REV. ROGER KARBAN
For the last couple of years, our liturgical lectors have been using a new conclusion for their readings. They've been instructed to shorten the phrase employed since Vatican II, "this is the Word of the Lord," to "The Word of the Lord." There's more behind this change than a desire to streamline terminology. The two different forms convey two different theologies about God's word.
At the recent Call To Action meeting in Detroit, Sister Miriam Therese Winter observed, "The primary source of God's living word is not in the Bible; it is in life. That's what the Bible is trying to tell us."
And in his just published work, "The Good Book," Harvard University chaplain Peter Gomes states, "The Bible is not the Word of God. The Bible shows us where to find the Word of God." As novel as these comments might seem, they're both backed up by Sunday's Gospel (Mt 2:1-12).
Just as the author of Proverbs 30:18-19 marvels that there's no one specific path which always and for everyone marks out relations between men and women, so Matthew tells us there's no one specific path which always and for everyone marks out how we discover and relate to Jesus. The evangelist, who most relies on the Hebrew Scriptures for his understanding and appreciation of Jesus, narrates the Magi story to remind us that some people find Jesus without ever opening the book we so deeply cherish, while many of those who faithfully read our sacred writings seem unable to make the leap which faith in Jesus demands.
Matthew's astrologers do everything wrong: They're not Jewish, they don't live in the Holy Land, they don't read the Bible, they practice a forbidden religion. Yet somehow they find a "newborn king of the Jews" whom Bible-reading and temple-worshipping Jews living just a few miles down the road from Bethlehem never take the time or make the effort to look for. Their path starts from the wrong point and travels along prohibited routes but still brings them to the spot all God's followers dream of finding.
The Magi's "Word of the Lord" isn't the same as the chief priests and scribes' "Word of the Lord;" yet both are God's word, and, if followed correctly, both lead to God. Our sacred authors were convinced of this.
Five hundred years before Jesus' birth, Third-Isaiah also glimpsed multiple paths for God's people (Is 60:1-6). He saw a Yahweh-restored and Yahweh-illuminated Jerusalem serving as a beacon both for the Lord's exiled "sons and daughters" and also for the Gentile "nations and kinds." Each group would perceive the Holy City rising out of the darkness covering the world and walk along a road bathed in God's light.
The Chosen People presumed they would be shown the way. But the prophet's audience must have been very surprised to hear that "caravans of camels from Midian and Ephah...(and) all from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord." Though most scholars think Third-Isaiah believed the Gentiles would convert to Judaism along the road to Jerusalem, he still expanded the horizon of his listeners by including foreigners in God's future design. A tightly restricted club was a little less restricted.
Going against much of what he had read in the Hebrew Scriptures about God's salvation, Paul believed and taught that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews (Eph 3:2-3, 5-6). The only way he could defend such Gentile/Jewish parity was to have recourse to God's secret plan, unknown in former ages but now revealed by the Spirit to the holy apostles and prophets." He reminded his Ephesian community that God's written word leads us to God's unwritten word. If Paul had limited God's word to Scripture, he would never have heard that word in Jesus nor recognized God's actions in the Gentiles who followed Jesus.
Remember, when Paul composed these lines, written Gospels still were a generation away. There was no "New" Testament. That's why he speaks about "the preaching of the Gospel." He found God's living word in the mouths of early Christian preachers, not just in papyrus scrolls.
No follower of Jesus can ever claim that "this and no other" is the word of the Lord. The Scriptures we proclaim don't permit it.