Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

The Living And Effective Word

In the second reading for this week (Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Times), we hear something which should create within us nothing less than intense moral vigilance. According to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, the Word of God is described in the following manner: “Indeed the Word of God is living and effective” (Hebrews 4:12). The “Word of God” here is the Divine Logos, the Second Person in the Trinity, in Whom and Through Whom the Father acts in order to bring things into existence, and later to redeem us. What does it mean to say that the Word of God is “living and effective?” The Word is the One in Whom and through Whom God creates all things (Colossians 1:16-17, John 1:3-4). Yet, God not only brings things into existence, but also sustains all things in their existence. All things thus exist insofar as they participates in the Word of God. The Word of God is life and existence insofar as all living things and existing things derive their life and their existence from Him. Because of this, the Word of God permeates all things. We see this as verse 12 continues – the Word of God is described as “penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow.”

The Word of God creates all things, orders all things, and permeates all things. It thus knows all things. Because the Word is “living and effective” in this sense, nothing can be hidden from Him. The author of Hebrews thus concludes verse 12 by saying that the Word of God is “able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” He further says in the following verse, “No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to Whom we must render an account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

 

Myles M. Bourke, in his commentary on Hebrews, speaks of the view of the Word articulated here: “It is the Word that speaks to human beings, inviting them to belief and perseverance. It is a saving Word, but also One that judges, since it condemns those who refuse to hear it.” [2] The Word of God saves us from sin. It gives us everything we need to attain salvation, uniting the soul to God and giving us the strength to remain in such a state. Yet, those who do not heed the call to repentance, or who do not remain in such a state, will not reap the fruits of salvation, and in fact will reap the opposite fruits. The Word was given the authority to separate the former from the latter (cf. Matthew 28:18, Matthew 25:31-46). The Word thus manifests both the mercy and the judgment of God.

 

 

Thus, as we stand before God, we are faced with a choice: we can either obey God or disobey God. And if we obey God, we can do so in one of two ways. One way is by mechanistically going through the motions. In this sense, obedience to the Gospel precepts is merely something external to us. It is not something that touches on the core of our being, the depths of our soul. The second way is advocated by Jesus in the Gospel reading for this week, taken from Mark 10:17-30. This rich young man approaches Jesus and asks what is necessary for salvation. Jesus responds that the answer lies in obedience to the commandments. The rich young man then responds that this he has done since his youth, but there still seems to be something missing. He asks what more is necessary. Jesus then responds, “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; then come, follow Me.” (Mark 10:21) This was the one thing that Jesus explicitly says the rich young man was missing.

 

 

This could be seen as a warning against abusing riches. But, within this is a message that applies to all of us. One does not have to be rich to experience some of the moral temptations that surround being rich, namely, being absorbed in the things of this world, which often goes hand-in-hand with putting your own immediate wants and needs above all else. This notion of the rich young man selling his possessions and giving them to the poor, and following Christ, can thus be interpreted in one of two ways. One way is as a literal command. Sometimes people must live in accordance with this interpretation, as their riches are a distraction to their supernatural calling. This was certainly a major motivation behind the rise of Christian monasticism. St. Anthony the Great, a A.D. 4th century saint from Egypt who was the first major monk of the Christian tradition, sold all of his possessions to the poor and lived a life of secluded prayer after hearing this Bible passage being recited in a Church he walked into. Yet, what Jesus said to the rich young man applies to all of us, when we look at what lies beneath the surface of Jesus’ message. For the rich young man to give up all of his possessions and follow Jesus required a sense of self-giving love towards God and neighbor and a complete giving of oneself to God. Even though not all are called to renounce the world and live a monastic life, we are all called to foster within us the disposition of selfless, self-giving, self-emptying love.

