Hearts of Prayer - Lenten Season
For Every Useless Word:
Speaking 'as With Words of God'
2nd Lenten Sermon
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFMCap, Pontifical Household Preacher
February 29, 2008
This is the second in a series of Lenten meditations titled "The
Word of God Is Living and Effective."
1. From Jesus Who Preaches to Christ Preached
In the second letter to the Corinthians -- which is, par excellence,
the letter dedicated to the office of preaching -- St. Paul writes
these programmatic words: "We do not preach ourselves but Christ
Jesus the Lord!" (2 Corinthians 4:5). In a previous letter to these
same faithful in Corinth he wrote: "We preach Christ crucified!" (2
Corinthians 4:5). When the Apostle wants to embrace the content of
Christian preaching with a single word, this word is always the
person of Jesus Christ!
In these statements Jesus is no longer seen -- as in the Gospels --
in his quality as preacher, but as that which is preached.
Similarly, we see that "Gospel of Jesus" acquires a new meaning,
without, however, losing the old one; from the "glad tidings" in
which Jesus is the subject, one passes to the "glad tidings" in
which Jesus is the object.
This is the meaning that the word "gospel" acquires in the solemn
beginning of the Letter to the Romans: "Paul, servant of Christ
Jesus, called to be an apostle, chosen beforehand to proclaim the
Gospel of God, which he promised in the sacred Scriptures, regarding
his Son, born from the line of David according to the flesh,
constituted Son of God with power according to the Spirit of
sanctification through resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ, our
Lord" (Romans 1:1-3).
In this second Lenten meditation we will focus on the Word of God in
the mission of the Church. This is the theme that the third chapter
of the "lineamenta" of next October's Synod of Bishops is concerned
with. The following is an outline of the topics of that chapter:
The Church's Mission is to Proclaim Christ, the Word of God Made
The Word of God is to be Accessible to All, in Every Age;
The Word of God: the Grace of Communion Among Christians;
The Word of God: A Light for Interreligious Dialogue:
(a) With the Jewish people
(b) With other religions
The Word of God: The Leaven in Modern Culture
The Word of God and Human History.
I will restrict myself to a particular, very limited point, which
however, I believe influences the quality and effectiveness of the
proclamation of the Church in all of its expressions.
2. "Useless" Words and "Effective" Words
In Matthew's Gospel, in the context of the sermon on the words that
reveal the heart, a saying of Jesus is reported that has made
readers of the Gospel tremble throughout history: "But I say to you
that men will have to answer for every useless word on the day of
judgment" (Matthew 12:36).
It has been difficult to explain what Jesus intended by "useless
word." Some light is shed by another passage in Matthew's Gospel
(7:15-20) that addresses the theme of the tree that is known by its
fruit and where the whole discourse seems to be directed at false
prophets: "Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep's
clothing, but underneath are rapacious wolves. You will know them by
If Jesus' saying has some relationship with the saying about false
prophets, then perhaps we can discover what the word "useless"
means. The Greek term that is translated by "useless" is "argon,"
which means "without effect" (alpha privative, plus "ergos," which
means "work"). Some modern translations, including that of the
Italian bishops' conference, render the term with "baseless," and so
with a passive value: a word without a basis, in other words,
slander. It is an attempt to give a more reassuring sense to Jesus'
threat. It is not at all particularly disturbing, in fact, if Jesus
says that an answer has to be given to God for every slander!
But, on the contrary, the meaning of "argon" is active and signifies
a word that does not establish anything, that produces nothing --
thus, empty, sterile, without effectiveness. In this sense the
Vulgate's ancient translation was more accurate: "verbum otiosum,"
an "otiose" word, useless, which is the understanding adopted today
in the majority of translations.
It is not hard to understand what Jesus means if we compare this
adjective with that which, in the Bible, always characterizes the
word of God: the adjective "energes," effective, that which works,
that is always followed by an effect ("ergos"). This is the same
adjective from which energetic is derived. St. Paul, for example,
writes to the Thessalonians that, having received the divine word of
the Apostle's preaching, they had welcomed it not as the word of
men, but, as it truly is, as "the word of God that works ("energeitai")
in those who believe (cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:13). The opposition
between the word of God and the word of men is presented here,
implicitly, as an opposition between the word "that works" and the
word "that does not work," between the effective word and the
ineffective and vain word.
We also find this concept of the effectiveness of the divine word in
the letter to the Hebrews: "The word of God is living and effective
("energes") (4:12). But it is an ancient concept; in Isaiah, God
declares that the word that has gone out from his mouth will never
return to him "without effect," without having "done that for which
it was sent" (cf. Isaiah 55:11).
