Before reading the Holy Scripture (2016)
Fr. Martin Fuchs´s sermon on 11th December 2016, Prague, Czech republic
3rd Advent Sunday – „Gaudete“-Sunday
The Holy Scripture is a letter of God which he addressed to us men. He sent it to us because he loves us. But this letter is not always easy to read. We have to read and interpret it in the right way. We have to read it in the sense of the same spirit in which it was written, in the sense of the Holy Spirit. Do we really read it in the sense of the Holy Spirit, or is it in a different spirit?
How, then, do we know that we read God’s letter in the sense of the spirit in which it was written?
The Acts of the Apostles tells us about a treasurer of the queen Candace who had gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was now on his way back. He read Isaias the prophet but did not understand him. The deacon Philip then interpreted the passage to him. (Acts 8:26-35)
We also note that after the resurrection Christ joins the Emmaus disciples and interprets the Scripture to them. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets…“ (Lk 24:27). They knew the Bible, nevertheless they did not understand its sense.
The Catholic Church received the Holy Spirit in order to preserve the deposit of the Faith and to transmit the Holy Scripture intact and interpret it.
The first task of the exegetes is to secure the original text and the meaning of the author. As the original versions of the Holy Scripture have all been lost, it is often difficult to reconstruct the original text. It was either the writing material which often was not very durable, or the vandalism of the enemies or fire which had destroyed the originals.
Once the original text secured, the sense and the interpretation may follow. We distinguish between two different senses: the literal sense, i.e. what the author initially wanted to impart to us, and the spiritual sense, i.e. the figurative sense.
Each passage of the Holy Scripture has a literal, but not always a spiritual sense.
Many passages have a spiritual sense in addition to the literal one. The author may use different stylistic devices: parables, fables, proverbs, plastic speeches, irony or number symbolism.
Christ often uses parables in his speeches. “Behold the sower went forth to sow. And whilst he soweth, some fell by the way side, and the birds of the air came and ate them up. And other some fell upon stony ground, where they had not much earth: and they sprung up immediately, because they had not deepness of earth. And when the sun was up, they were scorched: and because they had not root, they withered away. And others fell among thorns: and the thorns grew up and choked them. And others fell upon good ground: and they brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, and some thirtyfold.“ (Matthew 13:3-8)
This parable was interpreted by Christ himself, as well as the parable of the weed. Many other parables, however, are so clear that they don’t need an interpretation: the parable of the five wise virgins and the five foolish virgins, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, the parable of the rich glutton and the poor Lazarus, the parable of the man walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, etc.
It is important to recognize the stylistic device. Usually it starts with the following words: “Christ presented them a parable...“
However there are other stylistic devices, the hyperbole for example. When using the hyperbole we exaggerate to emphasize something. The hyperbole can be recognized either by the context or by the intonation. For example we say: “I told you hundred times to do this and you didn’t do it.“ By this we don’t want to say that we said it exactly hundred times but just many times.
Another example: “The whole village joined the party.“ By saying this we do not mean that every villager was at the party but just many of them.
Saint Peter asked Christ: “How often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?“ – “I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times. (Matthew 18:21,22) This was not meant verbatim but it’s sense was: “You must always be ready to forgive!“
If we say something with the irony, we say something and we mean the contrary, e.g. if I say: “You have done the homework very well.” It can have the meaning: “You have done the homework really very well” or with the irony: “You have done the homework very badly.” Normally we can recognize the irony only by the context or by the intonation.”
Also the Holy Scripture does not report certain things in a scientific manner but in the manner in which they had been seen by the author.
For example: “The hare is a ruminant!“ (Leviticus 11:6) We know that the hare is not a ruminant but he moves his mouth in such a way that he seems to ruminate.
“The pillars of heaven tremble…“ (Job 26:11) The author thought they did when there was an earthquake. The earth started to shake and looked as if it stood on pillars which trembled.
Besides this literal sense some parts of the Holy Scripture also have a spiritual sense. The literal sense is thus not the verbatim sense but the sense which the author wanted to communicate.
