A lady spoke to me one time after mass and told me that she was upset by the second reading, where it said; ‘those who are in mourning should live as though they had nothing to mourn for. Those who have wives should live as though they had none.’ She was in mourning herself and this reading seemed to be pretty insulting, to say the least. This week the second reading is a continuation of that same passage, so I would like to try and make sense of what it is about.
If you were to go into a bookshop and pick up a book called Jack and the Bean-stalk, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, you would know that they were fairy tales and meant to be read in a certain way; the same with a history book or with a newspaper. We read them in certain way, because they are all different kinds of writing. Well the Scriptures are the same and they also have to be read in a certain way if we are to understand them properly.
Today if you watch a news program, the reporters will give you as many details about an event as possible, such as the war in Afghanistan or in any other place. We will be told how many people were there, how many were injured; where exactly it happened, etc. Most of the people who wrote the books of the Bible do almost the opposite; they are not interested in the details of what happened, but in the meaning of an event. In other words, they are looking back at things that happened and trying to understand what God is saying to us through those events. It can be a great help to know that much when we are reading the Scriptures. The meaning of many of the books of the Bible is not necessarily that obvious. Part of what is wonderful about the word of God is that it gets us to think. It is not just giving us blank facts, but presenting us with stories and events and making us ask, ‘what is God saying to us in this?’
Many times I have heard it said to me, ‘the story of Adam and Eve is childish and ridiculous. Nobody can be expected to believe it today!’ Well that is true if you read it literally, as if they are the details of exactly what happened, but it is not meant to be read literally. It is a very clever piece of writing which tells us some basic truths about the beginnings of the human race and our limitations as human beings. The most important thing it tells us is not that God created everything in seven days, but rather that it was God who created and that what God created was good. The fact that God created the human being last, is a biblical way of saying that the human being is God’s masterpiece, the most important thing that God created, because we were given free will and the ability to love and even reject God. So if you know how to read the Scriptures, it can make a lot of sense, but othen people read it literally and then it seems to clash with science and of course it doesn’t make any sense.
As priests, part of our job is to explain the Scriptures, but we don’t always do that very well, which is partly why they are not always understood. In a way that is our fault.
It is interesting how Jesus—the greatest teacher of all—taught the people. He used stories and especially parables. His use of parables is wonderful, because the meaning of a parable is not obvious unless you are open to hear it. You have to think about it and search for the meaning and that is exactly what Jesus wants us to do. It is a wonderful sign of how much he respects our intelligence and understanding. He doesn’t just shove his teaching down our throat, but rather presents it to us in such a way that if we are open to it, we will discover what He is teaching us. For example the parable of the Good Samaritan: Jesus was getting the people to think about and admit that there could actually be goodness, even in someone they hated such as a Samaritan. Equally if we are not interested, of if we are closed in our heart, then we will probably not get the meaning. That’s why he kept explaining the parables to the disciples, to make sure that they did understand properly since they were going to have to go on teaching after he was no longer with them.
So what we are presented with in the Scriptures is subtle and we have to wrestle with it to some degree, but that in itself is a compliment to us. God wants us to be actively engaged in searching for the truth. We are not just being ordered what to do as though we were slaves or servants. Now of course there are also things that God asks us to do such as the commandments, but God also respects and acknowledges our intelligence.
Finally, going back to the passage that I referred to from last week’s reading where St. Paul wrote: ‘Brothers and sisters, our time is growing short. Those who have wives should live as though they had none, and those who mourn should live as though they had nothing to mourn for...’(1 Cor 7:29)
When he wrote this letter, St. Paul believed that the return of Jesus was about to happen. Only later on he realised that it would not be so soon. Meanwhile he was telling the other Christians not to get caught up or worried about the things that affect us in this life, because (as he thought) it was all about to come to an end. He was telling them to focus totally on the Lord, because nothing else was important any more. Only if we understand that, does the reading make any sense.
It is tempting to get rid of some of the readings that are more difficult and I know that at times some priests will leave out certain readings and I can well understand why. However, I think it is also important to remind ourselves that we believe that these writings are the inspired word of God. They were written by people, but they were inspired by God and that is why we don’t replace them with something else. They will not always make sense to us (even if you have been studying them for years ) and they may even disturb us, but there is no harm in that. God has many things to say to us, He says much to us through his word, even though the meaning is not always obvious. The Lord asks us to be open to him and not to be afraid of what He may say to us.
In today’s readings God tells us that He will send someone to speak to us and teach us about him, and that person is Jesus. That’s why we continually go back to what Jesus said and taught and we try to understand it, because this is God speaking to us and guiding us through each day. One thing that it says to us is that God holds us in high regard if God actually wants to teach us and show us the way that leads to him.
‘As soon as the sabbath came Jesus went to the synagogue and began to teach.’