Deutero-Isaiah delivered one of the most hopeful messages in all of Scripture: Yahweh was finally ready to return the exiled Jews to the Promised Land. After more than 50 years in Babylon, this unnamed 6th century BCE prophet encouraged his fellow Israelites to start packing their bags and get the road ready. They were about to leave for home. There was just one problem: people demanded to know how Deutero-Isaiah could be so certain Yahweh was actually going to pull this off?
The prophet’s response was a simple, “We have Yahweh’s word on it.”
Deutero-Isaiah seems to have been the first sacred author to develop an insight into the absolute power of God’s word. But it’s clear that later biblical writers were influenced by his insight. The Priestly author of Genesis, for instance, would fall back on the prophet’s word-theology for his chapter 1 myth of creation – in which God creates by simply speaking the word. And John the Evangelist was certainly dependent on the idea when he began his gospel by describing Jesus as the Word of God.
After the prophet’s martyrdom, his disciples artificially arranged his oracles into the sixteen chapters of Isaiah (40-55) in which we find them. So it’s no accident that they ended their collection with the passage that comprise today’s first reading, falling back on their mentor’s emphasis on Yahweh’s powerful word.
“Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth. My word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.”
Contrary to the faith of our biblical ancestors, many of us Catholics are more secure following the word of our hierarchical authority figures than we are in following the word of God. We weren’t even obligated “under pain of mortal sin” to hear that word proclaimed in our Eucharists. (We old-timers remember that a mortal sin for missing Mass on Sunday only kicked in if the “chalice was already uncovered” when we got to church. In other words, if the Liturgy of the Word was over and the Offertory had begun. With good timing, we could miss God’s liturgical word for a lifetime and it would only add up to a venial sin!)
Jesus’ earliest followers would have found that kind of morality preposterous. They were convinced that God’s word was one of the most important parts of their faith. Matthew, for instance, shows the power of that word in today’s gospel pericope. (Please ignore the second half of today’s reading. It’s simply an allegorical expansion of Jesus’ original parable; something early preachers developed to explain a phenomenon the historical Jesus rarely experienced: apostasy.)
Most probably Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seed was triggered by someone trying to convince him he was wasting his time preaching God’s word. Using an image of the waste a farmer encounters when broadcasting seed, he basically agrees. But he then reminds his critic that what little seed finally catches on “produces fruit a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Nothing can stop God’s word from having an effect in peoples’ lives.
It certainly had an effect in Paul of Tarsus’ life. Though the Apostle mentioned in Galatians that he had encountered the risen Jesus, he still had to live his life based only on the word of that “new creation.” If he was convinced “the sufferings of this present time are nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us,” that conviction came solely from his faith in God’s word.
Maybe we should rethink the morality of our Mass attendance.