The Ninevites will rise at the judgment with this generation and will condemn it. They repented at the preaching of Jonah. Look, something greater than Jonah is here!
Luke 11: 32
In the verses immediately preceding the selection for today’s gospel, Luke recounts the words of a woman who shouts to Jesus from the crowd: “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts that fed you.” The consciousness of the woman is that of her time, and of most times for that matter, that it is one’s social lineage and standing, one’s familial and tribal roots, that constitute one’s blessedness and significance. Yet Jesus responds that “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (Luke 11: 27-8) The worldview of Jesus is profoundly egalitarian. One’s blessedness is due to one’s personal/communal and unique response from the heart to the word that one hears. It is not one’s “tongue, or tribe, or people, or nation” that constitutes one’s blessedness; there is no advantage to being born “Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female,” it is rather one’s capacity to hear the the word that God directs uniquely to oneself and to keep that word.
In the verses that follow that constitute today’s gospel passage, Jesus then points out that the sign of truly hearing the word is repentance. Repentance is the opposite of self-justification and self-satisfaction. Since the love of God is of its nature creative and dynamic, it shall always be experienced by the “humble and contrite heart” as a lack in oneself. As St. Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 5:14, the love of Christ will always “impel us.” It will stir us always beyond who we now are and the limits we impose on others and the world.
By the examples he offers, Jesus teaches that the word of God will often come to us from unwelcome sources. It is a willingness to be taught by the stranger and alien that characterizes the Queen of the South and the Ninevites. It is an act of detachment from their own social, cultural, and even religious certitudes that creates the space for these persons to change their lives and to discover their way. Jesus is teaching his listeners that the same is required of them. They must be willing to listen despite all their resistances to him if they are to receive the truth of his message.
Never before have there been so many means of instant and widespread communication. In the mid-twentieth century Marshall McLuhan had forecast that our increased means of mass communication would create a “global village.” So far, at least, that village is one of universal expression yet ever decreasing communication and dialogue. Now the words of any one of us can be “broadcast” throughout the entire world, and yet, or so it seems, our engagement with the words we hear is decreasingly interformative and transformative. The words of Jesus remain as trenchant, and difficult, as ever: “Happy are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
What does it take to hear and to keep the word? Perhaps among the most important conditions is silence. The silence required to really hear is both external and internal. Perhaps one of the reasons why our global village is so cacophonous is that we are, in fact, exposed to too many words. Many of us now live with a running commentary on life, a commentary that drowns out the experience. We can’t hear a word with depth if our commentary on the word is drowning it out.
What we now call news reporting consists of about ten percent information and ninety percent commentary. We can’t hear a news story or a speech of a public figure without immediately being told what we ought to think about it. This external wordiness mirrors our own internal distractions. We are told that after the visit of the shepherds following the birth of Jesus Mary “treasured these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2: 19). It takes space and silence to ponder. And, to ponder “in the heart” requires that we are intimate with our own heart.
If a word is to rouse us and call us to greater life, we must know the needs and reasons of our own hearts. These are different from our most readily accessible thoughts. Our thoughts are largely formed from the outside. They tend to be a synthesis of what our social, cultural, and religious biases tell us. The primary goal of these “exterior thoughts” is to rationalize and justify our own and our tribe’s ways. Yet, the “thoughts of the heart” are characterized by our sense of lack, our need for more and for God. These thoughts are subtle and even painful, and so they are easily drowned out by the noise that both surrounds us and assails us from within. The “still small voice” of our hearts can only be heard in stillness, silence, and pondering.
As much as for that crowd that surrounded Jesus in the gospel of Luke, a word is being given to us at each moment of our day and of our lives. It is a word that, if heard, will lead to doing, to reformation and transformation of our lives. Most often, however, we never hear it for lack of openness and spaciousness. On this busy day at the beginning of a busy week, may we seize upon the spare and momentary opportunities for silence and listening that are given to us, that our hearts may reverberate with that word we shall always hear when we dare to listen, attend, and ponder.
For although the scripture themselves are written by the Spirit of God, yet they are written within and without: and besides the light that shines upon the face of them, unless there be a light shining within our harts, unfolding the leaves, and interpreting the mysterious sense of the Spirit, convincing our consciences and preaching to our hearts; to look for Christ in the leaves of the Gospel, is to look for the living amongst the dead. There is a life in them, but that life is, according to St. Paul’s expression, “hid with Christ in God”: and unless the Spirit of God be the promo-condus, we shall never draw it forth.
Jeremy Taylor, Sermon VI