James Coleman for Unsplash.com

Homily Exegesis for Deacons

Precepts that help deacons in homily, pastoral and formation contexts

Comments Off on Homily Exegesis for Deacons

Deacons rarely receive sufficient biblical formation prior to ordination, so continuing education is a must. Exegesis is an integral element in homily preparation and biblical ministry. As taught by Pope Pius XII in Divino Afflante Spiritu, the literal sense of Scripture is primary, a foundation for all other levels of meaning. The following are interpretive, homiletic and didactic precepts that will help deacons organically engage, exposit and illuminate the text in both homilies and pastoral care and formation contexts.

Eternal and Existential Relevance. The events, characters and challenges of the Bible reoccur in our lives. We need to continually identify and respond to these connections. This is the starting point for biblical spirituality and ministry, as well as homily preparation.

Organic Tensions. We periodically find ourselves at odds with the Bible, in an intense struggle with it, an agonia (wrestling match), to use the biblical term, because God’s ways are not ours. To use Pope St. Paul VI’s pet phrase, whether we like it or not, God does test us, for our betterment, though at the time, it hardly seems that way (cf. Heb 12:11). Even Jesus experienced this healthy tension, thus offering dramatic evidence of his humanity.

Amid the ups and downs of diaconal ministry, we must approach the Bible as a journey toward fulfillment/completion (shalom) rather than abstract perfection (cf. Mt 5:48). The devil disparages and discourages, while the Spirit advocates and brings peace and forgiveness. Do I live in hope and support that in others?

Discernment. First impressions are significant but not conclusive. They can be incomplete and even contrary to our eventual interpretation. As conveyed in the Beatitudes and the Paschal Mystery, God turns our world upside down. Jesus continues to invert our understandings and refine our sensibilities. Diaconal discernment requires paying attention to and responding to the spiritual and moral flow, what we might refer to as divine and human signs.

The Word Made Flesh. Acceptance of Jesus’, the Bible’s, our own, and others’ humanity is our path to the Father. The more we embrace the humanity of Jesus and the Bible, the more human(e) we become.

The Unity and Coherence of Scripture. The Bible interprets itself. We must read a biblical passage in its historical and canonical, as well as contemporary context. The cohesive Lectionary cycle helps us with this.

Dynamism. God’s word is not stagnant. We can never exhaust the Bible’s meaning. God continues to open our eyes to its deepest and widest implications. Consistent with the principle of the development of revelation, God helps us mature and become more disposed to the truths he reveals. God prods us forward, and thus should our sights be set. Focus on Jesus and leave the past to God.

Peter Principle 1: The Flesh Is Weak (cf. Mt 26:41). We all fall short of fidelity to the word. Perseverance in mercy and forgiveness (cf. Mt 18:21-35) and the word’s liturgical complement, the Eucharist, is literally our salvation (cf. Jn 6:51-58). Are we willing to preach, teach and practice this amid opposition? How would Jesus view our zero tolerance, cancel culture, especially as manifested within the Church?

Peter Principle 2: Mind Our Own Business (cf. Jn 21:21-22). We need to guard against the tendency to reflexively apply the Bible judgmentally or moralistically to others or to preach to or teach them. The message and challenges for our life are sufficient (cf. Mt 6:34). Let God the father of mercies be judge (cf. 1 Cor 4:4-5; 2 Cor 1:3-4). Try to live the word, share it when appropriate, then get out of the way.

Attend to Fundamentals. Repetitions, details, vocabulary, grammar, discontinuities, flow, symbols/images and context are nuanced mediums through which the inspired authors communicate. These enable us to hear the still, small voice (cf. 1 Kgs 19:12).

Practice and Perseverance. Rarely do we perceive things clearly the first time around. Our comprehension can deepen and expand or be dulled with repetition and familiarity. In preparation for Sunday Mass, and especially when preaching, we should ponder the readings over several days and sittings. Stay the course amid the distractions and obstacles through which God can prune us. By perseverance (which breeds patience), we will save our lives (cf. Lk 21:19).

Write On: Journal with Scripture. As Scripture is God’s written word to us, so in a journal we respond in kind. Sometimes, we write things beyond our surface awareness. Journaling can be useful in both lectio divina and homily preparation. The medieval monks compiled journals based on their lectio divina-inspired reflections. We can also annotate our Bible. The physical act of writing is organic to the Bible.

