A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture

While numerous passages in the Bible are ambiguous in meaning and can be validly interpreted in multiple ways, certain passages are so clear one would have to try very hard to get them wrong. One of those is Matthew 25:31-46, the separation of the sheep from the goats and Christ’s judgment upon His return. The ethical imperatives that will form the basis of that judgment are the treatment of those people he regards as His “brothers”. Identifying Jesus’ brothers is the key to understanding the passage:

“‘When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’” (vv. 37-40).

Throughout Church history the “brothers” were primarily interpreted as referring to Christ’s followers. More recently however, the modern concepts of social justice and universal brotherhood have influenced the way this text is read and most interpreters wrongly identify “brothers” as anyone who suffers hunger, thirst, etc. But that isn’t what Matthew wrote or intended. Continue reading “A Costly Misinterpretation of Scripture”

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The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments

It is impossible to overstate the magnitude of Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they tested him on which is the greatest commandment:

”Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40).

The Pharisees responded with silence because Jesus answered correctly. That the entire Law can be summarized in those same few lines can be found in the Rabbinic literature of the first-century. Continue reading “The Causal Connection of the Love Commandments”

An Ancient Law Written on the Heart

When I studied Akkadian, the language of Mesopotamia, we would occasionally spend class time reading ancient legal texts. It often provoked discussion because laws reveal much about a society’s concerns. While laws regarding homosexuality in the Near Eastern codes are relatively rare, Tablet A, 19-20 of the Middle Assyrian Law Code (ca. 1400 BC) describes the punishment for falsely accusing someone of engaging in a homosexual act as well as the penalty for the act itself:

“If a man has secretly started a rumor about his neighbor saying, ‘He has allowed men to have sex with him,’ or in a quarrel has told him in the presence of others, ‘Men have sex with you,’ and then, ‘I will bring charges against you myself,’ but is then unable to substantiate the charge, and cannot prove it, that man is to be caned (fifty blows), be sentenced to a month’s hard labor for the king, be cut off [hair], and pay one talent of lead.”

The very next law establishes the penalty if the accusation is proven in court:

“If a man lay with his neighbor, when they have prosecuted him [and] convicted him, they shall lie with him [and] turn him into a eunuch.”

Continue reading “An Ancient Law Written on the Heart”

The Meaning of Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain

“You shall not invoke the name of the LORD, your God, in vain. For the LORD will not leave unpunished anyone who invokes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

The first thing that the second commandment brings to mind is using God’s name inappropriately or in an otherwise disrespectful manner, like coupling “God” with an expletive. Evangelical theologian John Piper sees it this way and goes further by focusing on the word “vain”, suggesting that the Hebrew word refers to an “emptying”:

“So it doesn’t just refer to a certain tone of voice or a certain use of the word. It’s dealing with God and speaking of God in a way that empties him of his significance.” (link)

This interpretation, however, is too superficial and fails to take into account both the literary and historical context of the biblical text.

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The Code of Hammurabi

In the Ancient Near East invoking the name of a deity in testimony was at the heart of its juridical system. It was how intent was disproven. Note the following laws from the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1790 BC):

“If a merchant entrust money to an agent (broker) for some investment, and the broker suffer a loss in the place to which he goes, he shall make good the capital to the merchant. If, while on the journey, an enemy take away from him anything that he had, the broker shall swear by God and be free of obligation” (101-102).

“If any one hire an ox, and God strike it that it die, the man who hired it shall swear by God and be considered guiltless” (249).

Penalties for various crimes could be extremely severe and often involved physical mutilation or death. Swearing on the name of God that you are innocent, or didn’t know the specific act was a crime, or that you didn’t intend for it to happen, could get you out of trouble. Consider this law, also from Hammurabi:

“If any one who has not lost his goods state that they have been lost, and make false claims: if he claim his goods and amount of injury before God, even though he has not lost them, he shall be fully compensated for all his loss claimed” (126).

Continue reading “The Meaning of Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain”

Is the Sign of Jonah Hanging Over Today’s Church?

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The Prophet Jonah Before the Walls of Nineveh, Rembrandt

In 2010, Msgr. Charles Pope penned an article entitled “What is the Sign of Jonah and Has it Come Upon Us“. He focused on the Lucan version of the story, exploring the history of Jonah’s encounter with the Ninevites to come up with a deeper meaning for the “sign”. This eventually leads him to wonder if there is a similar threat which is directed at Western society today and the Church in particular, offering his own words of warning. Much has changed since 2010 and in revisiting this article Monsignor’s words seem almost prophetic.

The passage from St. Luke:

“This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. At the judgment the queen of the south will rise with the men of this generation and she will condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here. At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:29-32).

Continue reading “Is the Sign of Jonah Hanging Over Today’s Church?”

