The Living Word of God: It must change us
This 3rd Sunday in ordinary time is, as of recently, dedicated to the Word of God. So, we should talk about the Word of God in the life of a disciple of Christ, and maybe even a little bit about how the Word of God came to be recognized as such.
In the first reading we have a glimpse into a day of celebration among the Hebrews. As they listen to the Priest Ezra, they are once again reverencing the Word of God in their midst and how awesome they are as the chosen people of God.
The Word of God in the Life of a Christian
When was the last time you were interested or even willing to listen for hours to the Word of God being proclaimed? Admittedly, a lot of Catholics struggle to get through listening scripture being proclaimed at Mass during the first half hour! How many families still have the Bible ‘enthroned’ in their homes? Do people still give ‘Family Bibles’ as wedding gifts? How many parents roll their eyes when granny or the religious Aunt give the kids age-appropriate bibles? Are there any families making it a priority to reflect, as a family – as a couple, on the scripture readings for Mass? I think most of the answers to these questions would be negative in nature.
Today’s readings remind us of the importance of the Word of God in our lives and of those who help us to understand it. Interacting with the Word of God is of course a necessary part of our individual lives, but it is also an endeavor of the united community of faith. The human community was designed by God to be a community of loving behavior, of learning together, of living in unity and of leading.
Through this first reading you and I are to be reminded of our own identity as adopted children of God. That it is through the living word, Christ, in whom we come to know ourselves and our God. All the readings and the Psalm remind us of the importance of the word of God in our lives. They remind us to recover that which we have lost individually in our own walk with Christ, in our relationship with the Word of God, and as a community of faith - the Church Militant. Therefore, Pope Francis elevated this Sunday for special attentiveness to the Word of God, not that it's not important every day, but that it is clearly set before us at the beginning of the calendar year. The Word of God must be of paramount importance to us. We must be intimately familiar with it. The enthronement of a Bible in your home ought to be the symbol of the enthronement of the Word of God within you. You ought to have a Bible and read it! Whether it's on your phone, on your tablet or in your hand. This is the normative way in which God speaks to us, through which we come to know ourselves and God.
Cultural and historical context is often an important aspect for understanding scripture. In the first reading we are transported to the 5th century B.C. during the supremacy of the Persian Empire and the return of Jews to Palestine. Ezra had been given the task of renewing the faith and practice of the Jews, which included rebuilding the Temple. Part of Ezra’s’ mandate was to help the Hebrews through the Word of God, to know who they are and to know the laws that govern who they are as the people of God. Not every member of the community was jumping up and down about this. There was great division among them. But Ezra was faithful to his mission, despite the opposition and apathy. He was determined to bring about renewal among the people of God.
In today’s First Reading, the priest Ezra, as part of a liturgical assembly in honor of the dedication of the newly rebuilt Temple in Israel, reads the scriptures for hours to the people to help them to renew the covenant and understand how to live it. Ezra wasn't just reading the juicy bits. He wasn't reading the bits that would make for a compelling soap opera drama about their history and keep them engaged. He was reading all sorts of the laws from Deuteronomy and Leviticus numbers. The chosen of God found their identity in the law and were constantly reminded throughout their history of that identity by the prophets. And yet, we shouldn't over romanticize what might have been going on there at that moment with Ezra. We shouldn't create an image in our minds of crowds of Jews listening with quiet, eager attentiveness.
Before Christ there were a lot of writings out there among the Jews, as well in the time of Christ after the resurrection a lot of people were writing a lot of things. Not everybody had been paying careful attention, not everyone wanted to write accurate accounts. Consider the homily. You hear the homily. I know what I've written. I know what I've spoken. But standing at the door after Mass, I could hear five different versions of what I've said. I could even hear someone say they were really moved or provoked to thought by a particular thing they heard me say… which I have no recollection of saying! But I'm glad that God somehow spoke to that person through whatever it was I said. The point being, unless God inspires and keeps from error that which God has spoken we cannot completely trust the Word of God. It is necessarily reliable.
