Room for the Word
“You are trying to kill me because my word has no room among you” (John 8:37).
“Why was Jesus put to death?” For many, this question immediately evokes a host of socio-political factors reducible to the fact the he was anti-establishment: the establishment decided to do away with him. But this is not how Jesus himself saw it. If Jesus was anti-establishment, it wasn’t in the political sense; he was against the establishment of our loves, our tendency to subordinate the will of God to human desires. This sinful inclination is an establishment that many, rich and poor, powerful and weak alike, had a vested interest in maintaining. As a result, it was not only the elite of society who were crying “crucify him” in the court of the Judaean praetorium.
The unruly mob of John 8 is just one instance of many in which Christ finds no room for his word in the hearts of men. In fact, speaking of Jesus’ earthly ministry as a whole, John the Evangelist writes, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11 RSV translation). That is to say, God entered among the irrational things of creation without resistance, but human beings endowed with reason and therefore more able to receive him than anything else, would not admit him into their hearts. So filled were the hearts of men with self-love and self-interest that they had no room left to spare for God’s message to them. There is, after all, only so much room in the human heart.
If, after introspection, we find plenty of room in us for Jesus’s word, well and good, but if not, how do we make room? The first place to look for an answer is the Parable of the Sower, which is the most detailed account in Scripture of how the word of God is received by men. For the word of God, symbolized by the sower’s seed, to produce its intended fruit, it must fall on soil where there is room for it to strike root and grow. But this growth can be obstructed in various ways (e.g., the interference of the devil, faint-heartedness, and worldly desires), which prevent the seed from coming to fruition. The parable ends by saying that those who hold fast to the word are like good soil in which the seed of the word can bear much fruit. But this doesn’t seem very encouraging if we see in ourselves any of the obstacles already enumerated. What the parable leaves out is how the good soil came to be good, or whether it was just always ready to receive the sower’s seed.
This lacuna leads us to another agrarian parable, that of the barren fig tree. Here again there is a lack of fruit, a fig tree that after three years has nothing to show for itself. Through the intercession of the vinedresser, who promises to tend to the tree and fertilize it, the owner of the vineyard gives the tree one more year to prove that it is worthy of life. The parable does not include the ultimate fate of the fig tree, but we are left with the hope that the tree, despite its present infertility, will respond to the efforts of the vinedresser and bear fruit. Now, if it is possible for the barren fig tree to bear fruit thanks to these efforts, it is likewise possible for the infertile ground from the Parable of the Sower to become good soil at the hands of a skilled gardener. These two parables show us that Christ is not only the sower who scatters the seed, but also the farmer who prepares the soil to receive the seed, and who clears the impediments to its growth. It is impossible for us to make sufficient room for God’s word in our hearts without the assistance of his grace.
What distinguishes those who receive God from those who don’t is not first of all what they do, but what they allow to be done in them. Our disposition before the word of God ought to be an openness to his transforming power, a willingness to let go of our self-absorption and be filled with the life he longs to give us. As passive as this might sound, as though we just sit there and let God do all the work for us, nothing could be further from the truth. This openness requires continual and active cooperation with divine grace in our struggle against the inclinations of our fallen nature. But even if his own people received him not, as many as did receive him, as many as responded to his call and opened their hearts to his coming, “to them he gave power to become the sons of God” (Jn 1:12).
Image: Janssens and Wildens, Noli Me Tangere