Friday, July 29, 2011

Exegesis, Eisegesis, Sensus Plenior

Scripture scholars make a careful distinction between exegesis and eisegesis.

Exegesis is the practice of drawing out the meaning of a Bible passage, unlocking what the author intended to say. Eisegesis is the practice of reading something into the passage which the author did not intend.

A person who does exegesis is an exegete. A person who does eisegesis is an eisegete or "a poor exegete."

Exegesis of the Book of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a suggests that the author intended to say that God existed before all else, that God is creator of the universe, that the sun and other created things which some people worship as gods are in fact created by God.

Eisegesis of Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a says that God made the world in six twenty-four hour periods and that the theory of evolution is clearly wrong in the light of the Bible's creation story.

In this case the eisegete's misinterpretation of the author's meaning stems largely from his imposing science upon a faith book.

The author of the biblical story of creation was not a scientist nor did he intend to write a science book. The exegete respects the book for what it is: an expression of a faith conviction that God made the world and everything in it.

In preparing a homily for Mass one day I asked myself if I were guilty of eisegesis when I interpreted the Gospel's parables about the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price as examples of God's great love for us.

Matthew 13: 44-46 tells the stories: The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it.

For decades I have interpreted those parables as encouragement for us to be willing to give up all and everything for the sake of the kingdom. God's will is so important that we should be willing to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship (apologies to President John Kennedy) to be faithful to our God.

But it occurred to me on this occasion that perhaps the parables were really about the price, burden and hardship that God has been willing to muster up to save us. God has certainly gone to extremes to assure us that we are precious in his sight. If Jesus is a good shepherd, can he not also be a merchant in search of a fine pearl?

I was a bit uncomfortable with my interpretation. Was I practicing eisegesis?

I thought so until I read the first reading for that day's Mass, the story of Moses' hiding his face behind a veil because it shone so brightly after his face-to-face encounter with God.

I was sure that the author of Exodus 34:29-35 intended to say that God's glory was radiating from Moses' face, and that Moses had to cover his face with a veil because the radiance of his skin frightened the people.

The author clearly intended to express the transcendence of God and to emphasize how honored Moses was to see God's face.

That, I thought, was the proper exegesis --until I read St. Paul's interpretation in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. There he says that Moses' veil was a symbol of the Jews' failure to recognize Jesus! "To this day, in fact, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their hearts."

That interpretation seems to me more like eisegesis than exegesis. I sincerely doubt that the author of Exodus intended the conclusion Paul drew.

Aha! May I then conclude that Paul is guilty of poor exegesis --that he is an eisegete?

No, I am not permitted that criticism, for Scripture scholars come to his rescue, explaining that some passages have a meaning that the original author did not recognize. As the experts put it, there can be an interpretation fuller than the literal. They call this kind of interpretation "sensus plenior" --the fuller sense.

And there you have it.

If I see more in a passage than the author intended, it is eisegesis. If Paul does it, it's sensus plenior.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Overcoming Self-rejection

Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen suggested that the biggest obstacle in our spiritual lives was self-rejection.

"Success, popularity and power," he wrote, "can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of a much larger temptation to self-rejection."

Most of us have had our share of negative criticism, rejection, and perhaps even abandonment. These experiences are like voices in our minds, echoing the message that we are pitiful, worthless or unlovable.

Franciscan friar Emmet Murphy remembers a time when his life was a mess, when he felt abandoned by God, that no one loved him. In the midst of that depression he received a letter from his Aunt Anna --three pages of family news about who was in college, who was expecting, who was fighting with whom.

At the end of the letter his aunt wrote a PS. It said, "Remember --you are loved!"

Those words, he recalled, jumped off the page. As he studied those words he heard God say to him, "Wake up, Emmet! Believe! Accept the gift! Embrace yourself."

It's hard to say what prompted Aunt Anna's postscript, but it had a profound effect. In the light of that PS, Emmet escaped his depression and set himself on the road to recovery.

Jesus' parable of the lost sheep can have the same effect on anyone who chooses to hear it and accept its message.

"What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of these goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hill and go in search of the stray? And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray!" (Cf. Matthew 18:12-13).

Jesus did not teach catechism questions and answers. His favorite mode of teaching was the parable. He told stories which invited his audience to enter into the scenario and discover a truth for themselves.

Jesus preferred to have his hearers reach inside themselves and come to a "aha moment" of discovery. If "Amen" had not become our customary way of expressing faith, I think we could just as easily have chosen "Eureka!"

In his book Abba's Child, Brennan Manning offers several quotations which are pertinent and encouraging for anyone who doubts his own self-worth, especially vis-a-vis God.

He recalls Thomas Merton's advice, "Surrender your poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to the Lord. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you..."
Fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich said, "Our courteous Lord does not want his servants to despair because they fall often and grievously; for our falling does not hinder him in loving us."

And returning to Nouwen, we read, "Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us 'Beloved.' Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence."

God's love for us is real and enduring. He is the hound from heaven who dogs our steps. He is the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go in search of the lost one.

Emmet found the consolation and the courage to accept himself when he read and reflected on his aunt's postscript.

It is most helpful for us when we read and reflect on Jesus' PS: "It is the will of your heavenly Father that not one of these little ones be lost" (cf. Mt. 18:14).

Read his message and respond "Amen" (or "Eureka!")

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Church In Stress

There were several significant meetings in June relating to the mission and ministry of the Catholic Church.

In June the United States Catholic Bishops met in Seattle to discuss a number of issues, including physician-assisted suicide, sex abuse by clergy, defense of marriage, and the establishment of an office to welcome Anglicans to the Roman Catholic Church.