Of course, we must be careful now, as the Church has been through the ages, with regard to interpretation, translation and teachings derived from Scripture. We must continue to guard against errors that can corrupt through agendas, and the fallenness of man. We must let the Holy Spirit guide us, and particularly through the wisdom of the Church. To get an idea of that carefulness we can see how over the first four centuries of the Church the leaders of the Church worked diligently to establish what was and what was not the inspired Word of God.
Now because people are the way they are, whether we know facts, have opinions, or just regurgitate things we’ve heard… we like to sound and act as though we in fact are experts. This is no less true when it comes to the Church and what as Catholics we believe. This truth, as well as many other factors tend to get in the way of the full and unadulterated Word of God having a place in our lives that it ought to have. However, if you believe in God. And you believe that God wants you to know, God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And that God can communicate what God wants us to know. And that God, being united in being, is incapable of lying or error. Then is it a big stretch to think that the word that God communicates through the people that God communicated it to by the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God truly… could be done without error. Particularly in matters of faith and morals.
What we call the Bible today was passed along through oral and written traditions, compiled into books at various moments of salvation history, and the Church, aided by the Holy Spirit, established as the canon (rule) of Scripture those books we read and meditate on today. Without God’s Word, we’d soon lose our identity and our way in a world plagued by ignorance, confusion, and evil. Sacred Scripture continues to ensure that we have access to the Word of God, spoken through all of salvation history, and remain united in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
The word “canon” means a straight rod or bar used to keep something straight, like a ruler for ensuring straight lines. The Canon of Scripture, therefore, is a “ruler” for our faith. The Canon of Scripture, as the Catechism teaches us, is the complete list of 46 sacred books in the Old Testament and twenty-seven in the New Testament.
The Catechism teaches us that the Canon of Scripture was handed down to us by the apostles, although, the official Canon for the Old and New Testaments wasn’t decided definitively until the councils of the 4th century. The Canon helps us keep the Word of God firm and fixed for everyone and “straight” in our heads and our lives. This is a primary responsibility of the teaching authority of the Church, as well as a responsibility for each of us to ensure that we are receiving an understanding of Scripture in line with the teaching of the Church.
The Jews at the time of Jesus, could not agree on which books were divinely inspired. The Sadducees accepted as scripture only the first 5 books written by Moses (the Pentateuch), while the Pharisees accepted the 34 other books of the Old Testament as well. However, there were other Jews from the Diaspora, the dispersion of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, who believed that another seven books were also divinely inspired. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek by seventy translators, includes the disputed seven books that Protestants do not recognize as scriptural.
The epistle of James, which Luther famously disagreed with and wanted to remove, is one of the earliest books of the New Testament, along with St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians and the Gospel of Mark – approximately 25-30 years after the crucifixion of our Lord. The book of Revelation and the Gospel of John are considered the latest books of the canon to be written, not later than approximately 100 A.D.
In about 367 AD, St. Athanasius came up with a list of 73 books for the Bible that he believed to be divinely inspired. This list was finally approved by Pope Damasus I in 382 AD and was formally approved by the Church Council of Rome in that same year. Later Councils at Hippo (393 AD) and Carthage (397 AD) ratified this list of 73 books. In 405 AD, Pope Innocent I wrote a letter to the Bishop of Toulouse reaffirming this canon of 73 books. In 419 AD, the Council of Carthage reaffirmed this list, to which Pope Boniface agreed. The Council of Trent, in 1546, reaffirmed St. Athanasius’s original list of 73 books.
The above dating of the canonical scriptures, mean of course, that for the first few hundred years after the establishment of the Catholic Church by Christ, there was no officially decreed canon of New Testament Scriptures. However, we had the Eucharist, Mass and the seven sacraments as well as the establishment of the hierarchy of the Church. The Scriptures are essential, they are the living Word of God, however the Church was not founded on ‘a book’ but rather on Christ who formed a community of believers who were brought into the divine life through faith and baptism and made the mystical body of Christ – the Church.
