Some two hundred years ago, a Cherokee Indian named Drowning Bear allowed a missionary to read to him several chapters of the Bible. After having listened for some time, Drowning Bear said to the missionary: “It seems to be a good book; strange that the white people are not better after having had it for so long.”
Drowning Bear’s implication was that if we actually lived in obedience to the Word of God, our lives would be dramatically better as a result. This was precisely our Lord’s point in today’s gospel. Jesus invites us not only to hear his Word; he wants us also to act on it. To put it another way, God’s Word was spoken not simply for our information. Instead, it’s meant for our application, that our lives might be blessed with transformation.
For this to happen, however, we first need to listen. We can’t act on God’s Word if we can’t hear it! Unfortunately, listening isn’t something we’re always good at doing. In an old joke, a crabby husband asks his wife, “Why do women talk so much?” To which his rightfully annoyed wife replied: “Because we have to say everything twice!” The joke’s point is that we don’t always listen very well to each other. Sometimes we also don’t listen very well to God- and there’s nothing too funny about that
It might be that we’re too distracted to listen to God. When the “Word of the Lord” is proclaimed for us, our expected response is “Thanks be to God.” If we were honest, however, we probably should say, “Huh? Could you say that again?” One contributing factor is “information overload.” Through every conceivable form of media – electronic and otherwise- we’re bombarded with more data than we’re able to handle. It can shatter our attention spans and make us very reluctant to add any additional voices to the mix- even if it’s God’s.
Another reason we don’t listen well to God’s Word is that it gets drowned out by “cultural static.” It’s easy to understand why this happens. The world literally shouts at us – “Look at me! Buy me! Sleep with me!”- and we can’t seem to hear anything else- especially God, who typically speaks in whispers. And the same world that shouts at us insists that we join the rat race. We wind up so exhausted that making time for God’s Word seems like a luxury, something to put off for a day when we’re less stressed. It’s not that we’ve pushed God’s Word away; it’s simply been squeezed out.
But sometimes we do push God’s Word away, because we don’t want to hear it. We’re afraid of what we might be told and what changes God will call us to make in our lives. Maybe it’s about money. Or forgiveness. Or our relationships. Or sex. Perhaps we’re too proud, too angry, or too addicted to listen. Whatever it may be, we know that with knowledge comes responsibility, so we try to take the “ignorance is bliss” approach. When we do this, it’s not society or our schedules that’s interfering with the Word of God. We have only ourselves to blame, because we’ve stuck our fingers in our ears.
We only plug our ears, however, when we think that God’s Word might have something valid to say to us. At times, we think just the opposite. We don’t make ourselves deaf to God’s Word; we simply dismiss it, because we’re convinced that it has nothing to say to us, or that it’s too confusing or old-fashioned to bother with. Should this be the case, we’re in good company. St. Augustine, a great figure from the Church’s first centuries, once felt exactly the same way. As a young man, he read the Bible in his quest for truth, but found himself disappointed. He didn’t encounter the lofty philosophy he preferred to read, but accounts of violent conflict and very imperfect people that left him confused.
All that changed when Augustine met St. Ambrose, whose preaching helped him understand the Bible for what it is: An inspired account of God’s unfolding plan throughout history, all leading to Jesus. Augustine came to appreciate that not only is Jesus the key to understanding the Bible, but that Jesus himself is heard through the Bible. The Bible is the Word of God- because through it we hear the voice of Jesus, who is the Word of God: the Word-made-flesh.
It is this voice that today’s Scriptures challenge us to listen to, and act upon, today. In our noisy world, we can be deaf to God’s Word. In our selfish world, it’s tempting to resist God’s Word. In our skeptical world, it’s fashionable to dismiss God’s Word. In our overscheduled world, it’s easy to neglect God’s Word. Yet we neglect God’s Word at our peril. Life can be hard, challenging, painful, confusing. Maybe that’s why Jesus spoke of powerful winds and rain in his parable, because they describe what we feel like we’re contending with at times. Jesus’ point was that if we build our life upon his Word, we’ll have the strength and resources to withstand the flood waters when they rise. And if we don’t, we won’t, and we risk being swept away by the currents.
To build our lives upon God’s Word is like building our house on rock, as Jesus said. Think of Manhattan, if you will: Perhaps the greatest concentration of brick, mortar, steel and timber anywhere in the world. And all of it rests upon a huge mass of rock. Anything else couldn’t bear the weight. That’s true of our lives, too. Sometimes we have a heavy load to bear; it can seem like we have the weight of the world upon our shoulders! We can bear the strain…but only if our life’s foundation is the rock of the Word of God.
Drowning Bear was right: God’s Word is good, and we have indeed had it a long time. But it’s up to us to listen, act, and allow ourselves to be changed.