How to interpret the Bible

What would Jesus have said about the death of Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist? Well, some Christians, especially in the USA, clearly think that he would have whooped with joy! But how do they come to this opinion? The answer is that they misread the Bible, especially that part of the Bible referred to in our Gospel today (Luke 24:13-35) “the Scriptures” – the part we normally call The Old Testament. There, there are lots of stories of the people of God killing their enemies, and rejoicing and praising God for their victories.

I hope we Catholics know better!  Certainly a spokesman for the Vatican said clearly that Christians do not rejoice over the death of any human being, but I fear that quite a few Catholics join in such rejoicing and ignore the teaching of the Church. They too may have followed their Protestant friends into using the Old Testament to justify such things, probably pointing out to anyone prepared to listen, that since we have a reading from the Old Testament at most of our Sunday Masses (except in Eastertide) we ought to follow the teaching we find there.

I suppose it is not surprising that so many Christians misunderstand how to use the Old Testament given that the disciples misunderstood it too. Despite all that Jesus had taught them whilst he was with them, they didn’t realize that as the Christ of God, he had to die and only then to rise to glory. His confrontation with evil was one they found hard to follow. “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” And then, when faced with the ultimate enemy as they nailed him to the cross, he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Now I am not saying, and nor does the Church, that Christians should never go to war, or stand up against those who are evil, but we should certainly be reluctant to do so, and should never rejoice over anyone’s death. Pope (now Saint) John Paul II apparently only got really angry twice, once in Sicily about the Mafia, and once when the war against Iraq was about to start, when he said “War doesn’t resolve anything. I have seen war. I know what war is.”

The Church, you see, always reads the Old Testament through the teaching of Jesus. We see it today in our Gospel. Listen first to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus getting it wrong, “Our own hope had been that he would be the one to set Israel free.” Clearly by that they meant that they expected Jesus, in some marvellous way, to defeat the Romans and any other enemy, so that they could rejoice! The risen Jesus is pretty tough on them. “YOU FOOLISH MEN! So slow to believe the full message of the prophets.” And then he explains the scriptures to them.

Thus the Bible is never to be read direct, as if it were a text book of how we should behave, but always and only through the teaching and example of the risen Lord Jesus. That’s why Catholics believe that the Bible must be explained within the Church, because it is here that the risen Jesus promised to be, and we, and especially our Bishops exist to do the will of Jesus, to expound the Scriptures as he did on the road to Emmaus, and also to show that the full revelation of who Jesus is comes not just from the Bible, however important that set of Books is, but more fully in “the breaking of bread” – what we now call The Mass.

Some say, “But why read the Old Testament at all, if it I so full of bad ideas”. The answer is that to understand Jesus we must read the texts that were fundamental to his self understanding. Look at St Peter today expounding our Psalm (Acts 2:22-33) . Jesus sang the Psalms all the time which is why we do. And equally we cannot understand this talk about Jesus as the Lamb of God (1 Peter 1:17-21)  unless we know about the Passover Lamb from the Old Testament.

So, if you meet fundamentalist Christians, as you may well do, who pick up the Bible and quote random texts at you to assert some position they hold, you might remind them that to meet the risen Lord Jesus, the Bible is no good by itself. For although those two disciples said that their hearts burned within them as Jesus explained the scriptures to them, they would never have realized who he was, and never realized how to interpret the scriptures correctly, had he not revealed himself to them in the breaking of  bread.

It is as we gather as a Church and meet him at Mass that we learn together the right way to interpret the Scriptures and thus the right way to be a Christian.


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