Hearing Scripture on Its Own Terms

Part one in a series

Linus once remarked to Charlie Brown that he always felt guilty reading the New Testament.

When Charlie Brown asked why, he replied, “Because I always feel as though I’m reading somebody else’s mail.”

Linus is a wise kid. For the truth is, when you read Scripture, the first thing to realize is that you are reading somebody else’s mail.

True, Scripture is “a love letter from God to us” but before it is that, it is a collection of writings by human beings to other human beings, written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So if we are going to read it well, we have to start by knowing what it is we are reading.

Otherwise, we can wind up playing foolish games with the Bible that will only get us in trouble. One of the most popular games is to treat Scripture as a sort of “Holy Ouija Board” and go to it looking for direct answers to our divination questions. Not a few Christians have asked the Bible, “Should I take this new job?” or “Should I marry this person?” and then literally stuck their finger down on to a randomly chosen verse and hoped for God’s answer. This is as crazy and ignorant an approach to Scripture as the guy who asked for divine guidance and accidentally fingered the verse about how Judas “went and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5) and then fingered “Go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

No, the first thing we have to do in reading Scripture is realize that we are listening in on a conversation between the authors and an audience that is not us. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to us. Rather, it means that we can only apply it to ourselves once we realize how it was intended to be applied by the writer in the context of the lives of his audience.

A classic example of this is the shocking remark of the crowd at the crucifixion that is recorded in Matthew 27:25: “His blood be on us and on our children!” Matthew records this remark, not to declare the Jews “accursed” but to point out a sort of divine pun.

The irony of these words is, of course, that this is precisely the prayer of every Christian for himself. The mob is not calling down a curse on Jews in Matthew. It is unconsciously speaking prophetically, like Caiaphas when he says, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). Matthew and his readers likewise get the divine pun.

They see that what the mob intended for evil, God has turned to good. Every time we approach the cup we ask for his blood to be upon us. Every time we baptize our babies, we pray his blood will be upon our children.

But if we are not familiar with the way Matthew and his audience think, we can easily begin to make the error of so many Christians who did not see the divine pun and who therefore committed the heinous sin of pretending that “Jesus died because of those Jews over there, not because of me.”

In doing so, we effectively deny that Jesus died for our sins, a rather serious thing for a Christian to deny — and far more culpable than the average non-Christian who knows nothing of Jesus and comes no closer to knowing thanks to witless anti-Semites who heap the blame on Jews while forgetting that it was their own sins that put Jesus on the cross.

I mention this in order to impress upon the reader the necessity of understanding how important it is that we really grasp the original intent of the authors of Scripture.

Because the simple fact is, as the Church teaches, that Scripture is the inspired word of God. What the authors intended to affirm is what God himself intends to affirm, because the principal Author of Scripture is not human beings, but the Holy Spirit.

When you are reading it, you are literally reading the word of God. But because of that power, misunderstanding it can also have immense consequences — as can ignoring it.

This involves Scripture in the Incarnation, just as everything else pertaining to Christ is involved in the Incarnation. That is, just as Christ is both God and Man, so Scripture is both a book written by God and also the work of human beings.

For this reason, it is both necessary and difficult for us to understand it. However, God has given us lots and lots of tools for doing so.

In the next couple of weeks, I intend to use this space to provide a few pointers on how to make use of the single greatest theological resource we have: Scripture.

Stay tuned.

Mark Shea is senior content editor

for www.CatholicExchange.com.