But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said to Him, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. (Matthew 21:28-32)
From the desert fathers we read a story about the difference between nice, pious practices and actually having a heart for God. Pious practices can be little more than hearing God’s Word with the ear only, but not having a heart for God. Jesus criticized the people of His day with these words: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…” (Matthew 15:7-8).
Two brethren went to an elder who lived alone in Scete. And the first one said: Father, I have learned all of the Old and New Testaments by heart.
The elder said to him: You have filled the air with words.
The other one said: I have copied out the Old and New Testaments and have them in my cell.
And to this one the elder replied: you have filled your window with parchment. But do you not know him who said: The Kingdom of God is not in words, but in power? [1 Corinthians 4:20] And again, not those who hear the law will be justified before God but those who carry it out (Romans 2:13).
They asked him, therefore, what was the way of salvation, and he said to them: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord [Proverbs 9:10], and humility with patience. (Thomas Merton, THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT, pp 74-75)
Memorizing bible verses might be helpful for reminding us of the things of the Lord. Being able to recite entire scripture passages may impress others. However, it is only when we put into practice God’s wisdom that we attain salvation. “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). This is why at times having the example of saints – whose lives, words and deeds can be imitated – is better than having a Bible. For the saint becomes the living word to us, whereas the Bible may remain as print on a page. We do well to remember St Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 3:6 – “for the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)