I often watch the television game show “Jeopardy,” and I find that it can be a mental workout, with plenty of questions I can’t answer. So I was delighted one evening when the final question was one that I could answer easily. The topic was “Who said it in the Bible?” The clue was “He tells his son not to worry about the lamb for the burnt offering; God will provide it.”
The answer, of course, is “Who is Abraham?” I’m sure you recognize the reference: After God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, the two begin the trek up a mountain, and Isaac asks where the lamb is for the sacrifice. Abraham gives his reply, and as he is about to offer up his son, an angel speaks to him and stops him. Abraham then sees what God has provided: a ram “caught in a thicket.” Abraham offers the ram, and Isaac is spared. The story, from the book of Genesis, is rich with meaning both for Jews and Christians.
When the question was asked on Jeopardy!, I said aloud, “Abraham!” and waited for the three contestants, or at least one of them, to come up with the answer. No one did. That made me ask myself another question: What happened to biblical literacy? Do we no longer recognize the persons and events in the sacred writings that are at the root of our faith?
It used to be taken for granted that most people knew something about the Bible. Some still do, but apparently many do not. What diminished our familiarity with sacred Scripture? I put that question to Father Richard Dillon, a Sunday associate at my parish, St. Augustine’s in Larchmont. Father Dillon was professor of New Testament for 30 years at Fordham University and professor of Scripture for 17 years at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.
“It’s not primarily a problem of literacy,” Father Dillon said. “It’s a problem of the capacity to hear and understand what is spoken. This problem is shared by students in the classroom and worshipers at Sunday Mass.”
Why don’t people understand what they hear?
“The dearth of hearing capacity is related to the noise of daily life emanating from sources such as the smartphone, the laptop, the television and other sources of noise,” Father Dillon said.
Constant noise is making us less able, or perhaps unable, to take in and ponder the stories and lessons of sacred Scripture, and that lack of understanding does us real harm.
“The spiritual life is nonexistent if you have lost the capacity to assimilate and comprehend language,” Father Dillon said.
The Bible is at the heart of our spiritual life, but its influence does not end there. It enlivens the way we use language every day. The Bible “is part of the fabric of English language usage, in literature but also in spoken exchange,” Father Dillon remarked. Many proverbs and allusions that we frequently use and hear come from the Bible. One example is the phrase “the eleventh hour,” meaning “near the end” or “at the last minute.” It comes from Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20: 1-16).
A bit of research will turn up numerous such biblical phrases, including “cast pearls before swine,” “salt of the earth, ”throw the first stone” and “fight the good fight.”
How can we foster the ability to listen? There is a hint in Jesus’ instruction regarding prayer: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret…” (Matt. 6:6).”Your room” could be a pew in a quiet church, or it could be in a park, at the beach, in the kitchen when no one else is there. If we’re at home, we need to turn off the electronics; if we’re going out, we need to leave them behind. We need to practice listening in the silence to the “still, small voice” that the prophet Elijah heard.
Listening attentively will take us into the heart of wisdom and love. Jesus said it best: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 11:15).