The useless word, for which men will have to answer on the Day of
Judgment, is not, therefore, every and any useless word; it is
rather the useless, empty word pronounced by him who should instead
pronounce the "energetic" words of God. It is, in sum, the word of
the false prophet, who has not received the word of God, but
nevertheless persuades others to believe his merely human words are
the word of God. What happens is exactly the reverse of what St.
Paul says: Having received a human word, it is not taken for what it
is, but for what it is not, that is, a divine word. For every
useless word about God, man will have to answer! This, then, is the
meaning of Jesus' grave admonishment.
The useless word is the counterfeit of the word of God, it is a
parasite of the word of God. It is recognized by the fruits that it
does not produce, because, by definition, it is sterile, without
effectiveness -- for the good, of course. God "keeps vigil over his
word" (cf. Jeremiah 1:12), is jealous for it and cannot allow man to
make use of the divine powers that it bears.
The prophet Jeremiah permits us to hear, as through a loudspeaker,
what is concealed beneath that word of Jesus. With him it is now
clear that it is the false prophets who are the targets: "Thus says
the Lord of hosts: Listen not to the words of your prophets, who
fill you with emptiness; visions of their own fancy they speak, not
from the mouth of the Lord. Let the prophet who has a dream recount
his dream; let him who has my word speak my word truthfully! What
has straw to do with the wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like
fire, says the Lord, like a hammer shattering rocks? Therefore I am
against the prophets, says the Lord, who steal my words from each
other. Yes, I am against the prophets, says the Lord, who borrow
speeches to pronounce oracles" (Jeremiah 23:16, 26-31).
3. Who Are the False Prophets?
But we are not here to give a disquisition on the false prophets in
the Bible. As always, the Bible is speaking about us. That word of
Jesus does not judge the world, but the Church; the world will not
be judged over useless words -- all of its words are, in the sense
described above, useless words! -- but it will be judged, if at all,
for not having believed in Jesus (cf. John 16:9). The "men" who must
answer for every useless word are the men of the Church; we are the
preachers of the word of God.
The "false prophets" are not only those who from time to time
disseminate heresies; they are also those who falsify the word of
God. Paul is the one who uses this term, drawing it from the
contemporary language; literally it means to water down the word, as
do the fraudulent hosts when they dilute their wine with water (cf.
2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:2). The false prophets are those who do not
present the word of God in its purity, but they dilute and extenuate
it with a thousand human words that come from out of their heart.
I too am the false prophet, every time that I do not entrust myself
to the "weakness," "foolishness," "poverty" and "nakedness" of the
word and I cover it up, and I esteem what I have clothed it in more
than the word itself, and the time that I spend covering it up is
more than that which I spend with the word, remaining before it in
prayer, worshipping it and allowing it to live in me.
Jesus, at Cana in Galilee, transformed water into wine, that is,
[transformed] the dead letter into the Spirit that gives life --
this is how the Fathers of the Church interpreted the episode; false
prophets are those who do the exact opposite, and change the pure
wine of the word of God into water that does not inebriate anyone,
into a dead letter, into vain chatter. Deep down, they are ashamed
of the Gospel (cf. Romans 1:16) and of Jesus' words, because they
are "too hard" for the world, or too poor or naked for the
intellectuals, and they then try to season them with what Jeremiah
called "visions of their own fancy."
St. Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy: "Be eager to present
yourself as acceptable to God […] imparting the word of truth
without deviation. Avoid profane, idle talk, for such people will
become more and more godless" (2 Timothy 2:15-16). Profane chatter
is that talk that is not relevant to God's design, which does not
have anything to do with the mission of the Church. Too many human
words, too many useless words, too many speeches, too many
documents. In the era of mass communication the Church too runs the
risk of falling into the "straw" of useless words, speaking just to
say something, writing just because there are journals and
newspapers to be filled.
In this way we offer to the world an optimal pretext resting content
in its unbelief and its sin. When they have heard the authentic word
of God, it would not be easy for unbelievers to go off saying -- as
they often do after listening to our preaching: "Words, words,
words!" St. Paul calls the words of God "the weapons for our battle"
and says that they alone "destroy arguments and every pretension
raising itself against the knowledge of God, and take every thought
captive in obedience to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).
