In the first reading from today’s Mass (Wednesday of the 22nd Week) St. Paul warns that the faithful should not esteem the preacher too highly. Esteem the Lord, who was able to speak through Balaam’s donkey. If God can use a donkey to preach, then one should not be too enamored of the particular human instrument the Lord uses to preach.
Pope St. Gregory taught that the preacher goes ahead of the Lord, announcing Him, as it were, and then the Lord comes in to “close the deal”:
Beloved brothers, our Lord and Savior … sends his disciples out to preach two by two. … Rightly is it said that he sent them ahead of him into every city and place where he himself was to go. For the Lord follows after the preachers, because preaching goes ahead to prepare the way, and then when the words of exhortation have gone ahead and established truth in our minds, the Lord comes to live within us. To those who preach Isaiah says: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. And the psalmist tells them: Make a way for him who rises above the sunset. … Therefore, we make a way for him who rises above the sunset when we preach his glory to you, so that when he himself follows after us, he may illumine you with his love.
Think over, my beloved brothers, think over his words: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may be able to labor worthily on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, that after we have taken up the office of preaching our silence may not bring us condemnation from the just judge.
(from a homily on the Gospels by St. Gregory the Great, Pope (Hom 17, 1-3: PL 76, 1139))
This is an important insight that can help preachers to avoid both pride and an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Yes, the preacher goes before the Lord, who then follows after to quicken the Word that has been planted.
First of all, this is a remedy for pride, because the preacher is not the Lord. Although it is the Lord’s own Word he preaches, the preacher cannot completely express what God alone can effect in the human heart. The preacher can but sow the seed of the Word; only God can bring forth the harvest. As St. Paul wrote,
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Cor 3:6-7).
The preacher can propose, but the Lord must come after to “close the deal.” The Samaritan woman was rather abruptly but truthfully told this by the townsfolk:
We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world (Jn 4:42).
Every preacher should delight to hear this. It is a valuable lesson for the preacher to remember his place. He goes before to announce the presence of God, who alone can heal and bring in the truest harvest by His grace.
The preacher is like the best man at an ancient Jewish wedding, to whom St. John the Baptist equated himself.
He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease (Jn 3:29-30).
St. Gregory’s insight also helps preachers to avoid an exaggerated sense of responsibility. Sometimes preachers may think too much rests on them, on their eloquence, on finding just the right analogy or the perfect wording. He may also lament his flaws. And while every preacher must work to hone his skills, Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps 127:1).
Thus the preacher can help to lay a foundation, but it is the Lord who must build the house. It is both helpful and freeing for the preacher to remember that he merely goes before the Lord; the Lord will follow after with every good grace. The preacher must do his part in proclaiming the authentic word of God, but only the Lord Himself can perfect the message in every soul. He must preserve knowledge and prepare the way for the Lord, who causes the seed to grow in the hearts of the faithful and who will ultimately judge the living and the dead.
This is both freeing and reassuring. Most of us who preach realize this from time to time, particularly when someone recounts back to us something we have said, but does so in a way that surprises us. This demonstrates how the Lord helps people to hear something that our feeble words could only suggest.
In the end, every preacher must trust the Lord, who comes after him to complete what is lacking and to bring forth the fruits that he can only point to. The Lord causes His truth to shine forth—in consolation for the faithful and in judgment for the wicked. The battle is the Lord’s; so is the victory and the harvest.
This chorus from Handel’s Messiah says, “The Lord gave the word; great was the company of the preachers.”