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SACRED TEXTS AND LITERAL INTERPRETATIONS

8 May 2017 No Comment

SACRED TEXTS AND LITERAL INTERPRETATIONS
Father John Walsh

Tongue in cheek, the alleged Dr. James F. Kauffman, in an open letter to Dr. Laura Schlesinger, questions her judgement that according to Leviticus 25:44 he wonders if Canada would be a neighboring country to allow for the purchase of slaves. Are we allowed to kill someone who works on Saturdays as in Exodus 35:2? Is football to be played with gloves when in Leviticus 11:6-8 touching the skin of a dead pig makes a person unclean? The letter ends when he thanks Dr. Laura for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
Bishop John Shelby Spong in Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991. 5) states that a major function of fundamentalist religion is to bolster deeply insecure and fearful people. This is done by justifying a way of life with all of its defining prejudices. It thereby provides an appropriate and legitimate outlet for one’s anger. The authority of an inerrant Bible that can be readily quoted to buttress this point of view becomes an essential ingredient to such a life. When that Bible is challenged, or relativized, the resulting anger proves the point categorically.
The Roman Catholic Church has provided a whole series of pontifical documents, ranging from the encyclical “Providentissimus Deus” of Leo XIII (1893) to the encyclical “Divino Afflante Spiritu” of Pius XII (1943), and the declaration “Sancta Mater Ecclesia” of the Pontifical Biblical Commission (1964) and above all by the dogmatic constitution “Dei Verbum” of the Second Vatican Council (1965) to confirm the use of the historical-critical method to interpret the Bible contextually in the world in which it was written. The historical-critical method is part of literary criticism and can also take into account form criticism and redaction criticism. The use of these methods is to discover the meaning intended behind the text.
Father Thomas Reese writes in the National Catholic Reporter that much of the negative discussion around the Pope’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia has focused on the Pope opening the possibility of divorced and remarried Catholics receiving Communion. His critics are quick to cite the words of Jesus in Matthew 19: Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate. … whoever divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another commits adultery. And earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, whoever divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery”
Reese writes: In the minds of the critics of Pope Francis these statements are clear and definitive and end the discussion. Jesus said it. Case closed. But is it? First, Jesus said a lot of things that we do not observe literally without exception. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
No one literally follows the teaching of Jesus on gouging out an eye or cutting off a hand. And only an infinitesimally small group of Christians refuse to take oaths in court because of the teaching of Jesus.
Jesus does not list any punishment for divorce and remarriage. He does not say such persons will be consigned to hellfire. He does not say they should be excluded from the Christian community. He does not even say they cannot go to Communion. Is Jesus making a big deal about divorce? Here the historical context is important. Note that Matthew only speaks of men divorcing women. In Matthew 19, he is responding to a question from the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” Where Jesus lived and taught, divorce was only available to men. Mark, whose gospel was used in Rome made the teaching of Jesus gender neutral because in Rome upper-class wives could divorce their husbands. Divorce was clearly a devastating injustice to women for most of human history. Jesus quite rightly condemned it since practically all divorces were done by powerful men to powerless women.
Various commentators accuse Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, Superior General of the Jesuits, of relativism with regard to the Bible, of disregarding the words of Jesus as they’ve come down through Catholic tradition, and even of doctrinal heresy. Sosa spoke out to reject those complaints. The words of Jesus must be understood in context, as interpreted, in the ample sense, by the Church. Doctrines, in a sense, are the result of this interpretation by the Church. All these things help us to understand better.”
Sosa argues that the people who became angry with him were wrong to perceive a relativization in his remarks. He retorted: It’s exactly the opposite. When we interpret, it’s to understand better what Jesus said directly. If we understand better what Jesus said, then we’ll also understand better how to act like him.

Today we live in a different world. How can we be so certain that Jesus would respond in the same way to divorce today? True, most divorces involve sin, moral failure and great pain. True, in most divorces women get the short end of the stick. Divorce is not something to be shrugged off, but once it has happened and a marriage is dead, can there not be a possibility for healing and life in the future?

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