The Planted Word (James 1: 17-27)
Early in the last century, a boy came home from school to tell his mother how he had thrown snow balls at a homeless man lying drunk in the winter street. Taking him aside, she drove home reasons why he should never demean people, especially someone so down and out: you never know how life had treated him, he was one of God’s children, whatever you give to someone like him will come back to you in time. Those words settled in him at a deep place, so much so that in his later life he proved himself a friend of the poor both by what he said and did. Even more, he managed to sow his Mother’s words into the hearts of his own children who themselves went on to champion the disadvantaged. A rich truth planted in one era, received, cultivated and acted on in the next, blossoming into new fruit in generations still to come.
The Scriptures lock onto “The Word” as the vehicle for God’s presence coming to root in humans. That personal closeness is spoken into us as a Word that would take up residence deep in our hearts. It’s this utterance, the offering of God’s own Self, which saves and heals and brings us back into right relationship with God, others and with our own selves.
The Letter of James comments on ingredients in this process of the Word coming to reside in our hearts. God’s saving Word is already within us, it says, and what we are to do is give it full and open hospitality. “Humbly welcome the Word that has been planted in you and is able to save.” But then it goes on to enumerate ways to both enhance and even pursue this welcome.
First off, hear it. Let God’s Self (in God’s Word) speak to us. Become aware of it not only by opening our ears to that Word coming from the outside through the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church and the calls of modern day prophets. But equally as much listen to what is happening on our insides through the stirrings in our hearts and in the movements of our conscience. James is telling us to listen, to sharpen our outer and inner hearing. It’s what a person does, for instance, when she prepares by reading over Sunday’s gospel beforehand, or when he takes something home that struck a chord during worship and mulls it over throughout the week.
James throws in the other requisite: you must move beyond hearing the Word to doing that Word. These utterances you take notice of eventually need to be performed and so take on the flesh of concrete action. His classic example is care given to the vulnerable and defenseless in his society, the widows and the orphans. This second step, he stresses, is the stamp of a religion that is pure, genuine, and wholesome. Doing justice and not just mouthing justice is what brings you into the presence of the Lord. If there ever was a family trait in our own Vincentian company, James fingers it here.
Finally, the Letter presents an image to describe the results of this listening and doing. It’s the planted seed that gets nourished and cultivated into a healthy tree that then spills out its first juicy crop of apples. When the seed of God’s Word takes root in us, we in our persons produce these first fruits. We ourselves become God’s Word now spoken anew into our world.
The conviction the mother drilled into that young boy about the dignity of the drunken man was ingested, acted on and then replanted. It still blossoms in the attitudes and actions of succeeding generations. May the Word (God’s loving nearness) take root in us as we listen to its whispers inside and hear its shouts coming from the world outside. Planted there, may it prod us to acts of kindness and generosity to the orphans and widows and all the dispossessed of our time.