“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never harm me,” is a proverbial saying that parents sometimes use to help children “brush off” ridicule, bullying or harsh words. The saying should be used carefully for it is not entirely accurate. Words are powerful and do have an effect on us. The effect may be for good or may be for evil.
Consider another proverb, this one from the Scriptures, from Sirach: “A blow from a whip raises a welt, but a blow from the tongue will break bones.” (Sirach 28:17)
Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, who had spent almost three decades in prison for his fight against apartheid recognized the power of words. In a 2013 Wall Street Journal article he wrote: “It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”
Most of us have an innate understanding of the power of words. We experience this when we speak, when we read and when we listen. We can easily recall the times when we are inspired by words of faith, encouraged by words of support, offended by words of scorn, enlightened by words of challenge, comforted by words of consolation, alerted by words of warning, uplifted by words of hope, driven by words of truth, deceived by words of deception and so forth. Whether we are the speaker, the reader or the listener, words impact us.
Sacred Scriptures are called the “Word of God.” The most frequently read, cited, copied, translated book of all time is the Bible. It has a huge impact on us.
Throughout its long history many people have heard God speak to them through the words contained therein. This is, not the only, but one of the chief ways God communicates with those he has created in his image and likeness. He speaks to us. The pinnacle of this communication comes in the “word made flesh,” the “Son of God,” Jesus Christ.
The Fourth Gospel describes Jesus in these opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” The first three words harken back to the opening words of Genesis, “In the beginning…”
Later on, when describing creation, the author uses the familiar pattern of God speaking the words of creation and then those words taking effect, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and ‘there was light.”
God’s word has power. His Word creates and gives life. Now, the Son of God becomes man and speaks to us directly. His speech is not only in words but in His very self. He is the Word that gives life. He is the Word that creates anew.
And so, Jesus says to us today: “But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
He is speaking to his disciples. These are the people who have responded to him in faith. They were willing to encounter Him with an open heart, to engage Him with open arms and to listen to Him with open ears. On this journey of faith, they are willing to learn from Him, the Way of life. The sincerity with which they relate provides fertile ground for the life he offers to take root and grow with in them. The disciples here mentioned are not just those who lived during the public ministry but the millions and millions who followed in the two millennia hence.
Jesus, during His life on earth, uses different forms of speech to communicate. Sometimes he gives a lengthy speech, sometimes a pithy saying, sometimes he tells a story, sometimes He uses figurative language, sometimes He uses plain talk.
One of the forms he often uses to engage his listeners is the “parable.” The parable is usually short in length, normally symbolic, and can have multiple layers of meaning. One of the features of a parable is that it entices the listener to active reflection. The familiar parable he gives us today has many of these characteristics.
The last is witnessed by the disciples who are not exactly sure what Jesus is speaking about in the parable – in other words, they are actively reflecting on it, trying to understand – so they ask Him: “Why do you speak to them in parables?”
Perhaps I may cite the version in The Gospel According to Mark where my point may be clearer: “And when he was alone, those present along with the Twelve questioned him about the parables.” (Mark 4:10). Or better yet from The Gospel According to Luke: “Then his disciples asked him what the meaning of this parable might be.” (Luke 8:9)
This is one actually one of the very few parables that Jesus provides an explanation or interpretation. Notice in Jesus’ explanation, the seeds refer to people – people who “hear the word of the kingdom.”
Now this “word of the kingdom” can have a layered meaning. It refers not only to Jesus’ “words” but also to He who is the Word. The “kingdom” is God’s vision for creation, chief of which is humanity.
The “kingdom” also refers to His reign, where He is King. Jesus is sent to proclaim the Kingdom. He does this in “words” but also in His very self – the “word become flesh.”
In receiving, welcoming, listening to, believing in Him, and being united with Him, one enters the Kingdom of God. Elsewhere Jesus will say: “The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’ For behold, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
The four variations of the “seed” deal with the type of land on which it is sown: a path, rocky ground, in a patch of thorns, or rich soil. In the explanation, Jesus uses these descriptors to qualify the disposition of the persons who “hear the word of the kingdom.”
The qualities refer to the interior disposition of the person represented by the seed. The seed that falls on the path represent the person who has not internalized the word so as to understand it. The seed that falls on rocky ground represents a person who has “taken in” the word. It has gone deeper than the one that fell on the path but not much deeper. The seed that falls among thorns goes even deeper but distractions pull the person away from further growth.
Finally, the seed that falls on good soil represents the one who has an open heart and willing spirit, the one who puts their faith in Jesus and allows Him to penetrate the essence of their lives and to allow Him and His word to transform them.
The disciples who not only hear the Word of God but listen to Him are represented by the seed that fall on the rich soil. These are the ones who have or will experience the prophetic word of Isaiah: “Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till 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, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
These are the disciples who will bring forth a great deal of fruit – sustenance and nourishment for anyone who encounters them. It is as though the life Jesus offers to the disciples is handed on to others as a result of their taking Him in.
The “Word of God” and His “words” are powerful indeed. They give life to all who receive Him. And so He says to us as he said to those early disciples: “blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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