This doesn’t mean that the Apostles and missionary disciples made their own path and their own ideas of what it meant to be Christian, to follow Christ. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), they were absolutely faithful to the words, the teachings of Christ which he spoke during his ministry of 3 years and they were very rooted in the scriptures of the Hebrews.
Inspiration and Inerrancy
We are taught by the Church, as written in the Catechism, that although God inspired the human authors of the sacred books God did so not as a form of possession while giving divine dictation, but by guiding the human author to receive and record the Word with full use of their faculties, gifts and differences. Insofar as we recognize the human authors we do not devalue the Word as a purely human literary endeavor. God is the author of Sacred Scripture. "The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit." As a divine work spoken by God it is also without errors, "since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures."
We are also taught that the interpretation of Sacred Scripture must also be a work of God and man. To interpret Scripture correctly, we must understand the intent of the authors of origin, what God desired to be revealed to the original audience, to us now and the larger eschatological meaning insofar as these coexist in the written Word. "Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written."
The Second Vatican Council indicates three criteria for interpreting Scripture in accordance with the Spirit who inspired it. We must Be especially attentive "to the content and unity of the whole Scripture". We must read the Scripture within "the living Tradition of the whole Church". We must be attentive to the analogy of faith.82 By "analogy of faith" we mean the coherence of the truths of faith among themselves and within the whole plan of Revelation.
The Church has long believed that there are multiple senses or meanings in Sacred Scripture, senses that are not incompatible but, rather, “concordant,” as the Catechism describes it. Concordant means they are in harmony, just as chords are meant to harmonize with each other. If someone claims to have learned something from God, but it doesn’t measure up to what has been transmitted in Sacred Scripture we know it is not the “rule” of faith.
How might the above information help us to understand today’s readings? We already made note above of some cultural and historical information related to the first reading. We can also note that the emphasis in the first reading was on the Word of God; the importance of the Word of God in, for the community, and the way in which the community ought to respond to the Word of God given to them. The second reading from Paul, seems like it might not be part of a continuous message with its focus on you know the mystical body of Christ. But consider, he's talking about all the different parts that we are as church. He’s speaking of the rules that we have individually with the gifts God has given us in order to fulfill the mission of Christ. The mission of the church, which is the salvation of the world.
These different roles that we have, of which we should not be jealous, speaks to the living word, which is Christ because the living word is also comprised of many parts, each with a function and which much function together as a whole. Many different parts, all organized together to work together to speak together for the good of the people, for the salvation of the world. That's the role of the word of God, which makes sense because as John said “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”Christ is the word of God. Christ the word Christ, the mystical body, the church, the parts like Paul is talking about. So the immediate sense is the church.
Here and now before God, who are you? What are you called to do? How do you do that which you are called to do? In unity with each other according to the grand eschatological plan in the will of God we are many parts but we must be understood as one work of creation in and through God. Just as we are individual and yet one, unique in purpose and yet one, so too Sacred Scripture has many unique parts, individual in meaning and purpose and yet one work of God. We are not to read the whole of Scripture literally, or figuratively. It's not all about myth. It's not all accurate history. All of these different parts must work together like a grand orchestra of instruments playing one piece of music. The mystical body of Christ and Scripture, with God as composer and conductor. And really, that's even how the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy is supposed to be experienced. All the different voices, all the different parts and the instruments coming together as a great orchestration of worship. A great work of the people that sounds beautiful in its unity of meaning and purpose.
Now let us consider the reading from the Gospel, remembering that in the first and second readings we gleaned the importance of the Word of God for our identity, to understand ourselves and God and so to be made able to know and fulfil our purpose in unity with each other in accord with the will of God. In the gospel Jesus is talking about himself, who he is and his mission.
In today’s Gospel Luke explains to a friend, Theophilus (beloved of God) that he sought to check and compile all concerning Jesus that had been written or handed down by other “ministers of the word.” Luke wants to give him an accurate and orderly account of Jesus’ life and teaching. He wants to assure his friend that what he writes is accurate and is based on the experiences of people who did know Jesus personally. But he is not writing a biography. His first purpose is to tell us the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our personal lives and why we should accept and follow Jesus as our King and Lord. In other words, Jesus is much more than a social worker. He’s not a nice guy who came to teach us a few useful things about living together in harmony. He’s not a philosopher who gives us a theory about life. He’s not a politician who promises to fulfill every wish we could ever have.
