There is one phrase that I absolutely hate. It is the phrase “Just (i.e., ‘simply’) words.” When we use it, we are generally being sarcastic. But are “just words” really ever “just words”?
Consider the following statements:
“I will love you forever.”
“You are worthless.”
“I do.” – (Imagine a bride and groom saying it!)
“You are beautiful.”
(A general): “Drop the bomb on my command.”
“Your sins are forgiven.”
Words like these can make or break human spirits, be the difference between life and death, or possibly even the salvation of someone’s soul. “Just words” indeed!
In today’s Gospel, we are told that the leaders of the Jewish people could not openly attack Jesus because the people were “hanging on his every word.” The Greek word used in this context is exekremato which literally means “to hang on.” It is the only time that this verb is used in the New Testament, so it must be important. Jesus was being saved by his words for a time because the people were nourished by them. But Jesus was also condemned by his words. The following chapter records several instances when the scribes and Pharisees are trying to catch Jesus in his words: “So they watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor (Luke 20:20).” He was finally condemned for his words that he would destroy the temple in three days (Mark 14:58), and also because he called God his Father (John 5:18).
Are “just words” ever “just words”? “Just words” both saved and condemned Jesus Christ! But it goes much deeper than that, my friends.
When God created the universe, all that he had to do was SPEAK and things came into being: “Let there be light. And there was light.” This kind of power through speaking continues in New Testament. All Jesus has to do is speak, and things change. He says, “Regain thy sight,” and the blind see. He simply mumbles, “Come out of him,” and demons are cast out powerless and screaming: “He cast out demons with a WORD….” (Matt. 8:16). He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven them. Even the words of the centurion testify to this when he tells the Lord not to even come into his home, but remain miles away: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the WORD and my servant shall be healed” (Matt 8:8).
JESUS HIMSELF IS CALLED THE “WORD” OF GOD (John 1:1, 14) AND IF HE IS IN OUR HEARTS, HOW CAN OUR WORDS EVER BE “JUST WORDS”?
You might think that is fine for God, but it doesn’t hold true for us. You should understand by looking at the “words” in my introduction (and through common sense) that our words have power indeed. But how much power? What if it were true that God gave his words to us? We already know that his words have an effect. So it stands to reason that if we had his words, we could be sure that prayer is not “just words.” Did God not give Peter and his successors the power to forgive sins: “If you forgive men’s sins, they are forgiven them. If you hold them bound, they are bound (John 20:23).” These are “just words.” But they apparently have real power—so maybe they are not “just words.” And they have power because they are not man’s words, but God’s. When Jesus commanded us, “Do this in memory of me,” is it “just words”? It seems that Jesus gives us his words to make God himself present in the appearance of bread and wine. That’s exactly what sacraments and blessings are – they are God’s gift of his words to human beings, so that human beings might attain the very life of God.
And this doesn’t only go for the prayers of priests. This can be true for all prayers said with the right intention. James 5 explicitly reports the following: “The prayer of the righteous man has power indeed.” Our words indeed have power, because they are not our words alone. God himself has promised to give us his own words – Romans 8, one of the most authoritative chapters of the New Testament outside of the Gospel, reports, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” Have you ever really thought about this? The fact that whenever you pray, the Holy Spirit himself is praying with you? The same Holy Spirit that hovered over the waters at the beginning of time, the same Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead? Have you ever really considered the power for good that you might wield if you believed this more strongly, and that maybe “just words” are not “just words” after all, but the very life of God?
In Sirach, God promises that he is not deaf to the orphan and the widow, and that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal” (Sirach 35:21). When Jesus compares the prayer of the tax collector and the Pharisees, he tells us that the tax collector went home “justified.” In other words, the Lord heard his prayer (just words?) and accepted it. In James 5, God tells us, “The prayer of the righteous man has power indeed.” In Rev. 8:4, we are told that the prayers of the saints rise like incense to the throne of God and that he takes them very, very seriously. This is good news. This is good news indeed. God hears prayers that are “just words.”
But what are we afraid of when it comes to prayer, my friends?
In today’s reading, St. John is told by an angel that he is supposed to swallow a scroll that will be “sweet in the mouth but sour in the stomach” (Rev 10:8-9) Recall that for John, the meaning of the scroll is the mission that he is supposed to be carrying out. In the following verse, he is clearly told that he must “prophesy against peoples, nations, tongues and kings”—not an easy thing. Whenever we hear the word of God in prayer or experience his presence anywhere at all, it is sweet. Even if God is correcting us, there is a sweetness to his words and presence that cannot be denied. The soul longs for it. We were made for it. We were made by it. But what he is asking us to do can often “sour the stomach.” Think about Jesus’s Transfiguration on the mountain. When he spoke to His Father, Moses and Elijah, it was likely sweet beyond imagining (even though they were speaking to him of his coming crucifixion). But when Jesus had to come down the mountain and actually carry out the mission, those sweet words that he had to swallow turned sour in the stomach—he had to drink the bitter cup of suffering (Matt. 20:22) that always turns the stomach sour. A Christian’s prayer life is often an alternating exchange of sweet and sour “meals.” Is it any wonder why Heaven is called a “wedding feast” (Rev 19:6-9)? Is it any wonder that our God became bread for our nourishment? Here is the danger, though: that because we fear the sour, we will not even go to him in prayer to experience the sweet. If we make that choice, we doom ourselves to spiritual starvation.
And then we wonder why we lack love, faith, hope, peace and joy.
Have you ever thought that God is simply waiting to see if we will give him and one another a precious gift of time – a gift of prayer – to counteract and nullify all the horrible words, lies and curses that rise from our hearts every day like a swarm of insects? I guarantee you that right now evil people are spending time figuring out how to lie, cheat and steal with their words. They are a zealous bunch. It’s not “just words” for them. I wonder if good people will spend as much time in blessing as evil people spend in cursing? Or maybe good people are just lazy. Or maybe we’ve just lost our faith? We will wait in line to get what we need, and often think it’s a waste of time. We will wait in traffic to get what we need, and often think that’s a waste of time. But will we dare to pray to get what we need, even if we understand that it isn’t a waste of time?
One thing that we often forget is that Jesus himself prayed. Doesn’t it seem odd to you that God would pray to himself, even though one is in the person of the Son and another in the person of the Father? And yet, Jesus seemed to find this necessary. The being who had the closest possible relationship to God the Father saw it necessary to spend entire nights in prayer, and not only this, but to do it often. How much more might we who are more distant need to bridge the abyss between God and us with a few simple words from time to time?
Even if it were difficult to accept that prayer fails to change God’s mind, there is another good reason to pray – and that’s the fact that prayer will certainly change our minds; and more than our minds, but our hearts. And that alone might mean the difference between eternal happiness and its alternative. Just words, indeed. Victor Frankl, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp who later became a celebrated psychotherapist once wrote: “Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.” Of all creatures, man is capable of raising his voice to God in prayer. This is our special gift, our special mission. But what is truly human in us and what is truly Godlike in us begs us to lift our voices in praise to our Creator and Redeemer, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And if THAT is a waste of time, then it seems that everything else is as well.
So let us get to the business of prayer. Because it seems that “just words,” especially when given to God and by God, aren’t “just words” after all.
Fr. Basil Burns
November 23, 2012