On the Wonder of the Word of God – A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of the Year

The Gospel for this Sunday is continued next week, so I will postpone its analysis until then. Instead, I will focus on the first reading, which is from Nehemiah chapter 8. It is a wonderful meditation on the glory and wonder of the Word of God, and it deserves our attention.

The background of the text is that in 587 B.C., Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians and the survivors of the war led into exile in Babylon. After 80 years, the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus, the king of Persia, permitted the Jews to return to the Promised Land. Sadly, only a small number chose to return and rebuild the ruined land and city. Among them was Nehemiah, a Jew and a royal official, who led the small band back and oversaw the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Along with Ezra the priest, Nehemiah led a spiritual renewal that was spurred on not only by the purification of exile but by the rediscovery of certain lost or forgotten sacred books. On one occasion the people gathered to hear the proclamation of one of the lost books. That is where we pick up today’s reading.

HUNGER for the Word of God – The text says, And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses which the LORD had given to Israel.

Note that the people are hungry for the Word of God. They have gathered together and now make the unified request (as one man) that the Book of the Law be brought and proclaimed to them.

The book that is likely referred to here is the Book of Deuteronomy. It would seem that the book had either been lost or at least severely neglected in the preaching of the time prior to the Babylonian exile of Israel. Deuteronomy contained not only a development of the Law but also a list of blessings for following it and grave warnings for not doing so. After the painful experience of exile, the people gathered are painfully aware that had they heeded Deuteronomy, they could have avoided the terrible events of the Babylonian conquest and the captivity of Israel.

Chastised and sober, they are hungry for this Word from God. As the Book of Psalms says, Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word (Psalm 119:67).

Are you hungry for the Word of God? More so than for money? More so than for bodily food? Scripture says,

  • The ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb (Psalm 19:19).
  • Man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD (Deut 8:3).
  • I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12).
  • I rejoice at thy word like one who finds great spoil (Psalm 119:162).

Are we hungry for the Word like this? It seems that we won’t miss a meal for our bodies, but we’ll go days without the Word. Obesity is widespread in our culture, but our souls too easily languish because we are starved for the Word of God and the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Are you hungry for His Word? An old song says, “More about Jesus in his word, holding communion with my Lord, hearing his voice in every line, making each faithful saying mine. More, more about Jesus, more of his saving fullness, see more of his love who died for me.”

HEARING of the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden pulpit which they had made for the purpose.

Notice these two things:

ASSEMBLY – There is a communal dimension to the celebration of God’s Word here. It’s not just a private celebration or reading. While it is easy today to read the Scriptures alone, we should not neglect to gather with the Church and be taught the Word of God by others—especially the clergy—who are trained and anointed unto this task. Scripture says, And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Heb 10:24). Too many people think that all they need is the Bible, but notice that the proclamation of the Word is communal here.

AMOUNT of time – The text says that the proclamation and explanation of this Word took place from “morning to mid-day.” This is no seven-minute sermon; it is an extended time spent studying, praying, and hearing the Word of God. Many today consider a Mass that runs longer than 45 minutes to be counterproductive. It’s funny how excited we get when a three-hour football game goes into overtime, but then we complain when a sermon lasts longer than “regulation” time. We find so much time for other things and our attention span for them is long, yet we have so little time for the Word of God, and we are so impatient for the reflection to be over sooner. Yes, we find time for everything else. You can blame the preacher—and we may deserve it—but there’s usually more to the picture than just the preacher.

HONOR for the Word of God – The text says, And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.

Note the remarkable honor given to the Word through active listening. While many people today (especially more traditional Catholics) see silent and passive listening as the proper, pious, and respectful demeanor during the readings and homily, this is not the cultural setting described in this passage. Neither is a quiet demeanor the ubiquitous norm in the Church today. It is not a question of which is right and which is wrong but of whether or not the Word of God is being honored.

The listeners that morning some 2,500 years ago stood and said “Amen, Amen!” They lifted up their hands and even prostrated themselves on the ground while the Word was read. They were engaged in active listening, giving the Word their undivided attention and interacting with its sounds as it resonated within them. This is attentive listening, reflective and responsive; it is hearing with thoughtful attention.

