After 60 years of writing homilies every week (that’s approximately 3000 to date), I am increasingly wondering if their meaning is really reaching the faithful people for whom they are intended. Composed as the bible was in an age that was almost totally lacking in the most basic scientific knowledge, and having passed through translation after translation, what are we 21st century Christians able to, and supposed to, be getting out of it? What are preachers and teachers expected to be transmitting of “God’s word” from the Scriptures to others?
Consider the Gospel excerpt we just heard: Jesus is said to have said, “…whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.” In order to make sense of the otherwise objectionable word “hates”, I am certain that most sincere hearers automatically say to themselves something like, “He couldn’t have meant ‘hate’ in its ordinary definition; he must have meant that we should care more for the life promised us beyond death than the life we live now and should be willing to give up at times some worldly living if it gets in the way of our path to eternal life — what martyrs do, in other words.”
Adjustments like that wear thin after a while and we have reason to wonder how such puzzling statements can really be what they are proclaimed to be — the “word of God.” If they really are that, could not the infinitely intelligent and loving God speak more plainly for all to understand?
What we’ve got to come to grips with is that the bible is a collection of writings from different cultures at different times in the history of the world and that its authors and its original audiences did not perceive the world and the life of its human inhabitants as we do today. If, by some sort of time warp we could spend just one day with any of them, we’d be amazed at the radical differences between us and them. We would think of them as backward, uninformed, even childish; they would be shocked, scandalized at our apparent Godlessness.
To begin with, their very concept of God clashes with ours. They saw God as a super human being, male of course, perched somewhere above the clouds and surrounded by angels who serve him. Jesus was God’s son, whom he sent into our evil world precisely to suffer and die for our sins and restore us to God’s paternal love.
Now we know that that is all the product of human imagination. But had we lived in their day, we can be sure that without question or doubt we would have espoused the same ideas.
As all living beings do, we humans grew and learned more and more of the real truth — not completely yet, but significantly, even as we look forward eagerly to what we will in the future come to understand.
As we listen to the Scriptures every Sunday at Mass, it should be with a sincere attitude of honor and gratitude to those millions of people who lived on earth centuries before us and grappled with the Mystery of Mysteries called God. We must not sneer at their immature beliefs; we mustn’t grumble and ask ourselves why we are paying attention to such outmoded piety. We should instead thank those authors for leaving us a record of the primitive faith of their times and thank their hearers for passing on the religious faith that Jesus greatly advanced while commissioning us to develop it further under the guidance of the Spirit of God.
It’s a grand process we are privileged to be participating in.