31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
October 30, 2011

“We too, give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.” (2nd Reading, 1Thess 2:7-9.13)

We all have heard about so-called “self-fulfilling prophecies,” or the Rosenthal effect. Basically, it shows just how powerful even human utterance is. A seemingly innocuous word, when uttered irresponsibly, goes a long way and affects the hearer, along with the bearer. Gentle and kind words uplift both utterer and listener. Harsh words hurt the person inside out. Curse words, as we all know, can more than just dampen anyone’s enthusiasm. They can be very real put-downs that affect body and soul, and tear as much at the flesh, as at the heart, of anyone against whom they are directed.

I am, by this world’s class-conscious standards, basically what you might call a “hillbilly.” I was born in the boonies of Cavite. As a 6 year old, when we moved to the city, people would ask me where we came from, and when I answered I was from Cavite, invariably, some people would quip: “Oh, the place where many criminals are from!” I might have been young then, but I did know what criminals were like, and I don’t remember ever growing up seeing any of them in my hometown. The irresponsible comment stung me all the time. It hurt like anything, for I grew up in a very peaceful small town, where everybody knew one another, where sharing between neighbors was the rule rather than the exception.

Words are innately powerful beyond our imagination. They can make or break the spirit even of young innocent kids, out in search for their dream of a lifetime.

Elena J. Fox reports about a Grade 5 girl named Trisha who was dyslexic. She could not make out the meanings of letters, let alone words. They appeared to her as a mere jumbled mess and a blob of confusion. By the time she got to Grade 5, she had lost all self-confidence … until she met Mr. Falker, who acted differently from all her other previous teachers. He praised Trisha’s talents and would not tolerate other children making fun of her. He uttered the magic, healing, uplifting words she needed to hear.

Trisha happens to be Patricia Polacco, the author of the famous children’s book Thank you, Mr. Falker, the 26th book she had written! Take that from someone who couldn’t even make out letters and words and make any sense of them, declared as such by so-called teachers who put her into a box.

Words are powerful and effective beyond belief!

Today, all three readings tell us as much. They all show us how important and precious our own words are, but they also tell us, what it takes to make those words not just stand out, but also carve out of us all an ethos, a way of life, exuding a power that makes those words effect what they signify, and, not only say what they mean, but more so, mean what they say!

Malachi, in the first reading, tells us of people who only had empty words to show the Lord … promises unfulfilled … commandments not taken seriously and put to heart … a covenant unobserved … utterances that remained dead letters and empty words! Did they utter anything? Sure! Did words issue from their mouths? Certainly!

But there was one missing ingredient … Their hearts and hands did not keep abreast of what issued from their mouths. They went so far as talk the talk, but they did not walk their talk. Words were bandied about irresponsibly, thus “making void the covenant of Levi.”

An unknown author puts it so succinctly. Words are never enough. Glib teachers who may have tons of words to utter everyday don’t necessarily make it to the hall of fame. The mouth alone, and all it utters, does not a passport make to greatness and heroism. S/he wrote: “The wisest and best teachers TEACH FROM THE HEART, not from the book.”

I have been teaching since I was 16 years old. I started out teaching religion to Grade school kids, all of whom are now full blown adults and professionals and family men all over the world. As a professional teacher, all told, it has been 34 years I have been an educator. I have said and written pretty useless and irresponsible things over this period of time, as I have uttered and written worthwhile things. I may have broken the backs of some students during my lowest, most stress-filled moments, but I know I also have done quite a bit of energizing to so many, helping them get their wings with which to soar and fly on their own.

After 34 years, I do know one simple thing … that it is not so much what I taught from the book, but what I shared from the heart that either stuck or stung. And I would like to add some more … It is not just what we utter from the heart, but also what our hands set out to do that clinches the lessons worth learning for life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were, by all standards, great men in Jesus’ times. They were learned. They were definitely not dyslexics. They most likely minded their P’s and Q’s. They probably never missed a single iota in their writings. They knew the law by heart.

But that was the big problem. Knowing it by heart is not the same as keeping it to heart. “For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.”

Today, I feel convicted by the Word. As priest, preacher, prophet, teacher, writer, educator, and counselor, I find myself constantly in a sea of words – my own, and those of countless others. My readers, who have the wherewithal and the luxury of time to read this, may not be too far from where I stand. We are all bombarded by a barrage of words each and every single day.

Now is the time to be discriminating. Now is the time to sift the chaff from the grain, see through the empty words and get to the core of what really helps and produces results. And we have it on the authority of St. Paul that what is behind words that effect what they signify is one and only one thing – faith!

We thank God for this. Despite our failings and our weakness, despite the words that may have stung others, and on account of the words that stuck for the better, we thank the Lord for “receiving the word of God, not as human word, but as it truly is, the Word God, now at work in us who believe!”