Different cultures express attentiveness in different ways, but you can tell a lot by looking at people’s faces. Even in cultures in which people exhibit prayerful silence during Mass, these same people get excited at sporting events, even jumping to their feet. Excitement and exuberant joy are not unknown in cultures in which religious reserve is the norm. One would hope to rule out that such reservation indicates boredom. Those who are more reserved don’t want to come off as sour-faced saints, bored believers, distracted disciples, or cold Christians. Reverence can be expressed prayerful and attentive silence, but we want to be sure it is not simply the face of the “frozen chosen.”

Those who are more demonstrative want to be sure those outpourings are not formulaic recitations of “Amen” or a sort of egocentric, theatrical acting. One shouldn’t just seek to get everyone in the pew “pumped up.” The “Amen corner,” where it exists, should be sincere.

The key point is to honor the Word of God, whether by reverent silence or exuberant response; in no way should the Word of God leave one bored and unmoved.

HELP unto the Word of God – The text says, The Levites also, helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. And they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly; and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

The Word is not alone; it is explained and interpreted. We need the Church in order to properly understand the Word of God, to have it authentically interpreted. While devotional reading is to be encouraged, the Word of God is not meant to be read apart from the Church. As the Protestant experiment has shown, attempting to have the Scriptures without the Church and the Magisterium brings disastrous, never-ending division. This truth is expressed well in the story about the Ethiopian official: So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him (Acts 8:30).

The authoritative preachers of God’s Word—the bishops, priests, and deacons—have the task to read, analyze, organize, illustrate, and apply the Word of God in the liturgical setting. In the task of proclaiming the Word of God, there is a need beyond that for authoritative teachers; there is also the need for the pastoral assistance of others. In my own community there are excellent lectors who often read the Word with such power and inflection that I hear it as I have never heard it before. Further, I have a wonderful choir that often sings hymns and passages rooted in the Scripture such that I come to know them as never before. It’s really pressed to my heart. My congregation, too, by its lively response to the proclaimed Word and the preaching, brings forth insight and makes the Word of God an experienced reality.

HEARTFELT reaction to the Word of God – The text says, And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”

They are moved to tears by what is proclaimed. They weep because they realize what their stubbornness has brought about: disaster, decline, and exile. Had they but heeded God’s Law, this terrible period of Israel’s history could have been avoided.

True listening to the Word of God should bring forth a response. The desired outcome of preaching the Word is to elicit a response. The purpose of the Word of God is not only to inform but to transform. It might make you mad, or sad, or glad, but if you are really listening to the authentic Word of God, you cannot be unmoved. Scripture says,

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12).

HEEDING of the Word of God Nehemiah chapter 8 continues beyond the passage in the lectionary today. It goes on to say, On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the law. And they found it written in the law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month, and that they should publish and proclaim in all their towns and in Jerusalem, “Go out to the hills and bring branches of olive, wild olive, myrtle, palm, and other leafy trees to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went out and brought them and made booths for themselves, each on his roof, and in their courts and in the courts of the house of God, and in the square at the Water Gate and in the square at the Gate of Ephraim. And all the assembly of those who had returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths; for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so. And there was very great rejoicing. And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the book of the law of God. They kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day there was a solemn assembly, according to the ordinance.

Among the things they discovered was that Israel had not been celebrating an important and appointed feast day: the Feast of Tabernacles (or Booths). This feast, while a harvest festival, was also a celebration that acknowledged the gift of the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is quite symbolic that they had stopped celebrating this particular feast. The leaders, having studied the Word of God, reestablished it and commanded the people to observe it carefully. This illustrates heeding the Word of God.

Notice all the respect we’ve seen for the Word of God: they hungered for it, heard it, honored it, helped in its proclamation, and had a heartfelt reaction to it. The real honor, though, is given when they heed it. There’s a lot of “lip service” paid to the Word of God, a lot of empty praise; some even shout “Amen” at Mass. The real acid test is whether we heed the Word. An old spiritual says, “Some go to Church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out.” Another says, “Some seek God don’t seek him right, they fool all day and pray at night.”

