How to Read the Bible

My principal goal with this web page is to encourage myself and others to encounter Jesus in the liturgy through the Scriptures.  Finding him in Scripture, especially in the Gospel, leads us from a vague awareness of God to a lively, specific awareness of who Christ is and how he wants to transform our lives.  The danger is that we hear the Gospel read at Mass and it might as well have been in a foreign language, because we aren’t paying attention.

I have found writing these pages to be a practice helpful for opening myself to the word of Christ.  I hope they help you too.

Today I want to talk about some other little methods I have found helpful.  These might be helpful for priests who will preach on the Sunday Gospel—and also helpful for those in the pews who want to get more out of the Sunday Gospel than they can get from their priest’s homilies.

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Read the Sunday Gospel each day.  Make it part of your daily ritual.  My family tries (and often fails) to read the coming Sunday’s Gospel every day at the end of dinner.  You could also do it at breakfast or lunch, or before bed, or before you come from work in the evening—whenever.

Just read it.  A danger is that we are so caught up in our own concerns that we can’t hear Christ speaking.  I imagine it would be especially tempting for priests preparing homilies to jump ahead to their own concerns.  I tell my seminarians the liturgical gesture I most dislike is when the priest reads the Gospel, then shuts the book before preaching: “Enough of what he says—now for what I say!”  Instead, we need to open the book, read it without any agenda, let it speak to us before we begin to speak.

It may be helpful to read it out loud, just to slow yourself down a little.

With repetition, you notice details you hadn’t noticed before, funny little things you’d skipped past.  The message also begins to sink in, the seriousness of Christ’s word to you.  When you get to Sunday Mass, your ears are ready.

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Spend some time, maybe ten minutes, with a short passage, such as the Sunday Gospel.

Sandro Botticelli - The Virgin and Child (The Madonna of the Book) - Google Art Project.jpgIt’s good to read long passages too.  I recommend starting from page one, whether of the whole Bible or of the New Testament, and just reading it all, getting a sense of the whole.  Then do it again.  That’s very good.

But it’s good too to spend extended time with a short passage.  Even ten minutes is much more time than you usually spend with a paragraph.  Read it once.  Read it again.  Let a passage strike you, and sit with it a little, roll it over.  Then go back and read through again, and pull out another line.  Then move to another thing.

Don’t be systematic, just be determined to find out what it’s saying.

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There’s a method of Scripture reading (that’s all “lectio divina” means: reading the Bible) where you pick one word and stick with it.  That’s fine—but from homilies I hear, I think it’s often misused.

This isn’t random word association.  You don’t hear there was a lake, and that reminds you of fishing with your grandpa, and that reminds you of playing cards with your grandmother, so you meditate on “lake” and then think about what time at “the lake” meant for you as a kid.  To do that is precisely not to listen to Scripture.  Imagine tuning out like that when a friend is talking.

Instead, you should be looking for words that encapsulate the meaning of the passage.  To do that, it’s helpful to return to the passage, to move from word to word.  Again, you don’t want to close the book,  and dive into what you think.  You want to find what Jesus is saying.  That means looking at the book, again and again.

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Spas vsederzhitel sinay.jpgDig into the weird stuff.  If there’s a metaphor that seems strange, don’t gloss over it.  If there’s an idea that seems odd, or a funny word choice, think about that.  Jesus, and his holy writers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, choose their words deliberately.  They’re not always speaking literally, but they chose those words for a reason.  Be surprised.

To that end, I also recommend Bible software.  I love “e-sword” on my computer, and the “i-sword” app on my phone.  The most basic setting allows you to click on an English word and find the Greek or Hebrew behind it.  My Greek is okay, my Hebrew is non-existent.  But the point isn’t that you’re an expert at those languages.  The point is that the dictionary entries for those words can help you dig into what’s being said.  Look at where the words come from, what images they are evoking.  Dig into the meaning of the words Jesus uses to speak to you.

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Finally, learn to pray “Alleluia.”  In Hebrew it literally means “Praise the Lord,” but a great author says, the way we use it, it is more like we are cheering, “The Lord is here!”

