Understanding and explaining our Sunday Scriptures
The readings for today’s Mass (Sunday 14B Ordinary Time) set me thinking. First there was the sentence in St. Paul about the ‘thorn in the flesh’. The Church has traditionally made maximum use of that, giving it an interpretation that may or may not be accurate, in order to support and strengthen its particular agenda about sexuality. It greatly helped in the Church’s efforts to make anything to do with sex the greatest sin. I happen to be reading some of the essays of John McGahern, and today I came across his reflection on sexuality:
We are sexual from the moment we are born until we die; it grows as the body grows and fails with that body; but by then it has become part of the mind as well, the will and the intelligence and heart, which continues to grow even as the body fails and suffuses everything we hold precious or dear. The church I was brought up in tried to limit this powerful and abiding instinct to the functional act of procreation, surrounding it with shame and sin, as it directed the human act of becoming away from the passing world in which it is set to God and Eternity. What we love first is never what we love last, but without that first love we would never has been made whole or allowed into the world of love, and that entrance has to be through another person. When the passion is concentrated on another person, first or last, it carries within it the seeds of calamity as well as the promise of total happiness.
I find this more real and healthy than most of what the Church has traditionally said on the subject.
Then we had the Gospel, about Jesus not getting a good reception in his own home place. Now I know that a lot has, and can, be written about the proper interpretation of the scriptures. But today’s Gospel reading makes a couple of very straight, simple statements, which the Church has managed to ignore or re-interpret. We are told that Jesus had four brothers, and an indefinite number of sisters. This does not fit with the Church’s need to present Jesus as the Son of God, conceived in a way that is different from other humans, and Mary as the perpetual virgin. So the scholars turned the brothers and sisters into cousins!
Then the passage goes on to quote Jesus as saying that a prophet is not accepted in is own country, among his own people and his own house. This, I believe, is making a believable statement, that the family of Jesus found it hard to understand what he was about.
But the Church, who wished to present an idealised version of the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in peace and harmony — choose to quietly pass over these words of Jesus.
Not only that: these doctrines about Jesus, Mary and the Holy Family are now part of the essential doctrine of the Church that we all must accept.
Further to my previous comment….even if Jesus had earthly brothers and sisters….who does Jesus say are his brothers and sisters?….those who hear the Word of God and keep it!…No guarantee that earthly brothers and sisters will do that!…Taking the bible literally…and it happens on a regular basis by people and institution creates false teaching…also…look at Jesus’s words to John, the Beloved Disciple…Jesus says….This is your mother…meaning Mary…John was to see to her…if there were other children…why would he do that?….Mark my words…the evil that intended to destroy Jesus…was no happier with Mary…who gave birth to the Son of God…More than likely she spent most of her life hidden..Yes and the mystery is….every time we read scripture…God is like us…and yet so different
It is more than 40 years since I studied the Scriptures in any formal way. However, I continue to think that much harm is be done by those who insist on literal interpretations and historical accuracy of stories that were originally meant as metaphors and similies, teaching aids attempting to throw light on mysteries beyond human understanding. The insistence on literal interpetations has resulted in many people shrugging their shoulders and walking away from a deeper search for understanding. There seems to be a shortage of honest scripture scholars, prepared to take on the establishment and present other options for interpreting and understanding the contents of both the Old and New Testaments:they seem to heed the warning about not rocking the boat and hide from the challenge to help steer it in a better direction and in so doing bring back those who have tired of asking questions and questioning the same old tired answers.
Chris (England) @2.
I completely agree with your analysis,particularly the old testament.
Take for example the Book of Genesis,the creation story and Adam &Eve.
I believe God created the Universe not alone the ”Earth”, but certainly not in the manner described in Genesis.
In the 21st Century, we now know that both the Universe and Man evolved over time.
Yet, one of the central tenants of our faith is the Adam & Eve story, with all its connotations for original sin.
When readings are done from the old testament,I fail to understand why the Priest,who is the best person qualified to give an opinion on Scripture, never puts them in the context of to day.