We are warned of the danger of failing to heed:

  • And every one that hears these sayings of mine, and does them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it (Mat 7:26).
  • And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not make ready or act according to his will shall receive a severe beating. But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more (Luke 12:47).
  • An hour is coming, has indeed come, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who have heeded it shall live (John 5:25).

There is wonder in the Word of God, but only if we heed it.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Wonder of the Word of God

The Word of God: Handle with Care

The first reading from last Saturday’s daily Mass reminds us of the power that the Word of God can have in our lives if we listen to or read it with devotion. It also reminds us that God’s Word is like a scalpel with which to cut away evil.

Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account (Heb 4:12-13).

The Word of God prunes or cuts away our error by shining the light of truth on our foolishness and worldliness; it exposes our sinfulness and our silly preoccupations. It lays bare our inordinate self-esteem and all the sinful drives that flow from it: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. A steady diet of God’s Word purifies our mind, reordering it gradually.

The word of the Lord can also give us greater discernment. The word “discern” comes from a Latin root that means to sift, sort, divide, or distinguish.

We need to make distinctions, not only between good and evil, but among the things that are good. Indeed, Satan steals from what is good and then distorts it, presenting it back to us as temptation. This is because evil is a privation, a lack of what should be there. Something cannot be totally evil, because if that were the case there would be nothing at all. Satan takes something that is good and mixes in evil and lies. He is a deceiver, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Evil is not attractive, so Satan uses what is good as bait but adds a hook.

There is an unfortunate tendency today to reduce love to kindness. Kindness is an aspect of love but so is rebuke. It is an immature notion of love that reduces it to affirmation or that refers to proper correction as a form of “hate.” Satan deftly substitutes a solely-affirming love (which ignores a person’s long-term happiness and salvation) for full-fledged, vigorous love, which wants the ultimate good and salvation of the other.

Thus, even in the good things in our life, we must root out any distortions. The Word of the Lord can help us to do this.

So, the Word of God is like a pair of eyeglasses, helping us to see more clearly. In so doing, it challenges us, because we often like to hide behind a bit of confusion, murkiness, and ignorance—to blur the lines. If you put on your “Gospel glasses” and read His Word with the Church, you will be able to recognize these convenient excuses for what they are.

In this sense, it takes courage to read the Word of God with care and devotion—frequently. It will comfort the afflicted, but it will also afflict the comfortable. Each of us is a little of both.

The imagery of the God’s Word as a two-edged sword reminds us to handle it with care. It is like a strong medicine that must be used carefully, following the instructions of the Church. There will be negative side-effects to be sure, but ultimately it heals, even as it wounds or challenges. It prunes, it clarifies, and it helps us to discern and distinguish.

Respect the Word of God like the sharp sword that it is. Handle it with care and realize its power.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Word of God: Handle with Care

A Proverb about the Glory and Safety of God’s Word

There is always much to ponder in the Book of Proverbs, from which we have been reading at daily Mass this week (25th Week of the Year). Consider the following proverb, which speaks to the glory of the Word of God and of our need to preserve its purity.

Every word of God is tested; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you, and you will be exposed as a deceiver (Proverbs 30:5-6).

From this we can discern four aspects of the Word of God.

Pure The text says, Every word of God is tested. The Hebrew word used here is צָרַף (tsaraph), which means to smelt, refine, purge, or test.

There are many today who are dismissive of the Word of God as something ancient, irrelevant to modern times, and unenlightened. However, it is precisely its ancient quality that speaks to its enduring truth. It has been tested by time and found to be a true and wonderful guide. Were it foolish or useless it would have been discarded long ago.

The Word of God remains, while empires have come and gone, nations have risen and fallen, trends have arisen and then become passé. Yet here, still reading this text, still judging things by it, still finding it wise, still marveling in its enduring purity. It has been refined by God in the crucible of time. It alone has endured as pure. All else has been burned away, refined, smelted, and purged. Yes, the Word of God alone remains.

Protective – The text says, he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Yes, through His Word, God shields us from the errors and foolishness of our times. By the Word of God, we can test all things, all ideas, and see if they conform to God’s ways or not. This protects us not only from errors of our time, but from the sinful wounds and addictions that proceed from them.

