Sunday, February 1, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deut. 18:15-20; 1 Cor 7:32-35; Mk 1:21-28

I think a lot of people today make a basic mistake when they read the Bible. It’s a mistake of method. We assume that the Scriptures, esp. the New Testament, have a supremely authoritative cast to them. That is, each text possesses one meaning, and one meaning only. Our task is to discover that meaning, learn it, and see if we live up to it. Just as in today’s gospel passage Jesus teaches "with authority," so we take the words of the New Testament as "words of authority" to us.

But I’m not sure if that’s the best or even the proper way of reading scripture. Christianity emerged out of a strongly Jewish background and incorporated many aspects of Jewish faith and culture. Perhaps the Christians incorporated a Jewish method of reading at the same time they assembled the books of the New Testament. What is that Jewish method of reading? We can see that very clearly expressed in the way the Talmud, one of their most authoritative books, is put together. The Talmud contains the discussions of rabbis on particular questions of Jewish life and faith. A particular question in raised; then various rabbis give their opinions. But no question is ever definitively answered. Why? Because the whole purpose of the discussion and the diversity of opinion is to get you, the reader, involved in the discussion. So the act of reading is not to seek an authoritative answer but to be enabled to enter a discussion as a living participant. A modern Jewish scholar describes it this way: "We tend usually to think of reading as a passive occupation, but for the Jewish tradition it was anything but that. Reading was an active and passionate grappling with God’s living word. It was an active, indeed interactive, reading of approaching the sacred text and through that reading process of finding something at once new and very old." (Barry Holtz, Back to the Sources, p. 16)

If we had that frame of mind, then we might hear and read that second reading this morning from St. Paul very differently. Instead of thinking, "Paul is giving us this authoritative opinion that celibates can be single-minded towards God and married people are always divided," rather we could enter the discussion by adding our own questions and observations. Are celibates, even those consecrated to God, always single-minded? We have lots of other things that can distract us—like health issues that can consume a person. Or, isn’t it possible for some married people to be totally committed to God through their love for one another? Let’s investigate that. The Bible invites us to an interactive reading, not a delivering of final convictions.

With that perspective we can also better appreciate Paul himself as a learner. He did not know Jesus in the flesh, so he had to go to Jerusalem and consult with Peter and the other apostles about Jesus’ life and ministry. This shows up in some quotations of Jesus that Paul occasionally includes in his letters. I’ve often wondered if Paul experienced any "Aha moments" as he’s dictating his letters. Anybody who has ever taught very much knows what I mean. You are going along on a topic and saying something. Then all of a sudden you stop and think: "Hey, that was pretty good. I wonder where that came from." It’s the musing of our subconscious mind erupting into awareness.

Let’s learn to read Scripture interactively. To do so, we do need to have a strong conviction that the Spirit of God works in and through us. Then we can realize the way St. Bernard described the process of inspiration. He said: "Inspiration occurs when the Spirit-inspired text is read by a Spirit-inspired reader."


Anonymous said...

I agree with what you said.


Anonymous said...

I hope your having a great day. Even though it is snowy out you and your sisters could do some fun activities out side in the snow just for fun. Well I hope you have a great rest of the day.

Your student,
Joseph F.

Anonymous said...

i feel so sorry for her.