Bishop of Lake Charles
Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
“For from you the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place faith in God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything.” I Thessalonians 1:8
Once there was a man who began each day reading a passage from the Bible. The passage he chose told him how to live his day. One day he opened the Bible and placed his finger on a text that read, “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” He thought to himself, “This can’t be what the word of God is telling me to do. Let me try again.” So, he opened the Bible a second time, placed his finger on a random text and it read, “Go, you, and do likewise.” At this point he was terribly upset. He figured he would give it a third try. He cautiously opened the Bible, closed his eyes and let the book fall open. He placed his finger gently on the third and final passage that read, “What you do, do quickly.”
One must always read passages from the Scriptures in context. For this I have always followed the principle found in the Bible itself. “Know this first of all, that there is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation, for no prophecy ever came through human will; but rather human beings moved by the holy Spirit spoke under the influence of God” (II Peter 1:20-21). The key to understanding the Bible is context. The context of the Bible is God, those to whom He entrusted its authorship, and the Church that assured its continuation and preservation.
What is the word of God? What do we mean when we refer to the word of God? Is it confined to a book? After all what is a book? This struck me as I read the second reading for this Sunday. Writing to the Thessalonians in Greece, St. Paul commends them for having received the word of God. And how did the Thessalonians receive the word of God? St. Paul answers, “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit” (I Thessalonians 1:6). There was no book. St. Paul lived and preached the word. The Thessalonians heard that word and put it into practice. “From you,” St. Paul writes to these early Christians, “the word of the Lord has sounded forth not only in Macedonia and in Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has gone forth, so that we have no need to say anything” (I Thessalonians 1:8). The Thessalonians are engaged in a living word. They “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead” (I Thessalonians 1:9-10).
The word of God is simply too great, too vast, too profound to be contained in any written word. The written word expresses the Divine Word, but the Divine Word is found fully in God. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, “The word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). The eternal word is God’s communication. God inspired human authors to express that communication. They in turn preached and wrote in words that listeners could understand. The original languages of the Bible were Hebrew and Greek. When Hebrew and Greek ceased being languages spoken by everyday people, St. Jerome did us the favor of translating the Bible into Latin. This happened in 407, and that Latin translation served the needs of the Church until modern languages developed. Translations of major parts of the Bible in English date back to at least the 10th century (e.g. Wessex Gospels). Parts of the Bible or all of it existed in key European languages hundreds of years before the Reformation. According to historian Paul Johnson, when Luther translated the Bible into German, there were already fourteen versions of the Bible in German already in print, four in the Dutch language. The Church did not forbid translations of the Bible. The Church wanted translations approved by competent Church authorities. The Church wanted to ensure the proper transmission of the text.
When we read the Scriptures and hear them read to us at Mass, they are precious to us. We should “hang on every word.” We should also realize that as every word enters us through our ears, that word comes to rest in our souls. We can choose to ignore it or to live by it. However, to live by it, that word must become a part of us. The word must be lived; otherwise, it remains just a written word. We must also realize that because that word we hear or read is part of a greater reality, that is God’s communication to us, no interpretation we give to it can ever exhaust the full meaning of that word. “There is no prophecy of scripture that is a matter of personal interpretation…” (II Peter 1:20).
The written word of God was first preached, spoken by prophets and in the fullness of time by Jesus Himself. Only after the word of God had been preached and believed was it written for preservation and teaching in books. The word of God is eternal. It lives. It translates itself not just into words in a book but into the actions of a living tradition that you and I and the Church keep but never to ourselves. The word of God is too deep, too rich, to be confined to any written word. For this reason, the Gospel of St. John begins with this sublime sentence: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).