A Word about the Ministry of the Word
There is, says the prophet, a Famine in the land: the Famine of the Word.
By Rev. Dr. Valson Thampu
These days our world is teeming with viruses. We are shut up; corona is at large. We are virus-obsessed. This is no good; and we need to relieve its gloom. Here are a few thoughts to that end.
There is widespread disenchantment with the pulpit ministry, which has come to be a thing different from the proclamation of the Good News. This disenchantment has peaked in Christian youths. But it is not limited to them.
Perhaps the very first thing to regard in this context is that the over-dependence on preachers is, in itself, an unhealthy thing. What is basic is building a personal relationship with the Word. Preaching could help in this, provided it is rooted in true discipleship fortified with a concern for the spiritual plight and needs of the people on the part of the preacher. Where regular personal engagement with the Word is absent among the people, the preaching of the Word becomes ritualistic and nominal. The scriptural apathy of the people spreads to the preacher!
Be that as it may, the question arises: how is one to read the Word? With what intent? To increase biblical knowledge? Or, to seek spiritual light to guide one’s life? Often I find that the expectation of the people from preachers is even below this rudimentary level of wanting to increase scriptural knowledge. The number of those who listen to preachers in order to be piously ‘pleased’ or emotionally ‘entertained’, is increasing. They expect sermons to be pleasing and soothing; a sort of sanctified anaesthetic. This popular expectation exerts silent but relentless pressure on preachers to become entertainers. Preaching becomes, willy-nilly, a performance, governed by its formulas and conventions, which include the employment of a stilted style and convoluted syntaxes meant to impress hearers. Spiritual meat for the soul is substituted with music for the ears. The effect of a sermon, as a result, becomes identical, say, to that of a music concert, or dance recital. It dies with the event. Nothing survives. No change happens, except that hearers become increasingly calloused through fruitless over-exposure. A film of familiarity covers the fire of the Word. Preaching of this kind –in which the preacher and his audiences are co-sinners- is a spiritual disservice. The Old Testament prophets were warned against this. Consider what God tells Ezekiel in this regard-
And lo, thou art unto them as a very lovely song of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well upon an instrument; for they hear thy words, and they do them not. (Ezek. 33:32)
The stark reality cannot be put better or clearer than this. Preaching that does not result in spiritual fruits is a mere performance. Such preachers belong to the same bracket as other entertainers like musicians, dancers etc. Well, that was what God told the prophet!
Here’s what St. Paul says on the purposiveness of the Word.
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works. (2Tim. 3: 16-17)
So, it is the outcome, manifest in the life of believers, that decides if a preacher is a disciple or an entertainer. A preacher, who merely seeks to impress or entertain his hearers, degrades his congregation into a captive audience. The fact that this audience is seated in a church is superfluous.
It is helpful to heed Paul’s counsel that the Word is meant to equip us to do every good work. This blends well with Jesus’ emphasis on fruitfulness in faith life. The branches that do not bear fruits deserve to be cut down and burned.
It is highly instructive at this point to recall the distinction that Jesus makes between two categories of hearers at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Those who hear and do accordingly, and those who only hear. The second category are mere ‘consumers’ of the word. Nothing useful to fellow human beings emerges from consumers. Such a state may be religious, but never spiritual. That is why Jesus cursed –something extremely uncharacteristic of him- the barren fig tree. That tree symbolizes the consumers of the world: all foliage, no fruit. Foliage is for oneself; fruit is for others. In nature only fruitfulness justifies foliage. If a fig tree is luxuriant in its foliage but bankrupt in fruits, it is an illicit consumer of natural resources. This is against the law of nature. Those who eat bread in idleness, writes Tolstoy, are thieves. All ‘consumers’ (as against individuals who ingest food) are, seen spiritually, de facto thieves.
I remember reading somewhere in Epictetus, the Roman Stoic –an ex-slave- as follows: what a sheep eats in grass it returns in wool. What is the mathematical or chemical connection between grass and wool? None. The connection is the law of nature. Look at a flower. The flowering plant stands rooted in the soil which is hardly aromatic or colourful. The plant draws nourishment from the earth, the sun, the rain and produces a thing of beauty. The plant is creative, not a consumer! Man alone has the option to be a creative agent or a consumer. Consumerism is the contemporary spiritual pandemic of Christendom.