Hear his voice.

What methods do you use to dig into Scripture?  Please comment and tell us!

 

Twenty-Eighth Sunday: Because He is Good

Wisdom 7:7–11, Psalm 90, Hebrews 4:12–13, Mark 10:17–30

This Sunday’s Gospel is the Rich Young Man.  Mark’s version is too rich for this short space.

File:Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler.jpgThe drama heats up when Jesus names the commandment: “You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.”  Matthew and Luke both report the same ordering of commandments: the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth, then back to the fourth, “honor your father and mother,” the positive good that undergirds the negative prohibitions of the other commandments about neighbors.

But Mark has Jesus throw in one more: “You shall not defraud.”  That is not one of the Ten.  In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, that word appears only twice.  One is in the prophet Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who DEFRAUD the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”

Jesus sees to the man’s heart.  The prophets just spell out what was implicit in the law.  Theft and false witness are the main issues.  But Jesus challenges him: have you “defrauded the hired worker in his wages”?  Have you covered your theft behind a hidden false witness?  (Have we?)

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Jan Luyken's Jesus 16. The Rich Ruler. Phillip Medhurst Collection.jpgThe man responds, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”  Perhaps he is lying.  Or perhaps Jesus is showing him that even if you follow the Law exactly, “You are still lacking in one thing.”  In fact, the deeper issue beneath the Law, the issue the Law protects but does not exhaust, is love.  As Jesus points out at the beginning, the deeper issue is what we think is “Good,” whether we know that nothing “is good but God alone”—and therefore “no one” is good until his heart is fixed on God alone.

“God alone” is why we must not steal, bear false witness, or defraud the hired worker in his wages.  But “God alone” means, too, that we must be willing to go beyond the law, sell everything, and follow Christ.  Why does the man cling to his possessions?  Why do we?  It is a question of whether we know what is truly good.

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File:"Blasts" from The Ram's Horn (1902) (14597788930).jpgThe other time “defraud” appears in the Old Testament is earlier on, at the very beginning of Moses giving the Law, when he talks about divorce: “If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not defraud her of her food, her clothing, or her marital rights” (Ex. 21:10).  And in Mark, this story comes immediately after Jesus has talked about what Moses said about divorce.

These things are all tied together.

Fascinating that this story ends with him saying “no one who has left . . . mother or father . . . for my sake . . . will not receive . . . children.”  There’s lots else he’s saying—lots of issues beyond marriage.  But fascinating, because in the previous story (last Sunday), he has just said, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother,” and in the story right before that (two Sundays ago) he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,” and right after he talked about marriage he said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

It is all about what we leave and what we receive, in Jesus’ name, and for his kingdom.  No one is good but God alone—yet in God’s name we must receive the whole world anew.  We must not “defraud” God’s kingdom of the love it deserves.

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There is an innocence in this receiving.  Thinking about the reading this week, I was fascinated by a funny juxtaposition.  When Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” the disciples “were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, Then who can be saved?”  “Exceedingly astonished” is a lot (and it’s a good translation).  The disciples’ argument seems to be that if the rich can’t be saved, no one can!

File:Hans Leimbacher (attr) Lasset die Kindlein zu mir kommen.jpgBut the very next thing is that Peter says, “We have given up everything and followed you.”  The disciples have already done exactly what Jesus asked the rich man to do.  Why, then, are they so amazed?  I’m not sure.

The best I can come up with—let me know what you think!—is that for once, the disciples are doing something right.  But they are doing it right because they have not done it self-consciously, not as the Pharisees. It’s not that there’s a law of poverty, and the disciples follow it, and say, “Wow, look at us, we are the greatest!”  (Though we know they are tempted to think that way.)

It sounds more like this is the first time the disciples have even noticed that they gave up everything.  It suddenly dawns on them, after they have been “exceedingly amazed” at Jesus’ demand on the rich young man, “Hey, wait a minute . . . we did that, didn’t we?”