Stand on the Shoulders of Others. With such a rich heritage of interpretive and grassroots wisdom at our disposal, we would be foolish to limit our reflections to our own devices. We don’t interpret and respond to the Bible in a vacuum.

Given deacons’ diverse backgrounds, ministries and exegetical training, digestion of the incisive writings of Cardinal Carlo Martini, SJ (whose competence in textual criticism is characterized by synthesis of nuances), can foster emulation of his acute interpretive and expository sensibilities.

Exercise Responsive Creativity with the Word. Follow the example of the biblical authors who did not adopt a woodenly literal and rigid approach. They did not allow themselves to be constrained by the letter at the expense of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). This is also true of rabbinic, patristic and monastic exegesis.

Lucid expositors develop the knack of reading between the lines and drawing prayerfully from life experiences. Jesus and the biblical prophets and writers used their imagination responsibly and accessibly, and so should we.

Be Yourself. Do as You Can, Not as You Can’t. Don’t compare or compete. Know and manage your strengths and weaknesses, be open to constructive criticism and suggestions, learn from mistakes and entrust your best.

Synthesis. Project yourself into the text and consider how it speaks to you. If no connection is apparent, make one and wrestle with it. As dramatized by Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God often chooses to speak amid loss/emptiness, ambiguity and dissonance/conflict. Desolation can yield to consolation in God’s time and way while contributing to our growth in virtue. Be cognizant of the subtle temptations to inject eisegetical bias and chronic complaints that wear on us and our audience. When we get in a rut, a break or diversion can help.

Inspired homily delivery is not about projecting onto and “enlightening” others, but rather sharing dialogically how the Word speaks to and judges us (cf. Jer 23:29; Heb 4:12). Sincerity inspires those so disposed to a personal encounter with God’s word.

There is a tendency today to dismiss even basic erudition and intellectual stimulation as academic and abstract and therefore inappropriate for a general audience. Thus, instead of raising others up, we settle for bringing the material and our audience down.

We can unknowingly stay at the surface level of platitudes and simplistic moralizing and thereby avoid an intimate encounter with the Word. We can deceive ourselves and our audience through exploitation of charisms and the penchant for entertainment. People in any endeavor or field do better when equipped for a challenge. Striving is better than settling.

A manageable level of study helps us discern where the inspired authors are coming from, the challenges they faced, and the message they intended. Otherwise, we are liable to make it our word, rather than theirs and God’s.

As much as we would like to control outcomes and make results a direct function of efforts, we are bound by circumstances, contingencies and providence. As St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us, God does not ask us to be successful, but faithful. We do our best and leave the rest to God.

How others respond is out of our control. Cope with unexpected or undeserved reactions whenever they arise. Who knows how God may be working in that person and us? Our call is to dispose ourselves to God’s word, make a sincere and competent effort, and discern God’s response in return, along with that of those we share and interact with. Adapt and customize the aforementioned principles to your needs and circumstances, and age quod agis — that is, do what you are doing.

KARL A. SCHULTZ is an international mission and retreat facilitator on the subjects of diaconal spirituality and homiletic preparation, lectio divina, Theology of the Body, suffering and caregiving, men’s and marital spirituality, active collaboration, St. Joseph, and the teachings of St. Paul VI. His websites are karlaschultz.com and karlpresents.com.


Personalizing the Word

In Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis says: “The preacher ‘ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God. Knowledge of its linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary, is not enough. He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him.’ It is good for us to renew our fervor each day and every Sunday as we prepare the homily, examining ourselves to see if we have grown in love for the word which we preach. Nor should we forget that ‘the greater or lesser degree of the holiness of the minister has a real effect on the proclamation of the word.’ As St. Paul says, ‘We speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Thes 2:4). If we have a lively desire to be the first to hear the word which we must preach, this will surely be communicated to God’s faithful people, for ‘out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks’ (Mt 12:34). The Sunday readings will resonate in all their brilliance in the hearts of the faithful if they have first done so in the heart of their pastor” (No. 149).


Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at thedeacon@osv.com