Because we’re Catholic

The great Catholic Biblical scholar, Rev. Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, started one of his books with the story of some traveling evangelists coming to his home in Boston when he was about 10 years old. This was around 1950. When his Irish-Catholic mother opened the door, the “ministers of the Word” said that they’d like to come in and discuss the Bible. “We’re Catholics,” she said. “We don’t read the Bible.” Fortunately, things have changed since then – but then again, in some ways, not. Sometimes we are more like Mrs. Harrington than we want to admit.

In his book, “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?” Fr. Harrington provided a wonderful introduction to the “what” and “why” of reading the Bible.

Christianity is sometimes described along Judaism and Islam as a ‘religion of the book.’ However, that description is not entirely accurate, since Christianity is really the religion of the person, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to whom the words in the church’s book [the Bible] bear witness. Or better still, Christianity is the religion of God understood and experienced as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Bible, or Holy Scripture, the book that was both created the church and was created by the church, is a privileged witness to God’s dealing with the people of God in both the Old and the New Testaments.

That is as concise a summary as I have seen. It clearly carries the thoughts and ideas of the two great 20th Century church documents on Scripture – Dei Verbum (The Word of God; Vatican II) and “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church” from the Pontifical Biblical Commission. Let me point out just a couple of highlights of these two important documents.

First, Dei Verbum looks at the Bible as an instance of God’s personal self-revelation to us. That’s important: God communicates himself so that we can come to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this life and be with Him in the next. As one of my Franciscan brothers writes, God wants to date us, get to know us, and commit to an eternally lasting relationship.

Second, both documents look carefully at the relationship between Scripture and tradition. In the Catholic Church we consider tradition to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and so Vatican II emphasized the close relationship between Scripture and tradition, describing them beautifully as both “flowing from the same divine wellspring.” Christians have been faithfully reading and reflecting on Sacred Scripture for two millennia, all the while guided by the Holy Spirit. Their reflection, passion, and understanding are part of the tradition. As we read the Bible today, we are only catching up to our ancestors in the faith, joining them, joining the community of believers in our own “family history.”

Third, the Pontificial Biblical Commission’s document applauds our attempts to understand the different literary methods that are used in the texts – e.g., sometimes Jesus is indeed speaking in hyperbole. The Commission critiques the pure literalist / fundamentalist interpretation, which it calls “dangerous” as it has a tendency to take a book whose goal is to build a personal relationship with Jesus and reduce it to a rule book so as to engender a false certitude. The Bible is not a checklist of how to be in love with God.

In my own life, the Bible is a place where I encounter God. As my dad said, “the main thing is making sure the main thing remains the main thing.” The main thing is the person of Jesus. All the prophets and the Law of the Hebrew Scriptures point to Him. All the writers of the New Testament point to Him. So, I look to the Bible to meditate on what Jesus said and did during his ministry. How he lived. How he cared for people. And what we are meant to do as his disciples. It’s the main thing.

So, with apologies to Mrs. Harrington, because we’re Catholic we are people called to read the Bible and come to know the One who calls us into the eternally life-giving relationship.

Blindness: faith or disbelief

man-born-blindBeing Lead to Decision: Faith or Disbelief.  Where the authorities drive the man away (v.34), here Jesus finds the man (cf. 6:37) and asks: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Just as the Samaritan woman was confronted by Jesus with the possibility of the anticipated Messiah’s being already present (4:25-26), so also the healed man is confronted by Jesus with the possibility that the future judge is already present. To this point in John 9, the theme of the judgment evoked by the light of the world (9:5; cf. 3:17-21; 12:31-36) has largely been implicit. Jesus’ question makes this theme explicit as he asks the man whether he recognizes in his healer the one who brings of salvation. As v.36 indicates, the man is ready. Continue reading

Blindness: more questions

man-born-blindA second interrogation of the man by the Jews (9:24-34). In the third and final interrogation scene, the authorities are identified only with the pronoun “they.” They are clearly the same group identified as the Pharisees who interrogated the man in vv. 13-17, but the motivation for the second interrogation is also clearly linked to the parents’ testimony and their rebuttal: “…he is of age.”  The man is recalled before the elders.

