Sermons

Summary: understand the meaning of the words we read

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Thursday of 19th Week in Course

Today’s Scriptures illustrate almost perfectly the next topic on preaching or witnessing that the Holy Father relates in the encyclical “the Joy of the Gospel.” It has to do with how we read the sacred text: ‘we need to be sure that we understand the meaning of the words we read. I want to insist here on something which may seem obvious, but which is not always taken into account: the biblical text which we study is two or three thousand years old; its language is very different from that which we speak today. Even if we think we understand the words translated into our own language, this does not mean that we correctly understand what the sacred author wished to say. The different tools provided by literary analysis are well known: attention to words which are repeated or emphasized, recognition of the structure and specific movement of a text, consideration of the role played by the different characters, and so forth. But our own aim is not to understand every little detail of a text; our most important goal is to discover its principal message, the message which gives structure and unity to the text. If the preacher does not make this effort, his preaching will quite likely have neither unity nor order; what he has to say will be a mere accumulation of various disjointed ideas incapable of inspiring others. The central message is what the author primarily wanted to communicate; this calls for recognizing not only the author’s ideas but the effect which he wanted to produce. If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; if it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news.

‘Certainly, 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.’

With this in mind, let’s look at the parable in today’s Gospel: the King gives a wedding banquet for the Crown Prince. Invitations went out, and, in the custom of the time, they were sent by messenger. The key phrase in the response is “they made light of it.” The invitees laughed off the invitation, or, worse, seized and humiliated and even killed the messengers. The height of rudeness, and certainly a revolutionary and criminal action. So they got what they essentially asked for according to the Law of Talion. The banquet hall was essentially empty, so he sent new messengers out to gather “as many as they could find.” The hall was filled, but one fellow had no wedding garment, so he was thrown out. And then there was the moral: Many are called, few are chosen.


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