There are many who propose ever-stranger ways to freedom and dignity. By God’s Word in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, we can see that these paths are dead ends. We are protected from going down many rabbit holes and from adopting misguided notions that seem wise to the world but are disclosed as foolishness by God.

God’s Word and His Law are like the defending walls of a city. Within, we are protected from worldly and devilish errors and from wolves masquerading as sheep.

Plenary The text says, Add nothing to his words, lest he reprove you. There are many who believe that they can improve on God’s revelation. Some think that perhaps God forgot to reveal something or to make necessary distinctions. They believe that perhaps He was too harsh at some points or too lenient at others. Some seek to subtract from God’s word or to explain it in such a way that its plain meaning as set forth by the text and the Magisterium is obscured.

The text says that God will reprove those who do this. It is never a good thing to be accused by God of distorting His Word. The Lord seldom expressed more anger than when He referred to those who might mislead His disciples. He warned that they would be better off being cast into the sea with a millstone around their neck (e.g., Mark 9:42). Be careful, do not distort God’s Word. He will avenge such things!

Proving The text says, and you will be exposed as a deceiver. The Hebrew text is more blunt, using the word “liar” כָּזַב (Kazab). If the Word of God is true, then those who deform it are liars, plain and simple.

The word deceiver is important as well. To deceive literally means “to carry off.” Thus, deceivers are like wolves who stalk their prey and carry them off hanging limply from their mouth. Jesus warned of such wolves (see John 7:15) as did St. Paul (see Acts 20:29). Scoffers, deceivers, and adulterators of the Word of God might gain audiences for a time, but soon they will answer to God. Do not admire them; do not be like them. Humbly accept the Word of God as faithfully preached and delivered by the saints and codified in the magisterial teachings of the Church.

Stay safe in the protection of God’s pure Word!

The Word of God

We continue to read from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans in daily Mass. In today’s reading, we learn that we are justified by faith apart from the Law. The debates about faith and works are often the result of varied interpretations of today’s text.

One of the sources of confusion is a failure to understand the deeper point: that we are saved by Jesus Christ. It is by being put into a saving relationship with Him that we are saved. This relationship changes us; it affects what we do and do not do. Thus our works change, but it is as a result of the relationship with the Lord. Catholics and Protestants often talk past each other on this topic. It is not simply faith, or faith and works, it is Jesus to whom we must look.

Another confusion is over what we mean by the Word of God. It does not just refer to a book we call the Bible. Reading the Bible is a good thing, but meeting the Lord there is deeper and better. Many people think of the Word of God as an “it” when in fact the Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come merely to give us information and to exhort us. He came to give us His very self. Jesus is the “Word made Flesh.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made this point in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Verbum Domini.

[There is a] statement made by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (1:1-2). … Here the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. His unique and singular history is the definitive word which God speaks to humanity. We can see, then, why “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a definitive direction.” … “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a). These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14b). … Now the word is not simply audible; not only does it have a voice, now the word has a face. (Verbum Domini 11-12).

The Word of God is not merely words on the pages of a book. The Word of God is not just an idea or an ethical system. The Word of God is not just a set of teachings or doctrines. The Word of God is Jesus Christ. In order to really grasp this Word, we cannot read ink spots on a page, we must come to know Him, and experience Him and His power active in our lives.

It is dangerous to turn Scripture into an abstraction or to treat it as just a text. St Thomas Aquinas wrote, The Son is the Word, not any sort of word, but one Who breathes forth Love. Hence Augustine says (De Trin. ix 10): “The Word we speak of is knowledge with love.” Thus the Son is sent not in accordance with [just] any kind of intellectual perfection, but according to the intellectual illumination, which breaks forth into the affection of love, as is said (John 6:45): “Everyone that hath heard from the Father and hath learned, comes to Me” (Summa Prima Pars, 43.5 ad 2).

Hence we cannot really grasp Scripture unless we come to know Jesus Christ. Further, to authentically read Sacred Scripture is to encounter Jesus Christ there. Before we analyze a passage from Scripture we are summoned to encounter the One who is speaking to us.