The Mission and Identity of Jesus
In the Gospel Jesus presented and mission and shed light on all the Word of God. He has come to fulfill everything promised through the prophets, and to give meaning to the history of salvation lived until that moment. Luke has Christ moving from Nazareth to Jerusalem in a straight line of mission driven purpose. Here at Nazareth, at the beginning of his Gospel he has Jesus gave his mission statement. This is who I am. This is what I've come for. This is in fulfillment of scripture, end of story. Let's get on with it. Just that simple.
Luke very deliberately has Jesus start his work in Nazareth. As savior his public life will be a single, direct journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the focal point of the story told by Luke in his gospel and in the Acts. Jesus says that he has been anointed to “proclaim liberty to captives and to let the oppressed go free.” He comes to bring us back to God. He tells us exactly what he wants to do, what he came to earth for: he came to bring "good news" to those who suffer, to free captives, to cure the blind - he came because we needed him to come. Who are the suffering, the imprisoned, the blind? All of us. Each one of us. Sometimes physically, and all the time spiritually.
And that speaks to us here and now, of our mission and identity. Like Christ we must know our identity. We must know in what our part of his mission are we to be engaged. We must have certainty as to how that mission and identity will be lived out, day to day in the world. Through what we learn from Christ we will know how to live that mission first in the family. Each of us is called to build Christ's Kingdom in our family. What kind of parent would Jesus be? What kind of a brother or sister or daughter or cousin or grandparent? Every Christian family should be a garden of light, goodness, strength, joy, and forgiveness, a real school of Christian virtue. Second in the Parish, which is more than a gas station where we come to fill up on sacramental grace. It's also more than a place where we punch our card every week. Every parish is an extension of Christ's incarnation in a concrete community. Each of us needs to ask God how we can contribute to parish life, how we can combine our talents in order to help the parish be a fruitful outpost of Christ's Kingdom. And third in the rest of the world. Your workplace, your neighborhood, your school, your sports teams... Everywhere we go we should be shining with the light of Christ in word and example. The people around us are searching for Christ, and Christ is coming to them - through us. Play football the way Christ would play football. Welcome the new neighbor the way Christ would. Carry out your work responsibilities with a Christ-like integrity.
How do I be a husband who is a man of God, a wife who is a woman of God? A parent who will raise their children up to no God to love God and to serve God? Not by force of will. But by coming to an understanding of the greatness of God and the wonderfulness of that relationship. Yes. Yes Lord, it's like Samuel in the temple. I'm here. In the parish, parishes don't have a life without people doing their part. Right, there are no ministries. There are no ushers. There are no people to count the money. There are no teachers for religious education. The truth is, without people living the mission in their parish, things that need to happen that need to get done don't. In the rest of the world, loving neighbor out there. Everybody out there. What am I gonna do? What am I doing at work? How am I living my Christian life? Who am I? Am I understood as a child of God by others because of what I do and what I say because of who I am. Do people know who I am? Am I fulfilling the mission of Christ in my life?
At the heart of the message is the importance of the Word of God as answer to all these questions. Because I will not know who I am, I cannot fulfill my mission. I will not be like the people in the first reading. I will not be like Ezra. I will not be like Christ. I will not be like Paul, if I don't engage with the living Word of God more and more and allow its transformative power to make me that which I am born to be in God. The word of God, your Bible, we need to have an intimate relationship with the whole. To read it. To know it. To live it. God’s Word endures throughout history to guide us and to shape our identity, then in the life of Israel, now in the life of the People of God. If each one of us is more and more like Christ in these three mission fields, God will do wonders, for us and through us. The meaning and happiness of our lives depends on embracing this mission, on saying not just with our lips, but with our lives, every day: Thy Kingdom Come!
Fr. Blair Gaynes has been in the Diocese since 2008.