We subdivide the spiritual sense in three subchapters: the allegorical sense, the moral sense and the anagogical sense.
In the allegorical sense persons and objects are transferred to Christ.
There is the Egyptian Joseph who is an image of Christ. He had lived in a righteous manner and was sentenced to death by his brothers. But finally God exalted him and thus his sufferings rescued his brothers.
The five pebbles of the shepherd David which he used to strike Goliath are an image of Christ’s wounds. He triumphed over the Devil by his five wounds.
Like the brazen serpent in the desert which Moses erected so that everyone who had been bitten by a snake could look up to it and thus be saved, the Cross of Christ has been risen for those who had been bitten by the diabolic serpent and may be saved by looking up at the Cross.
There is the sacrifice of Isaak, an unbloody sacrifice which is a symbol of the Holy Mass, the unbloody Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Like Jonas who had passed three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, the Son of Man will later pass three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.
In the moral sense the acts of the Old Testament are used as a model of our acts. The moral sense, too, is a spiritual sense.
The liberation of the slavery of Egypt, the passage through the Red Sea and the march through the desert to the Holy Land are a symbol of the Christian life. God has liberated us from the slavery of sin by the holy baptism and our life is a crusade to the Promised Land, to Heaven. We have to bear the Cross in order to get to the Promised Land.
The anagogical sense uses images out of the Bible to illustrate what will be waiting for us in our future life. Thus the raisings from the dead show us that we will also once be raised from the dead.
Let us always read the Holy Scriptures with a qualified comment of the pre-Conciliar Church!
Let us recapitulate: There is a literal sense, the sense which the author wanted to give to the text. Besides this sense there are spiritual senses, the allegorical, the moral and the anagogical sense.
The exegesis has the function to discover the literal sense and to give it the right interpretation. Let us not forget that many saints were converted by the Holy Scriptures: Saint Francis of Assisi, saint Augustin, saint Ignatius, etc.
“Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God.“ (Matthew 4:4)
In this force we shall overcome the world. Saint Peter, after having been in the sea in vain during the whole night, casted his net in the morning hours. … “at thy word“, he said, “I will let down the net.“ (Luke 5:5) And he caught such a multitude of fishes that the net broke.
Let us also consider the three principles of Pope Leo XIII:
- Principle: There must not be an opposition between natural science and faith:
In the book of Joshua (10:12) we read: “Move not, o sun…“ In this case we could be of the opinion that the sun turns around the earth which is not the case. The author just wanted to describe what he had seen.
- Principle: There must not be an opposition between the separate books of the Bible:
In the letter to the Romans (3:28) it says: “For we account a man to be justified by faith without the works of the law.“ – Here are meant the good works of the abolished Mosaic law.
The letter to Romans seems to contradict the letter of saint James (2:24) where we read: “Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?“
But here are meant good works in general.
In the gospel of Saint Matthew we read: “But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other.“ (Matthew 5:39)
In the gospel of Saint John it says: “And when he had said these things, one of the servants standing by, gave Jesus a blow, saying: Answerest thou the high priest so? Jesus answered him: “If I have spoken evil, give testimony of the evil, but if well, why strikest thou me?“ (John 18:22-23)
Why does Jesus not present the other cheek? He talked about it in his sermon but before the High priest Caiphas he does not turn the other cheek. How can this be explained? Despite of this sermon saint Matthew does not forbid defense but if we cannot defend ourselves by means which are allowed, we shall not withstand. Christ was ready not only to present the other cheek, too, but to be tormented all over his body.
- Principle: The authors are free of errors if they themselves or angels present something but the quotation itself is not free of errors.
In Psalm 13:1 it says: “The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God.“
If we just quoted: In the Bible it says: “There is no God“, we would distort the sense.
The quotation itself is wrong.
Let us use the Advent time to read the Bible! Let us say a prayer to the Holy Spirit first! Let us use a Bible comments! Let us not read much but let us reflect about it. Amen.