The Work of the Word

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received it not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.

1 Thessalonians 2: 13

If we read aloud today’s reading from Thessalonians, at least in the English translation we are given, we hear a very powerful word play:  the “word” of God is at “work” in us. The word that has been given to us, says Paul, is not a human word only but rather a word of God that is at work in us if we believe. Especially in John’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking of the centrality of work in his life, a work that is his Father’s work in the world. “My Father is always at work, and so am I.” (John 5:17)

So the word of God we have received is at work in us. What is the nature of that work, and how do we recognize and share in it? In the story of humankind’s fall from integrity and grace, Adam and Eve are punished by God and told that “by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, for from it you were taken” (Gen. 3:19). In our fallen and dis-integrated state, work becomes a burden for us. Merely to survive will require great exertion on our part, after which we shall return to the ground from which we have come. There is, in this sense, not only the strain and burden of our work but a certain “uselessness” to our toil. As Albert Camus noted, there is a certain absurdity to our lives, where, as Sisyphus, we continually push the rock up the hill from which it inevitably rolls down again.

As separate from our destiny, from our at-oneness with God, we shall always experience varying levels of frustration in our work. Because it is about survival, about building and sustaining our own lives, it will always encounter the ultimate truth of our own mortality and contingency. We seek, in all we do, to calm a restlessness in us which cannot be stilled by any effort of ours, but only by our return to the ground from which we come. Because what we often seek to build with our work is our own false identity and our own peace and comfort out of the illusion of our separateness from others, our work on our own behalf often has the unintended consequence of increasing the suffering and poverty of others. The affluence of Europe and the United States has been bought, to a significant degree, at the cost of the impoverishment of much of the rest of the world. Be it through colonialism and slavery, or the pollution of the environment, or, most contemporaneously, the exorbitant incomes and wealth accumulation of an incremental percentage of the population, there are always victims of the affluence of the few. In the values of a capitalistic culture, such comfort and wealth of the few is rationalized as the reward of their “hard work.” Yet, it is the poor farmer or the struggling laborer who is truly working the hardest merely to survive.

It is awakening to the suffering among and within us that creates the space to receive the word, the work, of God. For, unlike much of our “work,” the work of God is always a work of healing, of re-integrating what is dis-integrated, of leading and moving us back to that integrity which we once had, when our work and God’s work were one, when, as Jesus, we worked in harmony with the healing and loving work of God in the world. So, God’s word enters into us as a work, first a work of healing our suffering and affording us rest. To realize God’s work in us is to cease striving to build and complete ourselves. It is to recognize that we are not to survive at the expense of others, or to labor to stand out as exceptional from the others, but rather to realize that each of is, as Jan van Ruusbroec terms it, a “common person.” Because our life is a common life, my well being and the well being of the others is the same. No matter what I possess, if the others lack what they need, I am diminished. When St. Francis says that “It is in giving that we receive,” he means that we experience life to the degree that we enhance the lives of others.

When Jesus or the disciples offer the word of God, the reason that some receive it and others don’t is that we can only receive God’s word when we recognize our own participation in humanity’s suffering. We must realize and experience our need for God’s work in us, before the work can take effect. When Paul looks out at those to whom he has offered the word and to those who have received it, what he sees is that word at work in them, healing them and then summoning them to the work for others.

When Pope Francis summons the members of the Church to go out to those in need, it is because he understands that the word is not an esoteric possession for those who know “the truth.” The word is a work, an action. It is the work of healing, re-integrating and re-unifying. it is a work that gathers all into the One who is the Way, and Truth, and Life. “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.” (Ezechiel 11:17)

We who have received the word of God, then, have received the summons to share with the world the work that God is doing in us. So often, we try to improve our own lot, (physically, psychologically, socially) by turning inward, as if we were, in fact, separate from all others. We can tend to think that before we can do anything for another we must get our own house in order. Yet, in so doing, we forget the myth of Sisyphus. We strain to push the rock up the hill, but it only falls down again. If we understand, however, that our own well being can never be separated from that of others, our perspective changes. We begin to appraise everything we do in light of its impact on others. Whether we are at home or abroad, whether we are busy or at rest, we are mindful of “our common life” and, of what Pope Francis calls “our common home.”

Gandhi says that the way to discern our actions and direction is to think of the poorest and weakest person we know and to ask ourselves if our next step is going to be of any use to that person. Thinking of the poorest and weakest person we know is to think about the intended destiny of God’s work. God’s work is, as the Mishnah teaches, a work of “tikkun olam,” of repairing the world. The fullness of life for us is to be, in our own unique and limited way, a bearer of the word and an instrument of God’s work, a work that is always gathering what has been scattered, of repairing a world that is broken.

One way to keep “giving things back” in mind is to always ask ourselves how any particular choice or decision we make will affect the poor. Paul Farmer puts the question this way: “How is this relevant to the suffering of the poor and to the relief of that suffering?” Cultivating the habit of asking such questions in our vocational discernment is a form of spiritual discipline that potentially puts us in touch with great spiritual energy and power. It can become like a talisman (a spiritually powerful object worn or carried for protection from evil) that we carry with us at all times. Here is what is known as “Gandhi’s talisman”: 

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest person whom you have seen, and ask yourself if the next step you contemplate is going to be of any use to that person. Will that person gain anything by it? Will it restore that person to control over his or her own life or destiny? In other words, will it lead to freedom for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.

John Neafsey, A Sacred Voice Is Calling, loc. 850

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