The correct way to use the Bible

Perhaps you know the story of a silly man who thought every word in the Bible was true. He was one of these so-called fundamentalists. He used to open his Bible at random, shut his eyes and read the text wherever his finger landed. But one day his finger landed on the words “Judas went and hanged himself” so wondering what this meant he tried again and got “Go and do likewise.”  Thus illustrating how stupid fundamentalists are.

I think it’s fairly obvious to a Catholic that we regard some parts of the Bible as more important than others. That’s why we stand for the last reading, the Gospel, because in it we meet the words or actions of Jesus. The 1st Reading at Sunday Mass is usually from the Old Testament. This is what Jesus was brought up by Our Lady and St Joseph to read and learn by heart, and therefore can throw much light on the Gospel.  In today’s readings, we wouldn’t really understand that “the vineyard” Jesus is talking about (Matthew 21:33-43) is the people of Israel, if we hadn’t read the Old Testament passage first (Isaiah 5:1-7). 

Sometimes people say to me “I started to read the Bible, Father, but didn’t get very far.” and I have to explain to them that they started in the wrong place. The Old Testament may come first but you should always start by reading the Gospels and then the Letters only using the Old Testament with some instruction afterwards as a background.

So when we hear the new response to our Bible readings “The word of the Lord” we must note that it isn’t “the words” of the Lord. It is in the writings as a whole that God is present for us, not in the individual words, and his presence often needs to be explained to us by the teaching of the Church.

Equally, the Church is clear that the Bible is NOT literally true. Some of it is simply stories or sayings that convey truth, like today’s talk about the vineyard. If someone heard about this, and started asking where this vineyard was, I hope everyone here would be able to explain that, although there were and are loads of vineyards in that part of the world, the story is meant to convey a message about God’s love for his people and how easily we ignore him, and that no actual vineyard is being referred to in either reading.

But it’s wrong to move on from there and say that there are no facts in the Bible at all.  I heard of someone having an argument about Noah’s Ark and the Flood the other day. One person wanted to argue that it was a true story, and the other that it was not. Both were actually wrong. Much of the Bible is based on historical events, and here is a folk memory of a great flood and a man who wisely built a floating house, and survived it. We only have to look at the recent floods in Pakistan to see how real this could be. But the story has been elaborated to make a number of points about God and the man who survived. These are not meant to be facts, but are stories woven around and into historical facts to convey a different and deeper kind of truth.

Our problem is, as modern people, that we think that books are either fact or fiction. It’s not true, of course, for our modern books and films are just as much a mixture as the Bible is – watch or read Gladiator or The Da Vinci Code, for example, to see how cleverly some people mix the two things up!  And in our spoken words we do the same. If I told you I was heart-broken, and you insisted on calling an Ambulance to get me heart surgery as quickly as possible, you would, of course, have entirely missed the point.

This is why the Church links the reading of the Bible to the Homily, where the Priest or Deacon, is meant to explain something of what God is saying to us through the Bible passages for that particular day. It’s also why the Church lays down what shall be read and when over a three year cycle, so that all the different elements of the truth can be taught to us.  In fact,  all the deepest, the most important truths about us humans and our lives cannot be conveyed in simple facts. We always use metaphors, like being heart-broken, or stories, when we want to speak such truths. Stand-up comics do the same, telling funny stories with a deeper sharper meaning within. Indeed some of the stories Jesus told would have been just like this, and people would have laughed, as well as getting the message.

So let’s remember that our life is like a Vineyard, a beautiful space given to us by God where we are meant to bear fruit, and offer it back in thanksgiving to the owner. If we don’t, if we are simply greedy people grabbing all we can for ourselves and caring neither for those around us, nor for the beauty of the world we have been given, then we can only expect in the long run “a wretched end”. No, at Mass, as Christians, we always, as St Paul says today (Phil 4:6-9) fill our minds “with everything that is true…. everything that is good and pure”, always we rejoice and give thanks for all we have been given, and then  we go and live this out in everything we do and say.

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