It is surely possible for some people, even secular scholars, to analyze a Greek text of Holy Writ and translate it into English (or another language). Some scholars can analyze the idioms used or the historical context. Such research can help us to understand what a particular passage is saying on one level, but only a deep, personal knowledge of Jesus Christ can help us to know what the text really means. It is this personal, communal, historical, and ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ that distinguishes true theology from mere literary analysis or religious study.

Indeed, theologians and Scripture scholars can be dangerous if they do not personally know Jesus Christ. Knowing Jesus is not the same as knowing about Him. I might know about Jesus Christ from reading a book or from being told by someone, but this is not enough; I must know Him. Being a true authority in Scripture requires meeting and knowing the author. Do you notice that the word “author” is in the word “authority”?

Note how Pope Emeritus Benedict quotes the Prologue of John’s Gospel: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14a) and then continues on to say, These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! He also says, in reference to the passage from Hebrews 1, Here we are set before the very person of Jesus.

In the liturgical context of Scripture, this fact is enshrined in our ritual. As the priest or deacon proclaims the Gospel, the congregation stands out of respect. For it is Christ Himself who speaks to them and whom they encounter in this proclamation of the Word. At the conclusion of the proclamation of the Gospel, they acknowledge that they are encountering Jesus as they say to Him personally, Laus tibi Christe (Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ).

Scripture and the wider concept of the Word of God authentically interpreted by the Church, is not merely a book or a set of ideas. It is an encounter with a living God, the Lord Jesus Christ. The Word of God is a person, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps a couple of short stories will help to illustrate the difference between seeing Scripture as merely a text, and seeing it as an encounter with the Word made Flesh, Jesus.

  • A rural Appalachian community was visited by a Shakespearean actor. They were amazed at his elegant but strange way of speaking. At one point in his public recital he recited the 23rd Psalm. His speech was elegant, the words pronounced in finest King James English and presented with great drama and flair. At the end of his recitation a strange, awkward silence filled the room rather than the usual applause. Finally, a poor farmer in the back of the room stood up and apologized, saying that the only reason no one had applauded was that they weren’t sure he was done. “See, out in these parts we say it a little different.” The poor farmer began, “The Loerd is mah shayperd …” When he finished, the room was filled with shouts of “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.” The Shakespearean actor then told the poor farmer, “I was elegant, but your words had greater power. That is because I know only the technique, but you know the author.”
  • Some years ago I heard an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) preacher address an ecumenical gathering. He said to those in attendance, “You know I heard some strange stuff in seminary! The professors said that Jesus never really walked on water, that He didn’t really multiply loaves and fishes, He just got folks to be generous. They said that He didn’t really know He was God, that He didn’t really rise from the dead. He just lives on in our thoughts or something. Can you believe they taught me that in a Christian seminary?” Throughout his description of these wretched “teachings,” the disapproval in the gathering of Protestants and Catholics was audible. As he relayed this litany of faulty scholarship you could hear people saying, “Lord have mercy!” and “Mah, mah, mah.” Then the preacher stopped, mopped his brow, looked at them, and said, “I’ll tell you what. The problem with them wasn’t that they read the wrong books, y’all. The problem with them was that they ain’t never met my Jesus!” Well the house just about came down; folks were on their feet for ten minutes praising God. The choir stood up and began this familiar chorus: “Can’t nobody do me like Jesus; He’s my Lord!”

Well, you get the point. When you’ve met Jesus Christ you just don’t doubt that He walked on the water, multiplied loaves, raised Lazarus, knew perfectly well that He was God, and stepped out of the tomb on Easter morning.

The Word of God is not merely a text; It is a person, Jesus Christ, the Logos, the Word made Flesh. Once you’ve met Him, His spoken (and later written) Word begins to make greater and greater sense and there is just no doubt that this Word is true and powerful.