All the readings end with the line (This is the word of the Lord).It is blatantly obvious that when quoted literally, they are not the words of the Lord.
I am becoming very sceptical in my old age,is all I have been taught based on mythology??
The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium paragraph 52 states “the faithful must in the first place reverence the memory “of the glorious EVER Virgin Mary, Mother of our God and Lord Jesus Christ”.
The lack of clarity arises from the Greek word for brother – adelphos. In Gn 13:8 and 14:1416, the word adelphos was used to describe the relationship between Abraham and Lot; however, these two men did not share a brother relationship, but one of uncle and nephew.
This word adelphos is used in different contexts: of children of the same parents (Matt. 1:2; 14:3), descendants of parents (Acts 7:23, 26; Heb. 7:5), the Jews as a whole (Acts 3:17, 22), etc. Therefore, the term brother (and sister) probably and do refer to the cousins of Jesus.
In the Gospel of John, we read, “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” [Jn. 19:26-27] According to Jewish law, the oldest son had the responsibility of caring for the widowed mother, and that responsibility would pass to the next oldest if anything happened to the first-born son. By this time, St. Joseph has died. The fact that Jesus, the first born, entrusted Mary to the care of St. John, suggests “He had no “blood brother,” or that they had all died, which is not true of the “brothers” mentioned in Mark 6, 3 – “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”
Furthermore, it can be argued that other Gospel passages clarify these relationships somewhat. James and Joses were the sons of Mary of Clophas (Mk 15:40). Judas was the son of James (not either of the Apostles) (Lk 6:16). James the Lesser was the son of Alphaeus (Lk 6:15). James the Greater and John were the sons of Zebedee with a mother other than our Blessed Mother Mary (Mt 20:20).
Of possible greater importance are the verses in Mark 3: 33-35, combined with Matthew 10: 21 and Matthew 25:31-36. Jesus does not describe everyone as His brothers and sisters!
Observations of artists often stimulate thought. As regards that of John McGahern, whereas “total” happiness is at the end of a spectrum, I don’t think that “calamity” and “happiness” are polar opposites. At least not in my experience of (happy) marriage.
In southern India for example, parallel cousins are known as brothers and sisters but cross cousins are known as cousins.
“Parallel-cousins are considered as sibilings and only cross-cousins are considered as cousins.”
On the brothers and sisters of Jesus in Mark 6, Kieran O’Mahony OSA wrote about this in his Scripture notes for last Sunday. See http://www.tarsus.ie/resources/2015/OT15B14.pdf. His commentary there on verse 3 is as follows:
“The brother of James . . . Simon: in Semitic usage, the terms “brother,” “sister” are applied not only to children of the same parents, but to nephews, nieces, cousins, half-brothers, and half-sisters; cf Gn 14:16; 29:15; Lv 10:4. While one cannot suppose that the meaning of a Greek word should be sought in the first place from Semitic usage, the Septuagint often translates the Hebrew “family member” by the Greek word adelphos, “brother,” as in the cited passages, a fact that may argue for a similar breadth of meaning in some New Testament passages. For instance, there is no doubt that in v 17, “brother” is used of Philip, who was actually the half-brother of Herod Antipas. On the other hand, Mark may have understood the terms literally; see also Mt 3:31-32; 12:46; 13:55-56; Lk 8:19; Jn 7:3, 5. The question of meaning here would not have arisen but for the faith of the church in Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Although Mark does not teach (or deny) the virginal conception, the mention in such detail of brothers and sisters could well have been a bit of a challenge even when he was writing, as it is today. Commentators conclude that the story is historical, on the criterion of embarrassment. ”
A further possible factor is the Middle-Eastern tradition of “milk-kinship” in ancient times and continuing today. A similar tradition is reported from Ireland long ago. Children, otherwise unrelated, who are breast-fed by the same mother are regarded as siblings, to such an extent that they are forbidden to marry one another just as if they were blood-siblings. An internet search will provide copious information. In 2010 it was reported that Saudi women not permitted to drive protested with a threat to breastfeed their foreign drivers for them to become their sons!