They didn’t do it because it was the Law.  They did it because Jesus was good.  They didn’t do it for their self-righteousness—they did it because “No one is good, but God alone,” and as Peter said a chapter before, at the Transfiguration, “It is good [beautiful] that we are here,” I wish I could make a tent and stay here.  Jesus says, “That’s right, it is good.  Follow me, not so you can be good, but because I am.”

Are there places in your life where you haggle over Jesus’ demands, because you forget how good and beautiful he is?

The Gospel of Family

Searching the Scriptures

I recently heard a Thomist I respect tell priests that they need to plan non-Biblical “doctrinal” homilies, because the Lectionary doesn’t hit the important points.  I think he’s wrong about that.  Especially this past Sunday.

Our Gospel was on marriage.  It is shocking how directly Jesus speaks into our current “issues”—and how much more deeply he speaks than anyone else.  (It is not sufficiently noticed that John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is nothing but a meditation on Scripture: and it hits everything.)

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The Lectionary’s choices for first and second reading are fabulous.  The first reading, naturally, is the passage from Genesis that Jesus quotes: Adam says, “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh . . . .  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”  (The ancient Hebrew doesn’t have quotation marks.  Today, we tend to assume that “That is why” is the narrator commenting on Adam’s words.  Traditionally, they thought those too were Adam’s words: his prophecy about marriage.)

The Second reading is the beginning of the seven-week tour of Hebrews with which we fill finish this Year of Mark.  It is not about marriage.  But it is about flesh: Jesus “was made lower than the angels” so that he “might taste death for everyone,” and become “perfect through suffering,” and thus call us “brothers.”

What is important about these readings is how they portray family as a matter of both “flesh” and relationship.  When Adam calls Eve “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” he is using an Old Testament expression that has nothing to do with sex.  It is what Jacob’s uncle Laban calls him (Gen 29:14), what Abimelech says to “the house of his mother’s father” (Judges 9:2), what the tribes of Israel say to David (2 Sam 5:1, 19:13), etc.  It means “she is my sister,” family.

So too when in the very next verse “the two of them become one flesh.”  That’s not a euphemism for sex.  It’s an enduring state of relationship.  And it is a relationship that is both flesh and person.  They become entirely one: family.  So too Jesus becomes one of us: family, our “brother.”

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In the Gospel, there are three things to note.  The first, of course, is the prohibition of divorce.  “The two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”  Again, it’s not talking about sex: that fleshy union doesn’t last long.  Rather, it’s talking about becoming family.  Once that is joined, there is no breaking it.

Catholics don’t just “oppose” divorce.  We don’t believe in it.  It isn’t possible.  You can’t stop being married any more than you can stop being brother and sister, or father and son.

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Love as I have loved

But second, notice that Jesus goes beyond the prohibition.  “Because of the hardness of your hearts he [Moses] wrote you this commandment.”  Lately there has been a lot of talk in the Church about mercy and divorce.  In fact, Moses’ mercy was to let them divorce and remarry, slowed down a little but not much by the “bill of divorce.”  Moses couldn’t do anything about their hardness of heart, and when hearts grow hard, marriage becomes impossible: because it’s not just “flesh,” it’s a relationship.

But Jesus is God.  He can do something about our hardness of heart.  Human mercy can offer external helps, but often all we can do is give up.  Jesus, “made perfect by suffering,” can give us the strength to get through our struggles.  He can soften our hardness of heart.  That’s what grace means.

Marriage is a central issue for Christian faith because we see this softening of hearts “take flesh.”  It’s for real.  Jesus can actually help us.

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And that might be (third), why the next paragraph has Jesus saying, “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”  Children are in a state of becoming.  They have begun the path to adulthood, but they still have a long way to go.

The only way to live marriage is to realize that God isn’t finished with me yet.  He is still at work, transforming me, building me a natural heart, teaching me to love.  Marriage, and all of family, is a life-long project of being transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ.  It is, in fact, the most tangible, fleshly example of how Jesus has made himself part of our family, and ourselves part of his family, and is sharing with us his sacred heart.

The failure of liberals and conservatives both is to think that the way we are now is the final word.  Unless we realize that we are still children, we can never grow up to the kingdom of God.

What transformations is family demanding of you?