I’ll let Pope Emeritus Benedict provide the concluding words to today’s post: … the Word finds expression not primarily in discourse, concepts, or rules. Here we are set before the very person of Jesus. … These words are no figure of speech; they point to a lived experience! Saint John, an eyewitness, tells us so: “We have beheld his glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

My Word Shall Not Return to Me Empty – A Homily for the 15th Sunday of the Year

the Word

the Word of GodWhat do you expect to happen as a result of reading and hearing God’s Word? Do you expect to encounter something that will change you? The response of most people is pretty tepid and uninspired. Most don’t really expect much nor have they ever. For them, reading or hearing God’s Word is more of a tedious ritual than a transformative reality.

The readings for this Sunday clearly set forth that God’s Word can transform, renew, encourage, and empower us. We ought to begin to begin to expect great things from the faithful and attentive reception of the Word of God. However, Jesus also spells out some obstacles that keep the harvest small or even nonexistent for some.

Let’s look at what the Lord teaches in three steps.

I. Promise – The first reading shows that the Word of God can utterly transform us and bring forth a great harvest in our life:

Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s Word has power! If we listen to God’s Word authentically and attentively, it will refresh us and bring forth the fruit of transformation. No one can authentically attend to God’s Word and go away unchanged. If listened to with alertness, God’s Word can open our mind to new realities, give us hope, and teach us the fundamental meaning of our life. It can thrill us or frighten us. It can make us wonder, repent, or rejoice; it can also transform us. It can make us mad, sad, or glad. If we attend to it, however, it’s pretty hard to go away neutral. Of His Word, Scripture itself says,

• The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12).

• “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer 23:29)

• Jeremiah himself said, But if I say, “I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,” his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot (Jer 20:9).

• My heart pounds within me, I cannot keep silent. For I have heard the sound of the trumpet; I have heard the battle cry! (Jer 4:19)

• Amos echoes, The lion has roared–—who will not fear? The sovereign LORD has spoken–—who can but prophesy? (Amos 3:8)

• The Apostles join the great company of preachers and declare, For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).

• [T]he Lord gave the Word, and great was the company of the preachers! (Ps 68:11)

• Through His preachers, the Lord wants to set us on fire: I will make my words in your mouth a fire and these people the wood it consumes (Jer 5:14).

• Yes, if we will let him, he will set us ablaze with his word. Thus he will also set the world on fire, through us.

Yes, if we will let Him, He will set us ablaze with His word. Thus He will also set the world on fire, through us. God’s word, effectively preached and thoughtfully attended to, is fire that transforms. Pray for fiery preachers. Pray for ears attentive to God’s Word. Pray for a soul alive and alert to sound of God’s trumpet. Pray for a mind capable of appreciating God’s Word’s in all its subtlety and all its plain meaning.  It can change your life.

II. Problems – The Lord also alerts us to some problems that can arise in the human person. For while God’s Word does not lack power, neither does it violate His respect for our freedom and call to love. Consider that God speaks to inanimate objects and they must obey:

• And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light (Gen 1:3).

• And [God] said: This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt (Job 38:11). And the sea obeyed.

• And He says to the mountains, “Move!” and they shake and melt like wax before his glance (see Ps 97:5).

But the human person is not inanimate. We are possessed of a soul and gifted with freedom so that we may love. God speaks to us and, remarkably, we are free to say, “No.” The Lord Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel that our freedom is ultimately respected. The power of God’s Word remains, but God Himself has made it depend on our “Yes.”

Ponder, then, some issues that can cut off from or reduce the power of God’s Word:

No Reception – In today’s Gospel Jesus this about some people: [T]hey look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand … Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and be converted, and I heal them.

The Greek word translated here as “gross” is παχύνω (pachuno), meaning fat, thick, or dull. By extension, it means having an insensitive or hardened heart. Hence there are some who have hardened their hearts to God and His Word.

God (through Isaiah) once observed this about us: I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass (Is 48:4). This is another way of saying, I know that you are stubborn. Like iron, you are hardheaded. Like brass, your skull is thick; nothing can get through. For many of us, this tendency to be stiff-necked is gradually softened by the power of grace, the medicine of the sacraments, instruction by God’s Word, and the humility that can come from these.

For some, though, the stubbornness never abates. In fact, it grows even stronger as a descent into pride, and increasing hard-heartedness sets up. The deeper this descent, the more obnoxious the truth seems, and the less likely it is that they will be converted. As things progress, they shift from resistance to the truth to downright hostility. They harden their hearts and stiffen their necks. At some point, it would seem they reach the point of no return.