In Biblical times, before our detailed knowledge of the parts played by man and woman in conception, the mother’s breast-feeding paralleled the more obvious input by the father. Sarah, despite her age, nursed Isaac (Genesis 21:7-8). Moses found a wet-nurse from his own people, not from the Egyptians (Exodus 2:7-9). See Song of Songs 8:1: sharing the same nursing mother would make him her brother. It is important that we consider the cultural context of the gospel, not presuming our contemporary cultural context.
On the Church and sexuality: It seems to be a common impression or experience of the Church “surrounding [sex] with shame and sin.” My experience growing up is not reflected in that description. Perhaps others could report the same? Sex was rather an important dimension of human life which we value and respect. We know from the world around us that sexuality in our culture today and in many other times has not been valued and respected, but is often abused and exploited. If the Church is the most prominent voice in pointing that out, it is not surprising that this will bring criticism. This is not to say that the church got everything right, but it did not get everything wrong as seems often to be the charge.
Willie this is in part what the Catechism has to say “390 The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, …”
This is Chesterton on Original Sin,
“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. . . . They . . . deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest skeptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it is a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.”
I took that from
Re 7 .
This indeed may be Chesterton on Original Sin. But it is neither Chesterton at his best or even Chesterton on a good day.
The Church has consistently encouraged an integrated reading of scripture, that is, reading it as if God matters. (Vatican II document Dei Verbum DV 12). Pope Saint John Paul II says in Fides et Ratio that “Faith and reason mutually support each other.” And: “Faith asks that its object be understood with the help of reason, and at the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents.” (FR 42)
This interdependence of faith and reason is evident in the Church’s traditional fourfold sense of scriptural interpretation. Scripture has a literal sense that signifies historical reality. The historical reality then discloses three spiritual senses. The historical sense demands intensive use of reason applying the disciplines of history, geography and the sciences in order to ascertain the meaning of a biblical text.
The three spiritual senses require faith that all Scripture is inspired by God and intended to advance readers to their final end – heaven. They also employ reason. The Catechism (117) describes them thus:
The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs. (1101)
1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.
2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction.”
3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.
Paragraph 119 goes on:
“It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”
The fourfold sense of Scripture is a medieval affair, and there are far more interesting ways of reading and using Scripture today.
The dogged routine of the Mass, to the detriment of all other Christian activities (including scriptural study and meditation), is what has killed Catholicism.
The fourfold sense of Scripture is the only one that makes sense. Vatican II recognised this. The canon of the scriptures developed from the liturgy. One of the many enriching aspects of the Mass is how it reflects the covenantal relationship between God and humankind, woven as it is through and through with scriptural references.
Padraig@6 “On the Church and sexuality: It seems to be a common impression or experience of the Church “surrounding [sex] with shame and sin.” My experience growing up is not reflected in that description. Perhaps others could report the same?” I can only conclude, Padraig, that you were very lucky to have had enlightened parents and family. I would have to say that I think you were part of a very fortunate and tiny minority given the general mentality in our country. One of the things I will always resent is the unhealthy, guilt-ridden complex we had imposed on us by our church regarding our God-given gift of our human sexuality. I wish I had access to Seán Fagan’s writing in my adolescence.
On the other question of Jesus’ brothers and sister(s), I wonder what position do scripture scholars from the other Christian churches take on this. I could never understand how we always sought to put forward the idea that Mary remained a virgin — never made sense to me.
Joe@10 “The dogged routine of the Mass, to the detriment of all other Christian activities (including scriptural study and meditation), is what has killed Catholicism.” What an interesting thought, Joe. It never occurred to me but I think you might well be right.
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, not to mention, Elizabeth, John the Baptist and so on were called and set a part to do a heavenly vocation and yes that vocation for Mary was one that made her exclusively God’s own….Joseph…was her helper.