If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. In Gehenna, the worm does not die. (Mark 9:47-48)
Hmmm…If my hand causes me to sin… If my foot causes me to sin… If my eye causes me to sin… Cut it off. Pluck it out. Hmm…
Limping lefties with eye patches. If we did not read the holy and infallible Word of God with some kind of sober restraint, we would all have to make limping lefties with eye patches out of ourselves.
The written Word teaches us the truth. The Bible teaches us God’s own lessons—provided we read with one fundamental principle in mind. The popes of the past two centuries articulated the fundamental rule of Scripture study, and then the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council proposed it anew to us, as the key to understanding the text of the Bible.
The words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men. (Dei Verbum 13)
When we human beings speak and write, we have a marvelous propensity to wax poetical, even in the most mundane situations.
Let’s try to imagine the super-logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock, overhearing us when we say things like:
“If you don’t stop fussing at me, I am going to pull my hair out!” “That piece of cake tasted so good, it rocked my world.” “I wanted to get here on time, but I was in the middle of working on something, and man, was I in a groove.” “Wait a second. Let me send this idea up the flagpole.” “Hey, I really like that idea. So let me piggy-back on that.” “I thought he might be upset, but then I found him sitting in the park, and he was just chilling.”
Spock would say, “I gather, then, that these are what you humans call ‘figures of speech?’” Yes, Mr. Spock. They are. Which is why believing in God’s Word does not, and cannot, involve assuming that every sentence of the infallible Bible has a perfectly clear literal meaning—any more than we could assume that the person we thought was upset is actually in the park, in a refrigerator.
Does the first chapter of Genesis intend to say that God made the heavens and the earth in six 24-hour periods? Don’t we measure days according to the appearance of the sun in the sky? But God didn’t create the sun until the fourth day. What about the sunrise and the sunset on the first, second, and third days?
Listen, you can’t call me a heretic, because St. Augustine himself brought this question up. When we read the Bible, or hear it, we need to bring certain things with us, without which we cannot understand Scripture. 1. We need to exercise what we humble mortals call “common sense.” 2. We need humility before the divine mystery, which keeps us from ever thinking that we completely understand the Word of God. 3. We need our Catholic faith. The Bible makes sense when it is read by humble, commonsensical people who believe all the articles of the Nicene Creed. Also, the more history we know, the more human sympathy we can muster for the Israelites who wrote the Bible, the more we will understand it.
For example, we just heard the Lord Jesus say, regarding Gehenna, “the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” When He spoke this sentence, what exactly did He mean?
Well, it just so happens that this exact sentence also appears in the book of the prophet Isaiah. It is the last verse of the last chapter of the prophet’s book. So it might help us to read that chapter, if we want to understand the Lord’s words more fully. And if we want to understand Isaiah 66, then we had probably better read Isaiah 1—Isaiah 65. And since Isaiah chapter 1, verse 1, refers to II Kings, chapters 15-23 and II Chronicles 26-31, we probably had better read all those chapters, too.
This could go on and on, of course. The point is not that reading the Bible is pointless, because we can never really understand it. No, the point is: We get the most out of reading the Bible when realize that there is always more to understand. And the life of the Church—Her faith, Her liturgy, Her prayers, Her morals—we need all these in order to understand the Word of God. If reading something in the Bible ever led me away from the Church and the Pope…well, then I must have misunderstood what I read.
Okay. Guess what? Give yourselves a couple of theology credits. Over the course of the past couple of months, we have covered the teachings of the Second Vatican Council on two subjects: the Sacred Liturgy and Divine Revelation! Next Sunday, we must concern ourselves with the Diocesan Appeal. The following Thursday, on October 11, we mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Vatican Council. On that day, our Holy Father will solemnly begin the Year of Faith, which we will keep to commemorate the Council.
As the Holy Father put it, in his letter about the Year of Faith:
What the world is in particular need of today is the credible witness of people enlightened in mind and heart by the word of the Lord, capable of opening the hearts and minds of others to the desire for God and for true life, life without end. (Porta Fidei 15)
May we become such credible witnesses.