 

 

Jesus explicitly articulates this a few verses later, in Mark 10:29-30, wherein it is recorded, “Amen I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the Gospel who will not receive a hundred times more…in the age to come.” Jesus says the same thing in the negative in Matthew 10:37-38 – “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.” What this means is that the goods of this world are not unimportant, and thus should not be neglected; nonetheless, the goods of this world are finite, temporary and passing. The only good that is not passing is the highest good, namely He Who is the source of all good, God Himself. Anyone who places the goods of this world above God is not worthy of God; but whoever gives His life entirely to God will receive a good infinitely higher than any good they perceive in the here and now, namely union with God.

 

 

This mindset is best summed up in two other Scripture passages. The first is found in the first reading, in which the author states his desire for wisdom, by which we truly know God and order our lives according to His will, thereby attaining salvation. The narrator has places such a strong emphasis on wisdom that he says, “I preferred her to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her, nor did I like any priceless gem to her; because all gold, in view of her, is a bit of sand…” (Wisdom 7:8-9) Wisdom can be taken either to refer to that whereby the soul is rightly ordered (that is, ordered towards its proper end, namely God), or, since Wisdom is presented in a highly personified and anthropomorphic fashion in the Book of Wisdom, some Biblical scholars take it as a reference to God Himself. In either case, it leads to the same point: God, and that whereby man is brought to God, is so highly valued that all else pales by comparison. Yet, to love God, and to truly make the fullest use of that whereby we are led to god, we must live on God’s terms, not our own terms. This thus requires humility on our behalf, a desire to lessen the self so that our actions may be less of a means by which our own self-satisfaction is attained and more of a vessel by which God is glorified. We see this in a Alleluia verse for this week, taken from Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” St. Augustine, in his work On the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew, this is a reference to humility. The great Latin Father wrote,

 

We read in Scripture concerning the striving after temporal things, “All is vanity and presumption of spirit” [Ecclesiastes 1:14]; but presumption of spirit means audacity and pride: usually the proud are said to have great spirits…And the “poor in spirit” are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e., those which have not the spirit that puffeth up. [3]

 

This is why Jesus told the rich young man not only to follow the commandments, but also to sell his possessions and follow Jesus. In order to be truly pleasing to God, we must give all that we are and have in service of our neighbor and commit our lives wholeheartedly to the discipleship of Christ. This often requires radical changes in our perceptions, desires and actions. But, on the surface, there seems to be very little difference between a person who simply performs the actions required by the Gospel or the Law of God, and those who do so as a result of the attitude described above. But, God, Who sees all and is thus the judge of all, knows the difference. And this difference – the difference between one who simply goes through the motions, and one who acts out of a sense of self-giving love towards God and neighbor – makes all the difference in the world, since only one who acts our of humility and love can fulfill the Will of God. We see this in Romans 13:8, wherein it is written, “…whoever loves others has fulfilled the Law.” Love is what lies at the center of the Law. The Law of God is meant to foster a sense of love, and one who acts out of love, insofar as they act out of love, never says, does or desires anything to violate the Law.

 

God knows whether we act out of love, or whether our adherence to the commands of God is shallow and meaningless. It is only if we have former that we can we be saved. It is not enough simply to follow the commands of God: we must follow God’s commands with complete self-giving love, giving of our entire selves to God and neighbor. This is extremely difficult. This may create a sense of fear, as it did with the Apostles, who responded to Jesus’ teaching in this weeks Gospel, “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10:26) Yet, we must always keep before us the words of Christ: “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.” (Mark 10:27) This does not lessen human moral responsibility; humans must put in the effort to do what God so desires of them. Yet, to do so in a manner pleasing to God is difficult, if not impossible, for fallen, sinful man. Yet, God gives us all that we need to be saved. What is impossible for us on our own is possible with the help of God.

 

 

Sources:

  1. To see the readings of this week, visit: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/101418.cfm
  2. Myles M. Bourke, “Hebrews.” In The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Fr. Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Fr. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., and Fr. Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm. (Upper Saddle Hill: Prentice Hall, 1990, pg. 928
  3. St. Augustine, On Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount according to Matthew, Book I, chapter 1. In The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, edited by Philip Schaff (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, 2012), pg. 4

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