Also in June a new organization called American Catholic Council gathered in Detroit to discuss reform of the Church. Some 2000 Catholics (mostly over 65 years of age, well-educated, and white) endorsed a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities affirming primacy of conscience and the right for every Catholic to share in responsibility for the mission and ministry of the Church.

The Catholic Theological Society of America met in San Jose, California, to consider the conclusion of the US Bishops' Committee on Doctrine that Sister Elizabeth Johnson's book Quest for the Living God failed to provide authentic Catholic teaching. A committee of theologians had protested that the bishops had misrepresented Johnson's work. Bishop Patrick McGrath of San Jose delivered the opening address to the 325 theologians. His remarks were well-received, and bridged the gap between the two sides.

In New Rochelle, NY, over 250 religion professors gathered to listen to and discuss presentations at the College Theology Society's annual meeting. What made the meeting especially noteworthy was that all present were lay men and women. President Bradford Hinze made the point that 30 years ago almost all theologians were priests, but the age for lay involvement is clearly evident in their membership. Discussions covered such topics as violence in society, the violence of abortion, and violence against gays.

An association of Austrian clergy (priests and deacons) met in Vienna, Austria, and signed a declaration pledging to stop having multiple Masses on Sunday, resisting the push to force priests to pastor multiple parishes, and promoting ordination of married men and women to the priesthood.

Although some Catholics are appalled by such gatherings I think such conversations may well be a sign of health and wholeness in the Church.

If the theology is correct that the Church was born from the wounded side of Christ, it is perhaps understandable that some tension and conflict should be present throughout its history.

All the faithful have a responsibility for the mission and ministry of the Church. Vatican II, Canon Law (##215-216), and the Church Fathers confirm that.

I wish the Church were at peace, that we didn't choose up sides (liberals versus conservatives), that clergy welcoming the involvement of the laity was a common characteristic of parish life.

It isn't so, and probably won't be in my lifetime.

But there is one abiding factor in the life, history and future of the Church that must not, indeed cannot be overlooked. It is the power and presence of the Spirit.

When you look at the history of the Church and see all that its members have done to weaken it, you have to believe that the Church remains in God's safe-keeping.

If the Borgia popes didn't destroy the Church, how can we fear its demise?

Our task is to work for peace, compassion, and formation in the values of the Gospel. The Church ought to reflect that mission.

But when it doesn't, or when it seems to boil with controversial hopes and dreams, you have to believe that God is still in charge.

This is another example of the mystery of faith --out of death comes life!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Poverty - Literal or Literary?

I still stumble when I come to that passage in the New Testament where Jesus sends the apostles out to proclaim the kingdom and heal the sick.

He says to them, "Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic" (Luke 9:3).

Later, in Luke 10, he sends out 72 disciples as advance men, and gives them similar instructions.

I've been out on several journeys as a kind of missionary, preaching parish missions or retreats in California, Florida, New York, Louisiana --and I have never set out without flight reservations, a suitcase, money, credit cards, and more than one change of clothes.

Right from the start, I'm doing it wrong. My report card must have a check-mark next to "Does not follow directions."

Most Bible commentators explain (soften?) Jesus' directions as an indication of "the absolute detachment required of the disciple."

Once again I'm caught up in the tension between literal and literary. Is it necessary to take Jesus' words literally, or should I see them as an exaggeration for the sake of a lesson?

Obviously the pope doesn't take them literally when he goes on a trip. I doubt the Dalai Lama even in his simplicity travels without some provisions. And though Jesus had "nowhere to lay his head," his band of followers had a member who carried "the common purse."

What then am I to think of this instruction?

At this stage of my life I conclude that I must be willing to rely on God (not just for the material needs I have as a parish mission speaker, but also for the content of what I am to say when I preach.)

I do not mean that I do not have to prepare homilies or sermons or ferverinos. I cannot for all my reliance on God be passive or robotic. The human contribution is a necessary element in the mission process.

But I do mean that often God has me say things I never intended to say. God gives preachers a sense of direction and frequently points out the content. I have to allow God to have the final word.

There may be others who took Jesus' words literally, but I think Francis of Assisi must lead the pack.

That man, Il Poverello, remains an intriguing enigma centuries after his life and death.

In his loneliness he made friends with Lady Poverty, and he was willing to give up everything for her sake.

Forty years ago Franciscan priest Murray Bodo wrote a biography of St. Francis, and during the time of its writing discovered insights and answers to his depression and loss of enthusiasm for the spiritual life.

This year St. Anthony Messenger Press has re-issued Francis: The Journey and the Dream in a 40th anniversary edition.

It's not a book to be read cover to cover in one sitting (though one could do so). It is a story to be thought through and absorbed in a slow and patient process.

When I put Jesus' words ("take nothing for the journey") in the context of Francis' life, I conclude that it is not a literal interpretation that Jesus wants (though Francis lived it that way). It is rather a literary device to underscore that poverty is necessary for anyone who would be Jesus' follower.

I am not rich, but I am richly blessed. I have far more "things" than I need, and for them I am grateful. The lesson for me and for anyone who responds to Jesus' call is the caution that we let nothing stand in the way of contributing to the building of the Kingdom.

The best-known message Francis heard from Jesus was "Go now and repair my church which, as you see, is falling down."

I'm willing to bet that message is as valid today as it was centuries ago. Jesus is now asking us to repair his Church, and one of the first steps in its rehabilitation will have something to do with "sell what you have and give it to the poor" and "then come follow me."

Reform, renewal, restoration of the Church will require that Lady Poverty be welcomed into the Vatican, into dioceses and parishes, into our individual lives.

We do not have to mirror Francis; he was the example. Rather it will be well if we take to heart his and Jesus' message: "Take nothing for the journey..." and be willing to lay aside whatever gets in the way of building that Kingdom.