GARCIA-LUENSE: Reading Scripture is eavesdropping on foreigners

January 26, 2021

Among the many changes effected in the lives of everyday Catholics by the Second Vatican Council, one has been the emphasis on the importance of all Catholics to read and become intimately familiar with the Bible regularly.

As strange as it may seem to those of us who have grown up and lived our lives in a post-conciliar world, it is well-documented that, in the centuries immediately before the Second Vatican Council, most Catholic families had a Bible that they very rarely read. Parishes did not have regular Bible studies.

The Liturgy of the Church made use of a much smaller collection of Scriptural passages than it does in the extensive lectionaries of today. As a result, most Catholics of that era had a far smaller exposure to and familiarity with Scripture than those of today. While we quite rightly celebrate the emergence of a much more Scripturally literate Catholic population now, it is worth asking the question as to why there was such reticence in the pre-conciliar period.

The historical evidence suggests that the hesitance to emphasize individual reading and study of Scripture by everyday Catholics was motivated by a concern that such individual reading and study might lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

The truth is that these concerns were, in fact, well-grounded. And so, while we now understand better that failing to take up the task of reading the Scriptures with understanding is not the best solution to this potential pitfall, we would do well to remember why these concerns existed in the first place and make ourselves aware of why it is that when we pick up the Bible for ourselves, as indeed we should do, we must do so carefully and with a special awareness.

It is important that we remember that the books of the Bible were not written in North America in our contemporary times. The books of the Bible were written in a different part of the world at a very different time in history.

Even the newest books of the New Testament are nearly 2,000 years old and the oldest parts of the Old Testament are over 3,000 years old. The vast majority of those reading this column, when they read the Bible, do so in translation and not in the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.

Yet, we must also recognize that merely translating the words of the Bible into our modern languages is not enough for us to fully grasp the meaning intended by the Sacred Writers, working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Cultural anthropologists rightly point out to us that meaning does not only come from words. Meaning inevitably is derived from the general social system of the speakers of a language. Therefore, we must remind ourselves when reading the Scriptures that we are eavesdropping on foreigners and need to be aware of the significant cultural differences between their world and ours.

I would like to point out a few of the most significant differences between the cultural world of the first-century Mediterranean basin and the dominant culture of 21st-century North America.

The culture of the world of the New Testament is what cultural anthropologists call a “limited good society.” The good things constituting life, like land itself, are seen as inherent in nature, there to be divided and re-divided, if possible and necessary, but never to be increased.

This perception of a limited good society is in marked contrast to ours in which “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and all expect their children’s lives to be better than their own as the world constantly improves. Combining this with a group-centered identity that stands opposed to modern individualism leads to an ancient belief that community stability and harmony among individuals and families can develop and be maintained only by keeping the existing arrangements of statuses.

There can be no idea of upward mobility, for to move upward, someone else must move down. Everyone in society has an incentive to oppose changes to the status quo since each individual must worry that he or she is the one being harmed. Envy, not to be confused with jealousy, is the sin of one who seeks to gain at the expense of others.

One surprising result of this interaction of forces is how the place of gratitude in first-century Mediterranean culture differs from that of ours. As individuals would be extremely cautious about forming relationships outside one’s own group, the creation of these relationships would be negotiated very carefully. Because of the limited-good nature of society and questions of preserving honor, any relationship must be reciprocal in some way.

Gratitude then marks the way of terminating a relationship. Looking at the story of Jesus cleansing 10 lepers in Luke 18, Jesus asks, “‘Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?’” (Lk 18:17-18).

Our modern response would be to presume that Jesus is criticizing the nine for lack of manners. They did not say “Thank you” when it would be the appropriate thing to do. A reading of this passage that considers this important cultural difference would understand that Jesus is not criticizing their lack of politeness, but their lack of faith. For the Samaritan to thank Jesus is for Him to recognize that the healing Jesus has effected is permanent, and hence their relationship may be safely terminated. The failure of the nine can be attributed to their belief that they may have further need of recourse to the healing power of Jesus and hence desire to leave the relationship open.

As modern Catholics, we do well to spend time reading and praying with the Bible. We should be cautious, however, and remember that when we do so, we are eavesdropping on foreigners.

If we want to understand what these foreigners mean, we need to find ways to try to enter their world. Learning to do so will aid in our understanding of the Scriptures and will also open us to a way of entering more profoundly into conversations with a multicultural world. 

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.