Saturday, October 25, 2008

How To Read The Bible

(30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, A)

This Sunday we hear another Gospel in which Jesus is tested. You will recall how last week they tried to trap Jesus in what he would say about the Roman census tax. Today a scholar of the law tries to test Jesus with a specifically religious concern, and it has to do with the very old question of how to read the Sacred Scriptures. What’s the right way to read and interpret the Bible?

This problem was very much alive in Jesus’ time, as it is in ours. All you have to do is flip around on your television or radio to find a preacher delivering some homemade doctrine supposedly based in the Scriptures, or you can walk down the street until someone gives you a pamphlet. And when you hear some of these things you think to yourself how it doesn’t sound right. But then you ask yourself, how do I know? How do I know that one way of interpreting the divine revelation contained in the Bible is better than another? Whom should I believe?

I think that an awareness of this problem can help us to enter into the spirit of the Gospel we hear today. This question, “which commandment of the law is the greatest?” was very much alive at the time of Jesus. A little bit later on, the Jewish tradition will decide that there are, in fact, 613 precepts of the law: 248 in the form of “thou shall” do this, and 365 in the form of “thou shall not.”

In his response Jesus answers once and for all the question of how to read and interpret the Bible. He delivers the great double commandment: we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Jesus says, the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” That means that the whole of the Sacred Scriptures depend on the love of God and neighbor; it means that these loves are the point and purpose of all divine revelation.

To love God means to always seek to put God first in our lives, to seek and to consider the happiness that God wants to give us. To love our neighbor means to desire and act for what is best for those around us, to seek their joy and happiness. We are called to do this just as much for those we like as for those we don’t. In fact, often the great work of the Christian life is to make the effort to love those we don’t like. Some of this we hear in the first reading today from the book of Exodus, though it’s expressed negatively: we are to make sure that in our dealings with the vulnerable they are not cheated or oppressed.

So, anytime we want to ask ourselves what the Sacred Scriptures mean, or to judge what somebody else tries to tell us they mean, all we have to do is ask ourselves: would this interpretation lead us to a greater love of God and neighbor? If so, it’s probably a good way to understand the Bible passage in question. If the interpretation seems to point away from love of neighbor especially, then we already know that the interpretation is wrong.

Sometimes the point at question doesn’t seem to make a difference for love of God and neighbor. Take for example the burning question of creationism vs. evolution. Scientists tell us that the earth is something like four and half billion years old. In stark contrast, if you take the Biblical account on its face, the world seems to be just six thousand years old or so. Hence, in the Jewish calendar, we have just entered the year 5769. So which is right? Did God create the world in precisely six days about six thousand years ago, or have we and all the rest evolved over a much longer time? It’s a live and open question, even in our national discourse. But does it make a difference for how we love God or our neighbor? Not really, and so it’s not something we should really worry about. That’s why, in her wisdom, the Catholic Church has not found it necessary to declare anything on the question of so-called creationism against the theory of evolution. For what the Scriptures are actually about, the love of God and our neighbor, it doesn’t really matter.

Indeed, we who are Catholic Christians, who, along with our Orthodox brothers and sisters belong to the Churches founded on the apostles, are very fortunate. For we belong to the communities whose reflection on their faith produced the New Testament in the first place. We are the direct heirs of the tradition Jesus begins in the Gospel we hear today: it is the love of God and our neighbor that is at the heart of hearts of all divine revelation. What nurtures these loves is to be followed, and what injures them is to be discarded.

(With thanks to St. Augustine’s De doctrina christiana, chapter 36)

1 comment:

Brother Charles said...

Ironically enough, this post produced a few comments that made an effort to push exactly the kind of spurious exegeses we are safe from in the ancient and apostolic churches. Being unconnected with ancient tradition, much less peer reviewed Scripture study, I don't intend to print them. I will admit, however, that my excursus into my pet issue of being a Catholic creationist, was ill-founded and distracted from the point of this homily, not to mention the point of the Lord himself. When I gave the homily in church, it was much revised and less self-indulgent. Thanks folks for keeping me honest, in any case.