The Reformation and Private Revelation

It is commonly believed among Evangelical Christians that the spiritual gift of prophecy ended when the last of the apostles died. While there is no clear evidence from scripture that can be used to support that position, there is an obvious argument from silence. When compared to the Catholic Church, which has a rich tradition of various forms of private revelation, among Protestants it is rare and often treated with suspicion (excepting Charismatic churches). Continue reading “The Reformation and Private Revelation”

The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard and Revelation 17: The Beast with Seven Heads

beasts2St Hildegard’s vision of the last days is a description of five symbolic beasts that represent five unique historical periods that immediately precede the time of the Antichrist. The book, The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard: Prophetic Symbols of Modern Society, argues that four of the five periods have already occurred in our recent history. If the book’s theories are convincing, then we can look for references to that same future period of time in the prophetic literature of the Bible and compare.

babylon4One such reference is the well-known apocalyptic passage in the Book of Revelation which includes a description of the infamous “Whore of Babylon”. Unfortunately, the book of Revelation is very difficult to interpret, and Revelation 17:1-14, which references the Whore of Babylon and the beast with seven heads, is especially difficult to understand. But it can be interpreted, and often is among Catholic theologians, as referencing the time leading up to the Antichrist. To do so requires the premise that the book of Revelation relates to the future and has specific information about the end times. Continue reading “The Five Beasts of St. Hildegard and Revelation 17: The Beast with Seven Heads”

Lenten Reflections on Scripture: A Wedding in Galilee

WaterwineAs the story of the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11) is one of the Luminous mysteries, many of us have contemplated the account of Jesus’ first miracle many times. The narrative is simple and easy to understand: Jesus begins to show his “signs” in order to prove who he is. Homilies I’ve heard on this text will often focus on Mary’s role here as the initiator of Christ’s first miracle and expound on that role in the life and ministry of her Son.

However, I’ve always been perplexed by the exchange between Jesus and Mary. She comes to Jesus and reports that the wine had run out. He answers, “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” Mary does not respond to Him, but addresses the waiters, “Do whatever he tells you.” It’s the objectionable language of Jesus, and Mary’s non-response that I have trouble understanding.

One thing I will often do to help me fully grasp a gospel narrative is to use my imagination to picture the scene as if I was part of it. I enjoy theater and did a lot of acting in college which helps. I once heard a lecture by actor Michael York on performing Shakespeare. He noted that Shakespeare did not provide stage directions and never really cared how a play or a character was interpreted; the director or actor could do whatever they wanted. This is perhaps why his plays work in many different settings. Gospel narratives can be similar in that the text can be lacking in detail, as well as the fact that the Greek manuscripts had no punctuation, leaving it to the interpreter to picture the scene and punctuate the text. Continue reading “Lenten Reflections on Scripture: A Wedding in Galilee”

Types, Symbols, and the Nativity Story

Biblical typology is the study of words, events, symbols, etc. that have a broader meaning then their immediate literary context. Numbers connected to events are the most common types found in the Bible;  there were forty days of rain, forty years in the Sinai wilderness, forty days fasting in the desert etc.. It tells us that these events are connected or somehow foreshadow each other. Other important numbers include 1, 3, 7, 8, and 12.

Probably the best book on the subject is The Bible and the Liturgy by Jean Danielou. He looks into the Bible for events that foreshadow Catholic liturgy. One example he explores is the narrative of the flood and how it foreshadowed baptism. The ark going through the noahwater represented the purification of mankind just as for those being baptized, water represents purification from original sin.

Also, he points out that the number of people on the ark is eight, the number that represents the new creation, the eighth day. Sunday is considered the eighth day as the day of Christ’s resurrection. (Danielou makes an interesting observation that there is no record of any dissent by Jewish Christians in the first century when they made Sunday rather than Saturday the day of worship). This is why in most Catholic churches the baptismal fonts are octagonal (at least at the time he wrote the book — 1956). Baptism removes the stain of original sin enabling a new creation.

Continue reading “Types, Symbols, and the Nativity Story”

What does it mean to be a Christian?

A priest told me once to read Matthew 25:31-46 and to think about what it means to be a Christian. This is that very familiar passage when Christ separates the sheep from the goats:

 When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ 40 And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

I was looking at it on the USCCB web site, as it often includes some interesting commentary on the text. In this case there was a note on the question of who exactly are the “brothers”:

Are they all people who have suffered hunger, thirst, etc. or a particular group of such sufferers?  …[I]t seems that a stronger case can be made for the view that in the evangelist’s sense the sufferers are Christians, probably Christian missionaries whose sufferings were brought upon them by their preaching of the gospel. The criterion of judgment for all the nations is their treatment of those who have borne to the world the message of Jesus, and this means ultimately their acceptance or rejection of Jesus himself.

I have heard over a dozen homilies on this passage and it is never presented this way. It makes sense to ask why would Christ identify himself with every single person who suffers? There are lots of evil poor people, prisoners, and strangers. There are plenty of other passages that exhort us to “love thy neighbor”. This one, I think, is stating that the judgement of nations will rest on their acceptance of God through their actions toward His Church, His body.

Added 12/15:

I recently came across this piece of liberal wisdom from Cardinal Oscar Maradiaga on rorate:

“The ultimate question will not be, ‘did you go to Mass or not,’ but ‘did you feed the hungry’. Therefore, we cannot privatize faith inside a temple, in a liturgical celebration.”

The article added that while Maradiaga was an archbishop in Honduras, the percentage of those identifying themselves as Catholic went from 94% to 46% and became the first minority-Catholic country in Central America.

The misunderstanding of Matthew 25:31-46 can distort the way Catholics view the importance of the Church and the sacraments.

…rjt

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