Last week we read from the book of the prophet Amos. And something profound yet rather subtle was taught by Amos in the selection from Friday’s Mass. After warning of many sins such as the trampling the needy, putting profit over Sabbath observances, cheating by altering scales and so forth; after also warning of sexual and many other sins, Amos says this:
Days are coming when the Lord God will send a famine upon the land: not a famine of bread, or thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord. Then shall they wander from sea to sea and from the north to the east in search of the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it (Amos 8:11–12).
Thus, among the ills of a society or culture mired in injustice, sexual confusion, and misplaced priorities is an absence of the Word of God. How does this happen? It happens on several different levels, one of them rather subtle.
I. First of all, when many people insist on sinful, unjust, and evil practices, the Word of the Lord begins to sound obnoxious and they refuse to read or hear it. No one likes to be convicted for their sinfulness or to be confronted with the fact that they are wrong, and the Word of the Lord has a way of calling us to account. Many resist this, and such a problem is epidemic in our current culture.
People do not like to be reminded that they have no business defrauding the poor, lying and cheating, engaging in greedy or covetous practices, indulging in illicit sexual union, or cultivating lust. In avoidance and anger they set aside the Word of God, and when they cannot reasonably do so, they attack those who still speak of it. They issue condemnations that those who do so are judgmental, intolerant, bigoted, unenlightened, homophobic, etc.
But of course the problem isn’t the Word of God or those who announce it. The problem is sin. And thus we see a kind of self-induced famine of the Word of God. Many starve themselves from the Word because it is no longer a food that is palatable to them. They would rather dine on the strong wine of this world that numbs them from the pangs of their own consciences. Or perhaps they would rather eat the Twinkies and other junk food of pop culture, which excuses and even celebrates bad behavior.
Here is a famine—of the Word of God.
II. Second, we see a kind of induced famine caused by those who collectively work to eliminate the Word of God from the public square. Perhaps it is those who seek to banish any form of prayer or reference to Scripture in public schools, public gatherings, school graduations, or any other gathering outside the walls of the church.
We live in a culture in which the First Amendment’s promise of freedom of religion has become freedom from religion. And thus there is a kind of famine of the Word of God imposed by a small number of people who dislike religious influence, who seek to eliminate any religious expression in the public square. Almost anything can be taught, celebrated, and advanced in public schools—anything except Jesus Christ and His gospel.
It is a strange, highly selective, and intense famine of the Word of God.
III. The third form of famine, though, is more subtle and it occurs even in the Church. Indeed, many who write in the combox of this blog complain of it quite frequently. This is the famine of the Word of God that occurs on account of silence from the pulpits.
The one place where one would think that the Word of God would be clearly and even boldly proclaimed would be in the pulpit of the Catholic Church or any Christian denomination. And yet even here, there is a strange famine.
But why is this? The mechanisms here are a bit more subtle, but come down essentially to one word: fear. The subtlety comes from the fact that while it is clear that many clergy fear to speak the truth boldly from their pulpits, there is another side to the equation.
Many clergy know instinctively that even in the theoretically safer environment of the Church, if one speaks boldly on moral issues, one can often expect backlash and letters of protest, whether delivered directly or to the bishop. There are dissenters who do this, and even some of the faithful.
One might wish the clergy were brave enough and bold enough to be unconcerned and still speak unambiguously to moral issues of the day. But the reality is that clergy are drawn from the stock of human beings. Some are brave, but many are not. Some are willing to endure trouble, pushback, criticism, and being misunderstood, but some are not. Some clergy today are willing to accept that many modern listeners cannot distinguish between hyperbole, analogy, and straightforward discourse, let alone make subtle distinctions, but many clergy are not willing to accept this.
Yes, a poisonous climate exists even in many parishes. Surely there are dissenters, but even among the faithful there are those who would criticize a priest who tries to speak the truth but does not say it exactly the way that they want him to say it. Perhaps he should have quoted St. Thomas Aquinas rather than Thomas Merton. Perhaps he should have made more distinctions, but given the insistence that homilies last little more than ten minutes, was unable to do so.
Some priests are able to navigate the complexities of the modern parish setting creatively and courageously. But many cannot and draw back to uttering safe bromides, contenting themselves with abstractions and generalities. They play it safe in what is often a hostile environment. Dissenters with poisonous looks are lurking in the pews. But even among the hard-core faithful there is sometimes a “particularism” that renders bold prophecy a very dangerous thing.
Parents, too, struggle in preaching boldly to their kids, who are not taught by this culture to respect their parents or to revere sacred tradition and teaching. Thus parents, too, often exhibit the “silent pulpit syndrome,” and teaching in the domestic church of the home is often silent, uncertain, and compromised.
A hostile environment does lead to silence. Perhaps it should not, but in the aggregate it does. And therefore there is a famine of the Word of God that Amos addresses. Hostility tends to breed silence and conformity. Maybe it shouldn’t, but overall it does. At some level when a culture turns hostile, stubborn, hypersensitive, and just plain mean there sets up a famine of the Word of God. While there will always be the courageous, like Amos, in the big picture, the Word of God will suffer famine when the soil resists or even refuses the seed of the Word.
St Gregory once reproached silent clergy, but he also warned the faithful that they too have a role in ensuring the proper climate for the Word of God to flourish:
The Lord reproaches (silent pastors) through the prophet: They are dumb dogs that cannot bark (Is 56:10). On another occasion he complains: You did not advance against the foe or set up a wall in front of the house of Israel, so that you might stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord (Ez 13:15). To advance against the foe involves a bold resistance to the powers of this world in defense of the flock. To stand fast in battle on the day of the Lord means to oppose the wicked enemy out of love for what is right. When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy in front of the house of Israel … Paul says of the bishop: He must be able to encourage men in sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it (Titus 1:9). For the same reason God tells us through Malachi: The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts (Mal 2:7).
Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows … Beloved brothers, consider what has been said: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest (Matt 9:38). Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge.
For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly. With reference to the wickedness of the preacher, the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (Psalm 50:16) And with reference to the latter, the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house (Ez 3:26). He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away from you because as long as this people irritates me by their deeds, they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth.
And thus today Amos’ warning of a famine of the Word of God extends even to the Church. As clergy and laity, we have every reason to encourage bold preaching and to preserve a climate in which God’s Word is still revered and respected. We ought to work to surround clergy and parents with support and a hedge of protection from dissenters even as we also work to avoid the hypercriticism and “particularism” that can discourage priests, deacons, and parents who are trying to make a good effort to reach the lost and confused. Otherwise the famine of the Word of God of which Amos warns will surely exist even in our parishes and homes. A proper harvest of the Word requires the support and action of all.