“The word of God”, says our second reading today, “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword”. Among their weaponry, Roman soldiers employed a two-edged sword called, in Latin, a “gladius”, from which was derived the word “gladiator’. The gladius was longer than a dagger and shorter than the heavier long sword, so it was more maneuverable and better suited to close hand-to-hand combat. In describing the word of God as a “gladius”, a “double-edged sword”, the author of Hebrews was probably thinking of its usefulness in close combat. St. paul, who often wielded the word of God, the Scriptures, very deftly in refuting his opponents, is often pictured with a two-edged sword. When Matthew and Luke describe Jesus fighting the devil and all his temptations, they show Jesus using the words of the Bible to cut through Satan’s defenses and deal him a deadly blow.(Matthew 4: 1 – 11; Luke 4: 1 – 12). It is no surprise that in the vision that John receives of Jesus in the book of Revelation, the latter is shown with a two-edged sword in his mouth (Revelation 1:16), because Jesus is THE WORD OF GOD, as John’s Gospel affirms when it says at the beginning of the gospel: ”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us “ (John 1:1,14)
Scripture affirms, and it should be our own experience, that you and I, as faithful Catholic Christians , are involved in warfare every day of our lives, indeed, every moment of our lives. The nature of the warfare is spiritual, but nonetheless real. Jesus underlines to his disciples in today’s gospel that, along with many wonderful spiritual blessings, they must expect to face persecutions. “If they came after me, they will also come after you“, Jesus warns again in John 15:20. Our chief enemy is Jesus’ chief enemy, Satan, or the devil. He attacks us in all sorts of direct or sneaky ways, usually through our moral weaknesses. But he also attacks us through our minds, by exposing us to a whole network of lies and distorted thinking, from all the ways in which our world today likes to communicate: newscasts, social and other media, online blogs, and so on.
This is where the word of God comes in, St Paul tells us, in 2 Corinthians 10: 3 – 4, that, since our warfare is spiritual in nature, we need spiritual weapons to wield it, and chief among these is the Bible, the word of God. This gives us, in Paul’s own words, “divine power to destroy strongholds”, strongholds of thought and opinion that are perverse and deceitful, but which have, behind them, the full power of media moguls, politicians and popular intellectuals, all opinion leaders and shapers of influence today. But, says St Paul, we have with us the word of God as our sword, which he calls in 1 Thessalonians 2:13 “not some ordinary human message, but the very word of God Himself, so it is a living power for those who believe”. With this sword, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10: 4 -5, “we can destroy arguments and every obstacle that human pride raises us against the knowledge of God, so we can take every wrong thought captive in obedience to Christ.”
How do we wield this sword, the sword of the word of God, the sword of truth? Whenever we hear or read an opinion presented as truth, and presented as something that everyone obviously believes in if they have any sense, and we know that this opinion is false, according to the Scriptures, we can refute it, using the word of God to contradict it. Let me throw out some familiar false views presented as gospel truth these days: “There is no God”, “There is no devil, and no hell”, “There is no such thing as sin”, “Life in the womb does not begin at conception”, “Jesus was just a good man, nothing more”, “There is no life after death”, “There are any number of genders possible for a person to choose for themselves”, “Everyone has the right to decide when and how they die”. By the way, if you, despite being a faithful Catholic Christian, do not know that all, or any, of these statements, are false according to the Scriptures and Church teaching, then I would suggest that you take your sword to the armourer’s for sharpening up!! In St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we find him berating the Christian community there for deserting the truth and turning to a different gospel than the one Paul presented to them. And Paul goes on to say, and I suspect that he would be saying the same thing to many Christians today: ”There are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven ,or anyone else, should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” … For I want you to know that the gospel that was proclaimed to you by me is not of human origin,,,but comes through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1: 6-9, 11 – 12).
Unless we are familiar with the Scriptures and with Church teaching, we are in great danger of swallowing the opinions of influence-shapers today wholesale as gospel truth. Any catechism we received as kids at school, if not followed up as adults, will become a nebulous thing of half-remembered truths and made-up ideas drawn from what we hear and read of other people’s opinions. We will not be able to wield the sword of truth effectively, and demolish the strongholds of perverse and twisted teaching presented to us through today’s modern means of communication, if we are not spending at least as much time studying the Bible as following the output of modern media.
The word of God is described in our second reading as a “two-edged” sword. In modern parlance, that means it can be both a personal benefit and a liability at the same time, possibly coming at some significant personal cost or risk. A soldier has to wield the double-edged sword with care that the edge pointing back at him not cut him instead of cutting others. Do not think of the word of God as only something with which to challenge others. Our own soul and spirit, our personal world, can also be penetrated by that word, exposed to that word, and challenged to live that word before applying it to the lives of others. Those who are free and easy with judging others as not being proper Christians, because of their perceived life style, should first allow God’s word to challenge themselves and their attitudes, behavior and life styles. Before preaching to others, or about others, we must, and that definitely includes me a preacher myself, we must let the word of God speak to us and challenge us.
There are two ways in which the Scriptures act as the “Word of God”. Scripture itself differentiates between the general word of God, in Greek logos, which is for everyone to follow, and God’s specific word, in Greek rhema, which is for a particular individual. An instance of the logos, or general word of God, is given by Jesus in our gospel today: ”You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honour your father and mother”. These are commandments that every one of us are called to obey, all the time. But an example of a specific word is given by Jesus to the man who comes up to him in the gospel and asks for guidance, beyond a general call to obey the commandments. Jesus says to him: ”Go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then, come, follow me.”
Some Christians take this to be a general command, for anyone wanting to be a disciple of Jesus. But in fact, this man is the only person in the gospels whom Jesus tells to go and sell everything and give the money away to the poor. Jesus never challenged Peter in the same way. Although Peter protests “We have given up everything and followed you”, in fact through all his time with Jesus, Peter retained his house, his boat, and other possessions, and, oh yes, his wife also. Jesus directs this specific word to this specific man because, being THE Word of God, he is able to do what our second reading tells us, and “lay bare the secret thoughts and intentions of the human heart”. In other words, Jesus was able to read this man’s heart, and know that the main obstacle preventing him experiencing peace and true happiness was his attachment to material things. His going away sad indicated that the security he felt from material riches was effectively more important to him than having peace in his heart regarding eternal salvation. God has a general word for all of us. But we are also called to strive to discern his specific word for us in light of whatever obstacles we may be allowing to get in the way of knowing blessed assurance of salvation and eternal life.
What is getting in the way of you knowing that blessed assurance, brothers and sisters, and what is getting in the way of me knowing it also?
Do we dare to ask God that question the man in our gospel asks “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”