Bumbling Along on the Way to the House of the Lord
Friday, May. 19, 2017
IC photo/Marie Mischel
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A woman climbs a staircase during a rain shower in Assisi, Italy.
If you’re a Biblical scholar or have studied the Gospel of Matthew, skip this column. Otherwise you’ll be saying, “I already knew that!” all the way through.
Myself, I have avoided reading the Bible any more than necessary because I hate knowing that I’m not grasping the full meaning. It’s obvious to even the most casual Christian that the New Testament is full of allusions to the Old Testament, but these inferences pop up in the most unexpected places. For example, I always thought Peter was just blathering when, after the Transfiguration, he offered to put up three tents on the site, one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. In fact, Luke’s Gospel plainly states that Peter didn’t know what he was saying.
So I thought I knew all about that story. Then, a couple of years ago, a priest said in a homily that for a Jew in Jesus’ time, erecting a tent would imply creating a place for God to dwell among mankind, reminiscent of the tent that housed the Ark of the Covenant during the Exodus, when God was present day and night to the Israelites.
That little bit of trivia puts Peter’s comment in a whole different light, and this is precisely why I resisted reading the Bible. Even those footnotes in tiny print at the bottom of every page don’t explain such things, and as far as I’m concerned, if you don’t get the entire meaning, what’s the point of even trying?
Hence, until very recently, my attitude, which was that I’d just settle for hearing the Gospel on Sunday.
About two years ago, however, this “faith-lite” approach no longer satisfied, so I started taking theology classes. One of the texts for my current course is Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew
, by Edward P. Sri. While reading it, my constant refrain has been “I didn’t know that!”
I’ve also developed a whole different appreciation for those stories the deacon reads on Sunday.
Sri’s book starts, appropriately enough, with the opening lines of Matthew, which give Jesus’ genealogy. The author acknowledges that modern readers find this a tedious beginning, but points out that for Jews of Jesus’ day, the list of names would have evoked all of the triumphs and failures of Israelite history, and by calling Jesus the Christ and the Messiah and Emmanuel, Matthew heralded a man who would save the Jews, who was anointed to kingship, who would bring God back among the people.
All that from 42 names that I always skipped because to me they had no meaning.
Almost every page of Sri’s book contained what for me was new information. That bit about John the Baptist wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt? It wasn’t just a description of how this desert hermit was clothed, it actually harkened back to how the prophet Elijah was known to dress, with all the implications that entails. Jesus giving the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter? Among other things, that action suggests apostolic succession, because the keeper of the keys in ancient times was a position that was handed on from one man to another. Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey? Not just a show of humility but also a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy.
So much I didn’t know, and along the way I found out from a different source that Catholic tradition has four ways of interpreting Scripture: literal, allegorical, moral and anagogic. That doesn’t include personal interpretation – how God is speaking to each of us through the reading. (For instance, this past Sunday, I identified with Philip, who had experienced so many examples of Jesus’ love, and yet before he would be satisfied he wanted just one more, the greatest one yet, the one denied to all mankind except Moses. Yep. That’s me. “Thanks, God, for everything you’ve given me, but how do I know you’re really there?”)
It’s not only to be erudite that I’m learning these myriad ways to interpret Scripture. No, the real reason is so that if I happen to encounter Jesus as I stumble along trying to find the way to the Father’s house, and I tell him I’ve been seeking him, I don’t want him to say, “I didn’t know that!” Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.