There are some texts in the Scriptures that speak of God Himself hardening the hearts of sinners. This is a very deep mystery and tied up in the deeper mystery that God is the primary cause of everything.

The text before us today, however, emphasizes the hardening of the heart from the human perspective: Those of hardened hearts have closed their eyes lest they see; They do not listen lest they be confronted with something they would rather not hear and sense the need for repentance and conversion. The Word of God can have no place in them because they reject it entirely; its offered power is cast aside.

No Reflection – The text speaks of the seed of God’s Word: The seed sown on the path is the one who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it, and the evil one comes and steals away what was sown in his heart.

The Greek word translated here as “understand” is συνίημι (syniemi) which means literally, “to put (or set) together.” Figuratively, it means “to connect the dots, synthesize, understand.”  In other words, the seed sown on the path refers to the person who gives little thought to the Word of God. He does not try to connect it to his life or to understand its practical application. He does not “set it together” (synthesize it) with his experience or seek to apply it in his life. The Word will not last due to his inattentiveness to its meaning and its deeper role in his life. Thus the Word stays only on the surface, in his short-term memory.

Encountering little resistance, Satan is able to take it away quickly from the man, who has not really connected God’s Word to his life anyway. Here, too, there can be little or no transformation, because the power of God’s Word is neither appreciated nor admitted into the deeper places of the man’s soul.

No Roots – The text says, The seed sown on rocky ground is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.  But he has no root and lasts only for a time.  When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, he immediately falls away. The image here is of a plant that thrives when the weather is good and the wind calm, but blows away when the wind picks up, because of a lack of roots.

There are some who can rejoice in the Word of God, but only as long as it paints fair pictures and tickles their ears. But when the Word convicts them or causes them any negative experience within, or persecution without, they run away. When the wind blows, they are gone.

An old spiritual says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout. Before six months they’s all turned out.” As long as the preacher is talking about fair weather and there are no consequences to the Word, they’re shouting “Amen” and singing the refrains of the songs. But let that preacher step on their toes or someone in the world raise an eyebrow and they’re gone—gone with the wind. Here, too, the power of God’s Word to transform is cast aside.

No Recollection – The text says, The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word, but then worldly anxiety … chokes it off.

This describes people who are simply too distracted by the things of the world to spend time with the Word of God. They allow the water of their life to be disturbed; there is never enough calm for them to be reflective. They obsess over every small ripple that rocks the boat and do not trust God enough to relax and ponder His will and His Word. They are constantly busy with the details of their life and responding its “alarms.”

They allow the world to distract them from or draw them away from reflection on God’s world. This, too, limits the transformative power of God’s Word.

No Requirement – The text also speaks of the lure of riches [which] choke the word and it bears no fruit. Riches divide the heart.

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matt 6:21).

Some of the rich feel less need for God in their life. They are better able to maintain the illusion of self-support. But as these scriptures teach, it is an illusion, because all they really do is to buy themselves deeper into trouble.

If our treasure is in riches, our heart will not be with God’s Word. Job said, I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Only with a heart set on God’s Word as a treasure will we hunger for it and reflect on it enough to be truly transformed by it.

III. Produce – The text says, But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear … the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Here, then, is the promise reiterated that the Word of God is powerful and will produce a radical transformation in us of thirty, sixty or even one hundredfold! Note that this promise is for those who receive the Word with understanding. That is, it is for those with συνίημι (syniemi), with a will to connect the dots, to synthesize, to seek to understand the Word and apply it to their life.

I am a witness to the power of God’s Word to transform and yield abundant fruit. I have learned to expect a lot from God’s Word: a new mind, a new heart, and a new life. God has not failed me. I have seen my life change dramatically for the better in so many ways. God has been good to me and has been true to His Word, which says, If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). I cannot take credit for this new life I have received. It is the gift of God and He has given it to me through the power of His Word and the grace of His Sacraments.

Yes, I am a witness; how about you?

The lyrics of this song are taken from today’s first reading (from Isaiah 55):