Not only heard, but understood

| Father Tom Margevicius | January 23, 2019 | 0 Comments


Having taught in the St. Paul Seminary for 15 years, I am regularly approached by the faithful about how a recently-ordained priest or deacon preached. They ask me, “Did you teach him that?”

“It depends,” I evade. “Did you like it? If so, yes, I taught him that. If not, then no.”

In reality, every teacher — indeed, every coach, parent and boss training others — knows there is a difference between what he or she intends to teach, and what the other actually learns. “What I said” is not the same as “what you heard.” I can talk till I’m blue in the face, but if the other doesn’t understand, little is communicated.

“Communication,” wrote Claude Shannon, “is a receiver phenomenon.”

In the Nazareth synagogue, after reading that the Messiah would “proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord,” Jesus puts the scroll down, all fix their eyes on him, and they wait for him to speak. “Today,” he proclaims, “this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).

Jesus’ subtlety is often overlooked. He does not say the prophesy is fulfilled as he is speaking; the locus of fulfillment is not in what he says but in what they hear.

We know how it feels to fall short of the ideal. “Do as I say, not as I do” is an implicit acknowledgment of our shortcomings. If anyone could insist, “Because I said so,” Jesus could. As the incarnate Son of God, he practiced what he preached. But even he didn’t defer to his authority. Instead, he realized that listeners had to receive what he was saying, or it would remain unfulfilled. So he adapted his speech to be intelligible to his hearers. He used images and language they could understand, such as farmers and seeds and fish and sheep. “No one ever spoke like this man” even his detractors said of him (Jn 7:46).

This principle is so important for preaching that the U.S. bishops’ 1982 document on homiletics used this passage for its title: “Fulfilled in Your Hearing.” But it’s important not only for preachers at Mass. We are all called to proclaim the reign of God to our family, coworkers and to anyone God brings our way — and we must adapt our language and method of delivery to suit our listeners’ capacity.

This is what Ezra did in the first reading. The Chosen People had been in exile so long they could no longer understand their mother language. So “Ezra read clearly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read” (Neh 8:8). Likewise, since many Latinos are immigrating into the United States, we urge seminarians to learn Spanish to communicate with the faithful in their own tongue.

Some have a special gift for communication. St. Paul writes, “Some people God has designated in the Church to be … prophets [and others] teachers” (I Cor 12:28). Many are familiar with the extraordinary talents of Bishop Fulton Sheen, Bishop Robert Barron and Father Michael Schmitz. They are successful because they adapt their message to be understood.

Yet I think what motivates any great speaker is not pride in a job well done (appropriate as that may be) but love for the listener. Jesus was more concerned for his hearers than he was for his own status. It’s not about us; it’s about them. Because we love them, we adapt our preaching so they can understand, and the Gospel can be fulfilled in their hearing, too.

Father Margevicius is director of worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Sunday, January 27
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Category: Sunday Scriptures