Humanity is sick from noise, the philosopher [Soren] Kierkegaard
said; it is necessary to fast, but a fasting from words; someone
needs to cry out, as Moses did one day: "Be silent and listen
Israel!" (Deuteronomy 27:9). The Holy Father reminded us of the
necessity of this fast from words in his Lenten meeting with the
pastors of Rome and I believe, as is his wont, his invitation was
not first directed to the world but to the Church.
4. Jesus did not Come to Speak to us of Frivolities
These words of Péguy have always struck me:
"Jesus, my child,"
-- it is the Church speaking to her children --
"did not come to speak to us of frivolities
He did not make the trip to descend to the earth,
to come to tell us riddles and jokes.
There is no time for entertaining ourselves.
He did not give his life,
to come to tell us fables."
The concern to keep the word of God distinct from every other word
is such that, sending his apostles out on mission, Jesus commands
them not to greet anyone on the way (cf. Luke 10:4). I experienced
at my own expense that sometimes this commandment must be obeyed to
the letter. Stopping to greet people and exchange pleasantries as
one is about to begin preaching inevitably disturbs concentration on
the word that is to be announced and causes this word to lose its
alterity in regard to all human discourse. The same exigency is
experienced -- or should be experienced -- when one is vesting to
The exigency is even greater when it is a matter of the content
itself of preaching. In Mark's Gospel Jesus cites the words of
Isaiah: "In vain do they worship me, teaching doctrines that are
human precepts" (Isaiah 29:13); then he adds, turning to the
Pharisees and scribes: "Neglecting the commandment of God, you
follow human traditions ... and in this way you nullify the word of
God with traditions that you yourselves have handed down" (Mark
When one never succeeds in proposing the simple and naked word of
God, without making it pass through the filter of a thousand
distinctions and precisions and additions and explanations, which in
themselves are even right, but extenuating the word of God, one is
doing precisely what Jesus reproved the Pharisees and scribes for
that day: one "nullifies the word of God"; one dilutes it, causing
it to lose the greater part of its power of penetration in the heart
The word of God cannot be used for other ends or to clothe already
existing human discourses with the mantle of divine authority. In
times that are still near to us, one saw where such a tendency led.
The Gospel was used to support every type of human project from
class struggle to the death of God.
When a listener is so predetermined by psychological, factional,
political or impulsive conditions, to make it impossible, from the
outset, not to say what he expects and not to make him completely
right about everything; when there is no hope of being able to lead
the listeners to that point in which it is possible to say to them:
"Convert and believe!" then it is well not to proclaim the word of
God so that is not be used for party goals and, therefore, betrayed.
It is better, in other words, to renounce a real proclamation,
limiting oneself -- if one pursues the matter at all -- to
listening, and trying to understand and taking part in the people's
anxieties and sufferings, preaching the Gospel of the kingdom rather
by presence and charity. Jesus, in the Gospel, shows himself to be
very careful about not letting himself be used for the political
ends of a party.
Obviously, the reality of experience, and thus the human word, is
not excluded from the Church's preaching, but it has to be
subordinated to the word of God, to the service of this word. As, in
the Eucharist, the body of Christ assimilates those who consume it,
and not vice-versa, so also in proclamation the word of God must be
the more vital and stronger principle, to subjugate and assimilate
the human word, and not the contrary. It is necessary, because of
this, to have the courage more often to begin, in treating the
doctrinal and disciplinary problems of the Church, from the word of
God, especially that of the New Testament, and to remain thus linked
to it, bound by it, certain that in this way one will more surely
discover, in every question, what the will of God is.
One sees this same need in religious communities. There is a danger
that in the formation given to young people and novices, in
spiritual exercises and everything else in the community's life,
more time is spent on the writings of the founder of the community
-- often very poor in content -- than on the word of God.
5. Speak as With Words of God
I realize that a grave objection can be raised to what I am saying.
Should the Church's preaching, then, reduce itself to a sequence --
or a barrage -- of biblical citations, with so many indications of
chapter and verse, in a manner reminiscent of the Jehovah's
Witnesses and other fundamentalist groups? Certainly not. We are the
heirs of a different tradition. I will explain what I mean by being
bound to the word of God.
We turn again to the second letter to the Corinthians, where St.
Paul writes: "For we are not like the many who trade [literally:
"water down," "falsify"] on the word of God; but as out of
sincerity, indeed as from God and in the presence of God, we speak
in Christ" (2 Corinthians 2:17); and Saint Peter, in his first
letter exhorts Christians saying: "Whoever preaches, let it be as
with the words of God" (1 Peter 4:11). What does it mean to "speak
in Christ," or to speak "as with the words of God"? It certainly
does not mean to repeat materially and only the words pronounced by
Christ and by God in Scripture. It means that the fundamental
inspiration, the thought that "informs" and rules everything else,
must come from God, not from man. The preacher must be "moved by
God" and speak as in his presence.