Twice in this interrogation scene the authorities hold their knowledge up to the man and expect him to accept their positions (vv24, 29). Each time, however, the man counters with his own experience (vv.25, 30-33). Continue reading

Blindness: interrogation

man-born-blindThe Interrogations. If there is a “typical” pattern to any miracle account it is: (a) the situation of need, (b) the miracle, and (c) the attestation/witness to the miracle. It is here that John’s telling of the story has unique features – patterns outlined in the introductory comments of miracles and sin (in John’s writing).  Be attentive to simple categories such as true witness, equivocating witness, unbelievers, accommodator, or similar categories that are other that one who believes and is willing to live/act based upon that belief. Continue reading

Blindness: healing

man-born-blindCommentary. If you wanted a one sentence summary – here it is: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind”(v.39). Or: as a sign that he is the light, Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. But there is a richness to be gained in a detailed looked at the text and narrative. The Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown suggests the following outline:

  • A. Setting (9:1-5)
  • B. Miraculous healing (9:6-7)
  • C. Interrogations of the blind man (9:8-34)
    • 1. Questioning by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12)
    • 2. Preliminary interrogation by Pharisees (9:13-17)
    • 3. The man’s parents questioned by the Jews (9:18-23)
    • 4. A second interrogation of the man by the Jews (9:24-34)
  • D. Jesus leads the man born blind to that spiritual sight which is faith (9:35-41) Continue reading

Blindness: sin

man-born-blindSin in the Gospel according to John. John seems to understand sin in a way that accents a singular aspect in a way that deserves mention. Words for “sin” occur often in our text: hamartano = “to sin” (9:2, 3; elsewhere in John: 5:14 & 8:11); hamartia = “sin” (9:34, 41); hamartolos = “sinner” (9:16, 24, 25, 31 — all the occurrences in John). The question is does John’s discussion match the discussion of hamartia in the other gospels?

In our passage, the concept of sin will be quickly introduced via the disciples’ question in v.2 : “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  This reflects tradi­tional Jewish speculation on the relationship of illness and sin (cf. 5:14). In 1st century Palestine, people commonly assumed that disease and disorders on both the personal and national level were due to sin, as summarized in the rabbinic saying from around 300 CE that “there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity” (b. shabbat 55a). Continue reading

Blindness: miracles

A Man Born Blind: John 9:1-41  1 As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. 4 We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (the remainder of the gospel can be read here).

Our narrative begins with the simple phrase “As he passed by…” It lacks the general markers (time, geography, etc.) that indicate a break in continuity, sug­gesting that John intends the story of the blind man to be read in continuity with the preceding chapters. So what was in the preceding chapter? The primary narrative in Chapter 8 is the “woman caught in adultery,” Jesus’ self-identification as the “light of the world,” and a long discussion between Jesus and the “Jews” about the very nature of what it means to be of the covenant people – a dialogue that occurs in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles. Continue reading

On our best days

Last year, on a Delta airlines flight from Phoenix, a tragedy occurred. During the flight, one of the passengers suffered a heart attack. His wife called out for help. The trained flight crew responded as did a passenger who was a doctor. Another passenger attended to the passenger’s wife. He offered to pray with her, to pray for her husband, and he stayed with her as the tragedy unfolded. He stayed with her as life hung in the balance. He left the plane with her and collected her luggage. He carried their luggage to the car that was waiting for him and took the woman to the hospital. He stayed with her as a doctor broke the news that her husband had died. Continue reading

Habits of a Loving Heart 2

In last week’s column, I was suggesting that we humans under appreciate the impact and power of habits – good and bad. The previous column, paralleling Stephen’ Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” began to explore the habits of the heart for committed Christians. The premise was that we humans are not fundamentally thinking creatures, or believing creatures, but desiring creatures. Thinking and believing are key and essential parts of who we are, but what pushes and pulls us has more to do with what captures our desires, our affections — our hearts. Our identity as persons is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate. It is the heart that needs formation in the Christian life. I then began to list some habits for forming a loving heart.

Continue reading

At the well: we have heard for ourselves

SamaritanWomanAtTheWellJesus’ words overflow with metaphor: living water, the hour, food, harvest. Each of these metaphors attempts to open reality in fresh ways for his conversation partners. Jesus wants to open the eyes of the Samaritan woman and his disciples so that they can see what is being offered to them in the present instead of continuing to view everything through the lens of old realities. Jesus wants the Samaritan woman to see who is speaking with her at this moment and the gifts that he offers (4:10). He wants her to see that the present moment is the time of eschatological fulfillment (4:23-24). Jesus wants his disciples to see that the harvest is ready now, contrary to popular understandings (4:35). In both conversations (4:7.26, 31-38), Jesus takes familiar images and fills them with new meaning in order to open up for his listeners the possibilities of a life defined by God’s gifts. The metaphors of these verses keep the terms of the conversations always fresh, always suggestive, always open to new meanings in changing circumstances. Continue reading