by John Wijngaards, The Tablet, 9 Feb 1991, pp 280-281

 Some time ago I was composing a letter to an MP about the Governments proposed cut in foreign aid. My work was  interrupted by a carpenter who had come to repair a window. He turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witness. Soon we were involved in a fierce argument. I admired his readiness to witness to his beliefs and his familiarity with texts from Scripture. But I found it hard to swallow the interpreta­tions that accompanied his quotes.

‘There are only a limited number of true servants of Jehovah’, he told me. ‘In fact, on the last day only 144,000 will carry his seal’. He was quoting Revelation 7,4 which states: ‘I heard how many were sealed: a hundred and forty-four thousand, out of all the tribes of Israel’.

I tried to explain that this was a symbolical number, not to be taken at its face value. But he was adamant. Scripture was inspired by God, he said. God knew what he was talking about. A figure is a figure, a word a word. Creatures such as we are, should not tamper with revela­tions made by our creator.

We find ‘literalists’ not only among Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of fundamentalist sects, but also among Catholics. Jesus is said to have ‘eaten nothing’ for forty days and forty nights (Luke 4,2). It must be liter­ally true, they say. Otherwise the Gospel teaches false­hood. When Jesus cursed a figtree, Matthew tells us, it withered immediately.’At once the figtree dried up’ (Matthew 21,19). When we read in Mark’s Gospel that it only withered on the next day (Mark 11,12-14.20-24), we are assured this must have been a different tree!

What to make of all this?

It is true that we have to read Scripture according to its ‘literal’ sense, but this is not the ‘literalist’ sense. Believe me, we are not splitting hairs here. There is a vast difference between the two.

As Pope Pius XII explained in Divino Afflante Spiritu in 1945, and as was subsequently laid down in the Second Vatican Council, the literal sense of a text is the meaning which the author of a text intended. The literal sense is what the author had in mind when using a particular expres­sion.

Let us look at an example. When Jesus called Herod a fox (Luke 13,32), he did not declare him to be a furry, brown coloured animal that steals chickens at night. He meant to say that Herod was a sneaky, cunning and unreli­able individual. This, therefore, is the literal sense of the expression. It is the literal sense that counts, not the ‘literalist’ sense.

When Luke says that Jesus ate nothing for forty days, we should remember two things. ‘Forty’is a symbolic number referring to Israel’s stay in the desert for forty years. See also the use of forty in texts such as Judges ? To ‘eat nothing’ referred to a very strict fast, not to a total abstention from food. In other words, Luke tells us that Jesus prayed and fasted for a long time.

But how do we know the intention of the author? you might ask. Is it not more natural for us to accept the meaning of the words as they stand? How to distinguish what is ‘literal’ from what is ‘literalist’?

The answer lies in the nature of each particular language. We cannot know the exact meaning of an expres­sion by looking up its words in a dictionary. We have to study the way in which the expression is used in everyday parlance

Just listen to the things we say. ‘In biology class Sally dropped a bombshell today. “Do you like sex?”, she asked Mrs Hinton. All the girls had a fit and the teacher wiped the floor with her.’ Is all this about bombs, epi­leptic fits and a substitute broom?

Missionaries know the need of interpretation only too well from their own experience. The Telugus of Andhra Pradesh, for instance – the Indian province in which I worked, will not easily say ‘no’ to a good friend. They have other subtle ways that save your face but that are equally effective. If you approach a farmer with this request: ‘Could you lend us your cart and two oxen to carry stones from the quarry to the Church?’, he may well say: ‘Yes’. Or he may say: ‘Certainly. But give me time to think about it’. It is his way of saying ‘no’.

In the tribal villages of Bihar in North India suitable partners for a marriageable girl are sought out by the girl’s uncle. The uncle will visit other homes and indicate his intention by telling a story. ‘Last week’, he might say, ‘a little bird was sitting on a beam inside my hut. It chirped and preened its feathers’. The audience know exactly what he means. If they have a male relative who is ready for marriage, they will begin to describe his qualities. Otherwise they will talk about something else and the topic is dropped.

When God, in his infinite goodness, decided to commu­nicate with us, he began to speak to us through human prophets and inspired writers. These people were no ro­bots, they were human like we are. They’ had to search for words like we do. They had to express God’s ideas in their own ways of thinking and speaking.

Even Jesus himself, although he was the Incarnation of God, purposely limited himself to our human level and adopted simple human ways of communication.

Now, do not think for one moment that fundamentalists or literalists do more justice to Scripture. This brings me back to my argument with the Jehovah’s witness. Re­stricting the number of God’s elected servants to a handful has immediate implications on how we look on the billions of God’s other children who populate our planet.

Fundamentalists tend to interpret the Gospel in a purely spiritual way, ignoring its compelling social and political message. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus certainly applies to how I treat beggars who sit on my door step. But in Jesus’ intention, it applies to much more. For Jesus parables are deliberately open-ended. They apply to situations he himself could not foresee, at least in his humanity.

A rich man, dressed in purple clothes, enjoys a  sumptuous meal.      A poor beggar, lying outside dreams of eating the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. No one pays attention to him except dogs which lick his sores. Who cannot see in our own day the parallel  with the way the prosperous West often treats developing nations?     Does God’s word here not have consequences for those terms we impose on Third World partners in trade? Does it not urge us to be more generous in the allotment of development aid?

To read scripture we do not need to be scholars. What we need is a lot of common sense. Usually the meaning of a text is quite clear. Occasionally however, we need a word of advice from someone who knows the language and the ways of expression. What matters in the end is that we understand what the inspired author wanted to say. That is what God is saying to us. It does not let us off the hook.

Scanned courtesy of John Strange