There are two ways to prepare a sermon or any written or verbal
proclamation of faith. I can sit down at the desk and choose for
myself which word to proclaim and the theme to develop, basing
myself on my knowledge, my preferences, etc., and then, once the
discourse is prepared, get on my knees to hastily ask God to bless
that which I have written and make my words effective. This is
already something good but it is not the prophetic way. The contrary
is what should be done. First, get on your knees and ask God what
the word is that he wants to speak; then, sit at the desk and use
your own knowledge to give a body to that word. This changes
everything because it is not God who must make my word his, but it
is I who make his word mine.
It is necessary to begin with the certainty of faith that, in every
circumstance, the Risen Lord has a word in his heart that he wants
to reach his people. It is that which changes things and it is that
which must be discovered. And he will not fail to reveal it to his
servant, if his servant asks for it humbly and insistently. In the
beginning there is an almost imperceptible movement of the heart; a
little light that begins to flicker in the mind, a word of the Bible
that begins to draw attention to itself and that illuminates a
Truly "the smallest of all seeds," but afterward you will see that
everything was inside; there was a single note that felled the
cedars of Lebanon. Then go to your desk, open your books, consult
your notes, consult the Fathers of the Church, the masters, the
poets. But it is already something else. It is no longer the Word of
God at the service of your culture but your culture at the service
of the Word of God.
Origen describes the process that leads to this discovery well.
Before finding nourishment in Scripture, he said, it is necessary to
endure a certain poverty of the senses; the soul is surrounded on
all sides by darkness, one enters onto ways that have no exit;
until, suddenly, after toilsome searching and prayer, the voice of
the Word resounds and immediately something is illuminated; he whom
the soul sought comes to meet her, "springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills" (Song of Songs 2:8), that is, disposing
the mind to receive his powerful and luminous word. Great is the
joy that accompanies this moment. It caused Jeremiah to say, "When I
found your words, I devoured them; they became my joy and the
happiness of my heart" (Jeremiah 15:16).
Typically God's answer comes in the form of a word of Scripture
that, however, in that moment reveals its extraordinary relevance to
the situation and the problem that is to be treated, as if it were
written precisely for it. Sometimes it is not even necessary to cite
or comment explicitly on any biblical word. It is enough that it be
present in the mind of the one speaking and inform everything that
he says. If this is the case, then de facto he speaks "as with the
words of God." This method is always valid: for the great documents
of the magisterium as for the lessons that the master gives to his
novices, for a refined address as for a humble Sunday homily.
We have all experienced how much one word of God that is deeply
believed and lived gives to the someone before he speaks it and
sometimes this occurs without his knowing; often it must be
recognized that among many words it was that one that touched the
heart and led more than one hearer to the confessional.
After having indicated the conditions of Christian proclamation --
speaking of Christ with sincerity as moved by God and under his gaze
-- the apostle asks: "And who is up to this task?" (2 Corinthians
2:16). It is plain that no one is up to it. We carry this treasure
in earthen vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7). We can, however, pray and
say: Lord, have mercy on this poor clay pot that must carry the
treasure of your word; keep us from pronouncing useless words when
we speak of you; let us once taste your word so that we know how to
distinguish it from all others and so that every other word will
appear insipid to us. Spread hunger throughout the land, as you
promised, "not a hunger for bread, or a thirst for water, but for
hearing the word of the Lord" (Amos 8:11).
 Cf. M. Zerwick, Analysis philologica Novi Testamenti Graeci,
Romae 1953, ad loc.
 Charles Péguy, "The Portal of the Mystery of the Second Virtue,"
in "Oeuvres poétiques complètes," Gallimard 1975, pp. 587 s.
 Cf. Origen, In Mt Ser. 38 (GCS, 1933, p. 7); In Cant. 3 (GCS,
1925, p. 202).
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
© Innovative Media, Inc.
Raniero Cantalamessa is a Franciscan
Capuchin Catholic Priest. Born in Ascoli Piceno,
Italy, 22 July 1934, ordained priest in 1958.
Divinity Doctor and Doctor in classical literature.
In 1980 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II
Preacher to the Papal Household in which capacity he
still serves, preaching a weekly sermon in Advent
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