest in this miracle story, and you’d be right. It is, in a sense, self-serving. But it is also true to our Gospel vision of how God’s providence supports us when we focus not on ourselves, but on the mission for which we were each baptised and confirmed. And it belongs with a larger set of miracle stories that the early friars collected about God’s providence and their dependence on others for something to eat. The most famous tells of two friars begging with little success in Rome, returning to the priory at San Sisto with only a single loaf for a hundred friars. They met on the way with a beggar who asked for the loaf. Relinquishing it with some reluctance, they returned empty-handed to the convent. When the community sat down after prayers to an empty table, St Dominic prayed and two young men appeared with baskets of fresh bread. Being generous with the little they had received, the friars were rewarded by the generosity of God.