Summary: We must understand the biblical text before speaking on it, and must do so with the mind of the Church.

Thursday of 19th week in course 2015

Joy of the Gospel

About sixty years ago, it became popular in certain circles of Catholic scholars to call into doubt the stories of miracles in the Bible. This story in Joshua that relates how Joshua called on God to allow the Israelites to cross the Jordan river dry-shod is one of those. The parallel story of Israel crossing the sea from Egypt to safety is one that was often doubted. Stories were interpreted in a spiritual sense, as if the Biblical authors could communicate truth by telling a lie.

Physical research and archaeology have stepped in to help rescue some of the stories. You can go to the Holy Land and see the very likely site of the Baptism of Jesus, but it’s not on the present bank of the Jordan. There’s a very old streambed on the east side of the Jordan. The Jordan river valley has experienced many earthquakes and floods in recorded history. In fact, that is how the present course of the Jordan opposite Jericho has been carved. In the first couple of hundred years, at the site I’m discussing, there was a church. A huge flood washed it away. The Christians rebuilt. A second flood washed it away. Then they got smart. They built the third basilica on a tall foundation that would be impervious to flooding. A few years later, an earthquake brought it down. It’s now thought that in Joshua’s time, the river was dammed up by an earthslide and that’s why Israel passed over dry-shod. We should always give the biblical text the benefit of the doubt when trying to interpret the Word of God.

The Holy Father gives us a longstanding principle of biblical interpretation: ‘to understand properly the meaning of the central message of a text we need to relate it to the teaching of the entire Bible as handed on by the Church. This is an important principle of biblical interpretation which recognizes that the Holy Spirit has inspired not just a part of the Bible, but the Bible as a whole, and that in some areas people have grown in their understanding of God’s will on the basis of their personal experience. It also prevents erroneous or partial interpretations which would contradict other teachings of the same Scriptures. But it does not mean that we can weaken the distinct and specific emphasis of a text which we are called to preach. One of the defects of a tedious and ineffectual preaching is precisely its inability to transmit the intrinsic power of the text which has been proclaimed.

‘The preacher “ought first of all to develop a great personal familiarity with the word of God. Knowledge of its linguistic or exegetical aspects, though certainly necessary, is not enough. He needs to approach the word with a docile and prayerful heart so that it may deeply penetrate his thoughts and feelings and bring about a new outlook in him”.

‘It is good for us to renew our fervour each day and every Sunday as we prepare the homily, examining ourselves to see if we have grown in love for the word which we preach. Nor should we forget that “the greater or lesser degree of the holiness of the minister has a real effect on the proclamation of the word”. As Saint Paul says, “we speak, not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts” (1 Th 2:4). If we have a lively desire to be the first to hear the word which we must preach, this will surely be communicated to God’s faithful people, for “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). The Sunday readings will resonate in all their brilliance in the hearts of the faithful if they have first done so in the heart of their pastor.

‘Jesus was angered by those supposed teachers who demanded much of others, teaching God’s word but without being enlightened by it: “They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves will not lift a finger to move them” (Mt 23:4). The apostle James exhorted: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1). Whoever wants to preach must be the first to let the word of God move him deeply and become incarnate in his daily life. In this way preaching will consist in that activity, so intense and fruitful, which is “communicating to others what one has contemplated”. For all these reasons, before preparing what we will actually say when preaching, we need to let ourselves be penetrated by that word which will also penetrate others, for it is a living and active word, like a sword “which pierces to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). This has great pastoral importance. Today too, people prefer to listen to witnesses: they “thirst for authenticity” and “call for evangelizers to speak of a God whom they themselves know and are familiar with, as if they were seeing him”.‘

This is a great responsibility; please pray for us so that we may fulfill it!

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