18 March 2013
St. Francis de Sales on Hearing the Word of God
This is taken from St. Francis de Sales' Sermon for Passion Sunday, 1622:
"He who is of God hears the words of God,
Therefore you hear them not, because you are
not of God.” - John 8:47
A word is accepted or rejected for three reasons: because of the person who speaks it, because of the word that is spoken, because of those who hear it. For this word to be honored and accepted, the one who is speaking it must be a good man, a virtuous man, one worthy of being believed. Otherwise, rather than being accepted, it will be rejected, despised. Further, what is said must be good and true. Finally, those who hear it must be good, prepared to receive it; if not, it will be neither accepted, honored, nor kept.
This is what Our Lord teaches us in the Gospel Holy Church offers us today, in which He reproaches the scribes and pharisees for not receiving His words-for which they are to blame. [In. 8:46-59]. He says: "Why do you not believe the truth I teach?" Their nonbelief thoroughly astonished Him is as though He meant to say: "You really have no excuse, for which one of you can convict Me of sin? Why then do you not believe Me, since what I am telling you is truth itself? I cannot err. Therefore your disbelief must stem from your own wickedness and sinfulness. Certainly neither I nor the word I teach is to blame."
Thus, it is necessary that the one proclaiming God's word be irreproachable, and his life congruent with his teaching. If this is not the case, the word will be neither honored nor accepted. For this reason God forbids sinners to announce His word [Ps. 49 (50):16-17]. He seems to say: "Miserable one, how dare you teach My doctrine with your lips and dishonor it with your life? How can you possibly expect it to be accepted from a mouth so full of infectious sin? I will not permit such a one to proclaim My will." Thus He has forbidden sinners to announce His sacred word, fearing it will be rejected by those who hear it.
Be careful here. It is not all sinners who are forbidden to preach, but only notorious ones. Otherwise, who could announce God's word, since we are all sinners? Whoever says the contrary is guilty of grievous untruth. [1 In. 1:8]. Even the Apostles were sinners. Those who allege never to have sinned are guilty of a very great delusion indeed. The contrary is actually clear at the very moment they allege it. St. Augustine teaches this explicitly when he writes that the daily petition in the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses" [Matt. 6:12], is not only a word of humility but also one of truth because, due to our frail humanity, we commit offences at every turn.
All are sinners, but not all are to be silent and refrain from teaching God's word, but only those who live a life wholly contrary to this divine word. Yet even if this word is preached to us by evildoers, we ought not reject it, but accept it, doing as the bees do who gather honey from almost all the flowers of the fields. Even though some of these flowers are harmful and poisonous, they skillfully draw out honey, a celestial dew untainted by poison.
As confirmation of what I say, I will gladly relate a beautiful example found in the life of the great St. Ephrem. He was indeed a great man, not only because he was a deacon to two illustrious Doctors of the Church, but because he too was a great Doctor, having written very beautiful teachings which truly delight those who read them. This great saint was reared very carefully and nourished from his earliest years on the eremitical life. After many years in the desert, he was inspired by God one day to go to Edessa, his native city. He had always left his heart open and receptive to the Divine Majesty, eager to receive the precious dew of heavenly inspiration, and he had always faithfully accepted them in obedience. Thus he readily embraced this one too.
He went promptly to the city. As he drew near, he was convinced that God must have something important to teach him in calling him from his hermitage. Falling on his knees, he prayed most fervently for the grace to meet someone in the city who would serve as his director and lead him to God's will. Full of confidence that the Lord would hear him, he got up. When he reached Edessa he came upon a prostitute. Disturbed, he said to himself: "My God, I asked You to let me meet someone who would teach me what Your good pleasure wants of me. Instead, I meet this unfortunate woman." Eyeing her disdainfully, he noticed that she too was looking at him attentively. Enraged at her boldness, he demanded: "Why, miserable woman, do you look at me so?" She responded very cleverly and learnedly: "I have the right to look at you, but you have no right to look at me. You know that woman was drawn from the side of man. [Gen. 2:21-23]. Therefore, I am only looking at the place of my origin. But man was created from the earth [Gen. 2:7], so why are you not continually looking down at the earth, since that is the place from which you were drawn?"
This great saint truly valued the teaching of the wretched woman, received it humbly, and even warmly acknowledged his gratitude to her. From that moment on, he so valued that lesson that not only did he always keep his bodily eyes lowered to the ground, but even more so his interior and spiritual eyes, which he kept riveted on his nothingness, his vileness and his abjection. In this way he made continual progress in the virtue of most holy humility all the rest of his life.
This story teaches us how we should honor and esteem God's word and good teachings even if they are presented by persons of ill repute. After all, the Lord desired that a prophet should be instructed by an ass [Num. 22:28-30], and that wicked Pilate should announce the great truth that our divine Master is Jesus [Matt. 1:21] -- that is, Savior -- a title which he even placed above the Cross, insisting: "Such is the case, it is I who have said so." [In. 19:22]. Caiphas, the most miserable among men, pronounced this word of truth: It is expedient to have one man die for the salvation of the people. [In. 11:49-50; 18:14].
This makes it clear that although we must never esteem nor approve the evil lives of wicked and sinful people, yet we ought never to despise God's word that they may offer us. Rather, we must profit from it as did St. Ephrem. A great Doctor has taught that we ought not care whether the person who shows us the way of virtue is good or bad. All that is important is that it be indeed the true way. If so, we ought to follow it and walk in it faithfully. What does it matter whether they give us balm in an earthenware vessel or in a precious vase? It is enough that it cures our wounds.
Let us not consider the goodness or its absence in one who is our preacher or teacher, but only what he says to us. God's word is not made good or bad because of him who explains or teaches it. It is goodness itself and never partakes of the evil of him who announces it. Holy Scripture in its wisdom also teaches this when it has even beasts, be they weak or brutal, teach us what we ought to do, instructing us that we can learn even from ants how to care for what we have. [Prov 6:6-8; 30:25]. They gather while the weather is good so that they might have sufficient food on those days which are not favorable for gathering. Did not Our Lord Himself tell us to imitate the prudence and cunning of the serpent and the simplicity of the dove? [Matt.10:16]. Scripture gives hundreds of such examples.
All this notwithstanding, generally speaking, one who teaches ought to be good if he wants his teaching to be accepted and valued. His evil life might otherwise cause his teaching to be rejected and despised as being, like himself, bad and despicable. Surely we ought to benefit spiritually from God's word no matter who presents it. Nevertheless, hardened sinners who persevere in their wickedness offend greatly in teaching God's word and in proclaiming the praises of the Sovereign Majesty, since they lay this divine word wide open to contempt on account of their bad conduct.