Listening actively

By: By Father Douglas Grandon

Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 30

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8; Psalm 15:2-3,3-4,4-5; James 1:17-18,21b-22,27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

AS A TEENAGER, I often prayed late in the evening on a secluded bluff overlooking the Rock River in glorious Sinnissippi Park, outside Sterling. The moon and the stars would shine brightly and reflect magically on the river below. It was in that setting, where God seemed so very near, that I first sensed my vocation to pastoral ministry and missionary service.

I suspect that St. James wrote this week’s second reading after gazing at a similar sky in first-century Israel.

“Every good . . . and . . . perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:16 RSV). James rightly begins with the “the Father of lights” (the Creator of the stars), who showers his people with “every good and perfect gift.” While the pagan gods were capricious and undependable, the Christian God is eternally generous. There is no variation in God’s character. He differs dramatically from the heavenly bodies, which wax, wane, and move about the sky.

“Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:18 RSV). Like an artist who freely chooses to fashion a masterpiece, God freely chose to create human beings. Even more amazingly, after we had rejected God’s sovereignty and sullied our nature, God re-created us in Christ. (The first-century believers, to whom James was writing, were the initial representatives, the “first fruits,” of God’s redemptive work in Christ.)

WE OWE God a double debt — for our creation and for our subsequent re-creation. As Christians, therefore, we are obliged to “put away all filthiness and . . . wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word” (James 1:21 RSV). This word, James emphasizes, “is able to save your souls.”

James makes clear that we are not only to listen attentively to God’s Word, but also to do it. James illustrates the difference by contrasting a person who combs his hair after examining his face in a mirror with another who looks, but does nothing. It is only active hearing that saves the soul; those who only passively hear, delude themselves.

True religion, the one that God deems “pure and undefiled,” is characterized by a faith-filled and life-changing response to God’s word. James offers three characteristics of pure religion: “caring for orphans,” “caring for widows,” and “keeping oneself unstained by the world.” He could have added countless other qualities: “concern to evangelize the lost,” “bringing Communion to the sick,” “catechizing your friends and neighbors,” “keeping your marriage vows,” and “protecting the life of the unborn.”

WHAT PRACTICAL conclusions might one draw from this passage? Clearly, all of us should renew our commitment to the active hearing of God’s word. At a minimum, this presupposes weekly attendance at Mass, where Scripture is read and homilies are preached. (By the way, parents who discuss the weekly readings with their children before Mass will find them much more attentive during the Liturgy of the Word.) We should also commit to reading at least a small portion of Scripture every day, ideally together with our families. Seven days without God’s word make one weak!

Since it is the engrafted word that saves the soul, our priests and deacons should be careful to deliver a well-crafted, thoughtful homily at each weekend Mass. After explaining the meaning of the readings, a good homily will conclude with an appropriate application to our present situation. In other words, having heard God’s word, in what concrete way should we now respond? As my favorite seminary professor once advised, “A good homily will cause God’s word to sing — and sting.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “By the saving word of God, faith . . . is nourished in the hearts of believers. By this faith . . . the congregation of the faithful begins and grows. This proclamation does not stop with teaching; it elicits the response of faith as consent and commitment . . . .” (CCC1102).

THE PROPHET Amos proclaimed there to be a famine in the land 2,800 years ago — “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” Having spent much of my life in a world of 30-minute sermons and weekly Bible classes, I wonder whether the 10-minute homily has the capacity to generate the kind of radical Christian discipleship we so desperately need to see in our day?

Recently, while driving to southern Illinois, I was excited to see a “shooting star” streak across the sky. I thought once again of my call to ordained ministry 35 years ago, and I wondered where my missionary call might take me now that I am a Catholic priest. My more significant concern, however, is that I be a faithful doer of God’s word, by which God is saving my soul.

Father Douglas Grandon is parochial vicar of Sacred Heart Parish in Moline.

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