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God’s word

30 November, 1999

How should we interprete and use the Bible to find out what God is saying to us in our present situation. James McPolin SJ gives some clear guidelines.

We have already seen that the Bible is human history.  But it is much more than a story about human history, much more than human words written by human writers.

It is also called sacred history and the word of God.  The Bible is a story written in faith.  What does this mean?  Let us take an example: as we look at the story of our own lives, we can see it as our human history – we think of the important events and achievements of our lives – growing up and our adult life.  We can pick out events and people who had an important influence on our lives and enabled us to grow.  But for us as Christians this is a very incomplete way of looking at our human history.  We are called to look at the story of our lives as a kind of sacred history, that is, with the eyes of faith.

With these eyes of faith we receive a deeper vision of our human history, of how God has been working for, with us and guiding us in the ordinary and special events of our lives, how he has helped us through our family and friends, how he has enabled us to grow through the sacraments and the word of God.  To see our lives in this way is a vision of faith and this faith is given to us by God.

The word of God
This is a key to our reading of the Bible as the word of God.  The authors of the Bible write out of faith.  For example, they see in the wandering Abraham a man called by God, responding in faith to the call of God to be founder of the Jewish people.

The time of slavery and oppression in Egypt, the escape of the people under Moses, their wandering through the desert, their coming to posses a land of their own – all these events are seen as acts of God who liberates and guides them:

I am the Lord and I will deliver you from slavery to the Egyptians.  Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you… in the wilderness.  The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters… a land where you will lack nothing.  You will eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you (Exod 6, Deut 8).

This vision of faith of the authors enables them to see the guiding hand of God and his love in the natural and special events of the people’s history.  This vision of faith is the work of God acting in and inspiring the authors in their writings and makes human history sacred history and makes a human word a word of God.

They write a story of faith and also a story of sinfulness.  There are events, actions which, through the light of faith are seen as sinful and which call the people to repentance, especially during the times of the kings after David (960-539 BC).

The people of Israel has sinned against the Lord their God who has brought them out of the land of Egypt.  They have worshipped other gods.  They secretly did things that were not right against the Lord their God.  Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet.  They would not listen but were stubborn            (2 Kings 7).

Similarly, the Gospels may be called sacred history and the word of God because the authors write out of their vision of faith in Jesus, his person and teaching.  This vision of faith comes from God who inspires them to pass on faithfully the story of Jesus.

What the authors write, then, is a human word and a word of God.  God gives them this vision of faith to view events, situations in the lives of people in the light of faith and to transmit faithfully this sacred history.  They are guided by God in communicating to us those truths concerning salvation.  The sacred history of faith and salvation which they write is inspired by God himself.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 106-7) says:

God inspired the human authors of the sacred books.  To compose the sacred books, God chose certain people who, all the while he employed them in this task, made full use of their own faculties and powers so that, though he acted in them and by them, it was as true authors that they consigned to writing whatever he wanted written.  The books of Scripture firmly, faithfully teach the truth… which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.

Growth of the word
I have met some people who, in reading the Bible, spend more time reading the books of the Old Testament than those of the New Testament. I do not think this is a good approach to reading the Bible. It is true that we should not confine our reading to the pages of the New Testament. Jesus’ teaching about God and human life is influenced by the Old Testament, so the Old Testament history points forward to a climax which is the coming of Christ into human history. It is necessary, then, to read the Old Testament in the light of the New.

The image of God in the Old Testament is sometimes imperfect compared with that image of God in the New Testament. For example, at times God appears as a punishing God who commands the people of Israel to kill their enemies and God is invoked to take vengeance on them (for example, Deut 8:20; Psalm 137: 7-9). In fact, Jesus corrects some Old Testament teachings: “You have heard that it was said: ‘you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemies’, but I say to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43).

Besides, for the people of the Old Testament the “neighbour” meant somebody of one’s own race, a fellow-Jew. For Jesus, all human beings are my neighbour.

In addition, Jesus corrects some Old Testament views on marriage and divorce. Therefore, sometimes the image of God and the view of life we form from the Old Testament need to be purified and developed by our reading of the New Testament. Certainly, the image of a loving and forgiving God who seeks out the sinful, who shows great compassion for the poor and the sick goes far beyond the image of God as presented in the Old Testament.

Therefore, there is a development in the word of God. The story and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels are the heart of all the Scriptures. They are our principal source for the life and teaching of Jesus who brings to completeness the teaching of the Old Testament.

God’s word for us today
The Bible is a living word for us today, not just a word about the past. We see and understand our lives more deeply in the light of the Bible. For example, when we reflect on our faith we become more aware that it embraces three main areas:

  1. Our personal relationship with God: this concerns the image we have of God, our trust in him, how God (Jesus) loves and forgives us, how he leads, guides us; we see God’s care in our own lives and in the lives of others; this relationship with God is nourished by the life of prayer. We find many passages in the Old and New Testament dealing with these aspects of God’s (and Jesus’) relationship with us.
  2. The interpersonal aspect of our relationships: this refers to friendship, mutual love, treating all with respect in a manner appropriate to the kind of relationship we have, being other-centred, merciful, open and accepting of others. The Bible, especially the New Testament, gives us much guidance in this area of our lives.
  3. Our relationship with society: this refers to the social dimension of our faith: it is love working through justice, it means working to build a society that is just, in which minorities are not discriminated against; it is our concern for the poor, for underprivileged groups in our society (including women) and our commitment to correcting injustices in our own lives and in society. The Bible tells us so much about God’s (Jesus’) concern for the poor and underprivileged and about justice, especially the prophets (e.g., Isaiah, Amos) and the teaching of Jesus.

Therefore, it can be very profitable, when reading the Bible, to keep in mind these three central aspects of our faith and focus our attention on those parts of the Bible which deal with them. This is a good way of relating what we read to the reality of our lives.

Sharing the word with others
A very positive and heartening development in the world today is that many small groups of Christian lay people (small communities, groups, especially basic Christian communities in Latin America) are meeting to reflect on the Bible. Following their conviction that the word of God is a living word for the present, that God acts among us through his word, they take passages from the Bible and reflect on them in the light of the reality of their own lives and the social situation in which they live. They may share what a passage says to them as individuals and as a group, paying particular attention to the challenges it raises for them. Then they reflect on the practical application of the passage for their lives, that is, what action are they going to take.

Of course, there is a variety of ways of reflecting together on the Bible. But, above all, it is necessary to actualise, that is, make real or actual, the message of the Bible in the concrete situations of the people so that God’s message is brought to the ears and hearts of the people of our own time. The Bible can shed light on many problems that exist in our country today, for example reconciliation, violence, justice, peace, human rights, racism, the situation of women and underprivileged groups in our society.

Certainly, the word of God, shared in small Christian communities, can become a very effective: word in the life of the Church and in society.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2000), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.

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