Four Helpful Senses of Scripture
Sermon shared by W Pat Cunningham
Summary: We can see in the writing of the story of Cornelius and Jesus's words about the sheepfold very helpful examples of the literal and spiritual senses of Scripture.
Series: Verbum Domini
Audience: Believer adults
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Monday of 4th Week of Easter
The richness of today’s Scripture readings should suggest to us a couple of responses. First, we need several hours of study of the text and its meanings. Second, we should, in worshipful awe, spend a few more hours before the Blessed Sacrament contemplating its meaning in our lives. Anything I say today will be almost risibly inadequate.
Peter was a Jew, and one surrounded by Pharisees, whose fascist interpretation of the Law had to influence his upbringing. The man-made precept of the Pharisees to have nothing to do with Gentiles had to be observed in the breach, if you were a Galilean fisherman, but to actively seek out the Gentile Roman Cornelius and bring him into the new Christian church, really was a break with the synagogue. But the word of God and the clear action of the Holy Spirit, the gift they had all received, was totally convincing. In a real sense, this early inclusionary action by the chief of the Apostles was an acting out of what Jesus talks about in John’s Gospel. Peter, a shepherd but also a sheep of God’s pasture, heard the voice of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus, and followed out of his shell of bigotry. The result was that even us of Irish blood have heard and followed–and every other nation and people as well, for two thousand years.
We have been considering the various senses of Scripture, as we followed the teaching of the Synod summarized in the Holy Father’s recent exhortation. He reminds us that we can learn much about how to bring the Bible to our current culture by reading the teachings of the Fathers of the Church in their day. The Fathers were conscious of the several levels of meaning of the Word of God. Let’s think about them, and how we might use them.
First is the literal meaning. What did the sacred author intend to say? What style did that author write in? This story from Acts is clearly a midrash, a literary style in which a current story is related in a way that will recall one from the OT. Peter was in a trance, and saw and heard a command three times. This should immediately bring to mind the call of Samuel almost a thousand years earlier. Samuel, asleep, was awakened by the word of God calling his name. This happened three times, and on the third time he responded, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.” This story of Peter and the acceptance of the Gentiles is reminiscent of the older one. In both cases, a great renewal and almost revolution followed. This helps convey the meaning that St. Luke intends.
There follow three spiritual senses of Scripture. Sense two is the allegory of faith. What are we to believe from this passage? We learn the radical equality of Jew and Gentile in God’s eyes, an equality that was taught to Abraham when he learned that all the nations of earth would be blessed in him. The Pharisees had lost that notion of bringing in the nations; the priestly class had betrayed that holy mission, even setting up a market in the Court of the Gentiles. The Church would restore it by carrying the Word to the ends of the earth.
Sense three is the moral meaning. What action should the listener take after hearing this word? In the case of the Gospel today, we might be more careful about what we read, about what we listen to on the radio or see on TV
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