Consumerism infects all aspects of life for the reason that people live, not according to their religion, but according to the prevailing culture. Our Christianity is mostly a Sunday wonder. Weekdays have little to do with it. But there is one thing that covers weekdays and Sundays: our consumerist orientation. There is no Sabbath from it. So, we like preachers of the Word who dish out to us what our ears itch to hear. Preachers know this. They dare not disappoint you. That is why a consumerist culture can never produce a prophet. It clamours for performers and entertainers. That preachers use the Word as raw material for entertainment does not make them any different from entertainers of other kinds.
Here a distinction that Soren Kierkegaard advanced is helpful. There are, he points out, three different responses to religion: the aesthetic, the ethical, the spiritual. The ethical outlook is oriented singularly to the ‘beauty’ of it. Beauty is measured by enjoyment. Entertainment is coeval with the performance. Both begin and end together. The ‘ethical’ relates to our sense of right and wrong. The spiritual pertains to radical changes. An example of this is Jesus’ commencing his public ministry with the exhortation, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The spiritual is nothing if not aimed at effecting godly changes. Culture, on the other hand, is committed to the preservation and perpetuation of the status quo. Change, except for the sake of the advancement of culture itself, is anathema to culture.
Consider now the predicament of the individual in the domain of culture. He is a mere consumer of cultural goods. What can a consumer produce? Mere excrements. A lamb eats grass and yields wool. And man as a consumerist? Only urine and stool. Who is superior? Sheep or consumerist man?
This issue assumes acute relevance in relation to the proclamation of the Word of God. It is sinful to degrade the Word into an item of consumerism. Cooks thrive by tickling our taste buds. They have no objective or metaphysical norms! They are required to be ‘faithful’ only to employer’s profit and their own. Shakespeare’s Iago is their role-model: “In serving him, I serve myself”. In consumerist religiosity, preaching the Word becomes similar to this. Preachings increase quantitatively, but life, culture and society go from bad to worse.
Spiritual fruitfulness, such as St. Paul listed in Galatians 5:22-23 becomes rarer and rarer. It seems superfluous, unlike John Milton, to ‘justify the ways of God to man’. Even the tramps in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot want to ‘show our species in a better light’. After decades of exposure to preaching the quickening Word, we are languishing in the barren and the pedestrian.
Not to forget the virus altogether, let us ask: Is the Word relevant to the corona context? Shouldn’t it be, if it is the ‘living’ Word? Then, how come no attempt is being made to highlight this relevance? The truth is that consumerism is never ready for meeting crises. Consumerism is the breeding ground of crises. The Word is relevant to the human plight in the present crisis, but this relevance stays hidden from the eyes of consumerism-ridden religiosity.
Perhaps, we are victims of a petrifying over-abundance of preaching. We have become hardened hearers. Hearers who are not doers become talkative people who swallow, but never chew and digest what they hear. The spiritual problem with talkativeness is that it is blind to the value of silence. Hence the admonition: “Be still and know that I am God.” Our incapacity to practise the discipline of silence cripples our capacity to think and to meditate. Silence is the abode of meaning. It is the medium alike of thinking and communicating. Remove silence from communication: you get a meaningless noisy wubber. So consumers become generators of noise, of which gossip is a familiar manifestation. The Word is akin to voice, not noise. But if the preacher is no more than a windbag of words, and his audience, on their part, cannot distinguish between noise and voice in themselves, what else may we expect?
The scary question is this: What’s the guarantee that it is the Word that is being preached? Or, if indeed it is the Word that is being preached, how are we to be sure that it will not become noise within the consumerist years of an audience with a pair of ears; one for ingress and the other for egress?
There is, says the prophet, a Famine in the land: the Famine of the Word.
Rev. Thampu served on the faculty of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, for thirty years (1973-2003) before becoming its 12th principal (2007-2016). He served two terms as a member of the Delhi Minorities Commission. He contributes to the national print media on diverse current affairs issues.
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