Third Sunday In Ordinary Time – Nehemiah 8:2-10; Luke 4:14-21
Every word was precious.
Imagine if every book in the world cost $50,000. A $100,000.
Imagine if every piece of paper cost $100—if every email and text cost a $100 to send, or to read.
Our behavior would change. We’d be a lot more careful with our words. We’d only write down what was really important and we’d pay a lot more attention to what other people write.
And this is the way it was in the ancient world. We think the people of the past were like us, and they were, fundamentally, but in some ways they were very different, and they were very different when it came to reading and writing.
Not only didn’t they have the internet, they didn’t have the printing press. The printing press wasn’t invented until the 15th century, and so books were not mass produced and were not affordable. It took a whole year to copy out a book onto a scroll like the scrolls Ezra reads from in the reading today and Jesus reads from in the synagogue–they were 30, sometimes 35 feet long–it took a whole year for someone to write out a scroll like that, by hand, and so a whole year’s wages.
Books were rare. You couldn’t own them yourself. You had to come to hear them read aloud, the way we come to a movie theatre—that’s what the word “read” means in Hebrew and in Greek: to proclaim aloud. Reading was centralized, it was a public event, and the texts being read aloud were of the greatest possible value because only what really mattered was committed to parchment. Every word was precious.
And these weren’t just any words. These were the words of God himself. All written words were in a sense holy in the ancient world but these words were the holiest of all because through them the Lord was speaking to his people, and he still is. Through the different genres and the jumble of the different texts and the different authors and their different historical contexts, despite the fact that the Lord is speaking through human agents with their human limitations, through violent, war-like, slave-owning, patriarchal cultures, he does speak, the light does shine through the distortions, like the light that shines through a stained glass window.
Every day, every mass, the words of God are fulfilled in our hearing.
If only we would treat the sacred text the way the people in Nehemiah do. If only we would weep. If only we would rejoice.
Through the different genres and the jumble of the different texts and the different authors and their different historical contexts, despite the fact that the Lord is speaking through human agents with their human limitations, through violent, war-like, slave-owning, patriarchal cultures, he does speak, the light does shine through the distortions, like the light that shines through a stained glass window.
We’re buried in words, in books and paper and in texts and emails and the blogosphere. I have no idea how the NSA can track it all—it must be like trying to contain the stars—and the more words there are, the cheaper they are. We say whatever we want because we know we can. Who cares? This is true even with scripture. I subscribe to the Magnificat, as many of us do, I own multiple Bibles and multiple commentaries, I have all kinds of spiritual books, and websites to go to, and blogs I read–I’m drowning in words about God as I’m drowning in words about everything else.
God help me but my mind wanders when I try to read the Bible and pray at home. My eyes skim the words. The people in Nehemiah spend hours reading and listening, “from daybreak to midday.” I barely get in a few minutes before I’m on to the next thing.
God help me but my mind wanders during the readings at mass and even when I’m reading the Gospel myself. I treat the words as if they’re cheap, just a few words among billions.
But they are the Word Made Flesh. They are the Voice We Long to Hear More than Any Other Voice.
I know a man who copies out a book of the Bible by hand each year. That’s his spiritual practice, a little each day. He wants to slow himself down, get the words into his head and into his body, touch them and feel them. I suggest the same thing: not a whole book but a passage, a verse. Or memorize a passage. Take the time to repeat the words over and over again. Or read a passage aloud, slowly.
Savor the words. Don’t even think about them at first. Just admire their beauty. Their strength. Think of each word as worth hundreds of dollars. Thousands. And let’s not just pay attention to the words of God but to our own words, to what we write and read.
Savor the words. Don’t even think about them at first. Just admire their beauty. Their strength. Think of each word as worth hundreds of dollars. Thousands.
How big a fire can start from a little flame, the letter of James says. He’s talking about the sins of the tongue, but the tongue can start good fires, too, if we watch ourselves, if when we sit down to write an email, for example, we think: what if this were the last email we’d ever send to this person? What then would we say?
And we need to read carefully, too. We need to read other peoples’ emails, all the way through, and think about them for more than a minute. We have to filter and screen, of course. Otherwise we’d go out of our minds. Let’s just slow it down. Let’s start with the assumption that there may be something good there—that the person writing this isn’t a fool and isn’t the enemy but someone like us, lost and vulnerable and flawed, precious in the eyes of the Lord.
And let’s do this with what we speak, too, and what we hear.
The other day I was hurrying and getting ready to go to school, and I was thinking about too many things, as I usually do. And from the back of the house I heard Barb’s voice, calling from another room: do you know where I put my book? And for a moment, through the grace of God, I was able to hear that voice and hear those words and realize how precious they are to me.
Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing, Jesus says. The voice of the one we love is always calling from another room, if only we pay attention. Our own words are precious, or can be, our own words are sacred texts, because through them now and then we hear the voice of the Lord, the voice of mercy, the voice of love.
May we listen for that voice. May we be that voice: may the Spirit flow through us.
May the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable to you O Lord!