Beware the danger of missing the point

by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1997

I HEARD recently that Jesus taught reincarnation. Proof? He called King Herod “that fox”, which proves undeniably that Herod was a fox in a previous life!

The truth is that we can make Scripture say almost anything we like, if we do not read it properly. Even the devil can quote God’s word. What we always have to remember is that we must distinguish between what Scripture wants to teach, and the illustration it uses. The illustrations often reflect contemporary beliefs that are not part of the inspired message.

Why do we need to be so scrupulous when reading Jesus’ words? Because we easily make mistakes by not interpreting Scripture accurately, and even the Church has done this.

Take, for instance, the famous case of Galileo Galilei. This brilliant astronomer, who was also a committed Catholic, discovered that night and day are caused by the earth spinning round its axis and not by the sun travelling round the earth. Theologians disagreed because Jesus says: “You must be like my Father who makes the sun rise over good and bad people alike” (Matthew 5:45). Therefore, they argued, it is the sun which rises, not the earth that turns round.

The theologians were wrong because the point of Jesus’ teaching is that we should not discriminate between people. Like everyone

else in his time, Jesus took for granted that it is the sun that moves and he used this fact by way of illustration. The sad outcome of this misunderstanding was that Galileo was forced in 1633 by Pope Urban VIII to retract his scientific view as a heresy, and that scientists for three and a half centuries lived under a cloud until Pope Paul VI admitted the mistake publicly in 1970, saying in so many words that the Church had been wrong.

Or take the parable of the Good Samaritan. When this model of neighbourly love found the dying man on the side of the road, he “poured oil and wine on his wounds” according to Jesus’ description (Luke 10:34). Did Jesus here recommend a specific medical treatment? In the Middle Ages it was thought so. But the oil and wine were only illustrations and not the point of Jesus’ teaching.

In Luke 17:7-10 Jesus gives the example of a slave who has worked the whole day on the farm and who in the evening is still expected to serve his master before eating a meal himself. “In the same way,” Jesus said, “you must say: ‘We are but ordinary servants’.”

This text and others like it were used to justify the practice of slavery. Even theologians in the Holy Office and Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) fell into this trap. In 1866 the Holy Office, in an instruction signed by Pope Pius IX, declared that it is a question of revealed faith that “slaves can be bought, sold, exchanged or given”. The Gospel was quoted to show that Jesus taught this doctrine!

Now of course, we read the Gospel better. Already Pope Leo XIII rejected that mistaken interpretation, and Vatican II declares every form of slavery is contrary to God’s mind. Jesus only used slavery as an illustration, as he used a thief breaking in at night (Matthew 24:43) and an unjust steward planning for his future (Luke 16:1-8).

This is rather important for understanding Matthew 18:10 where Jesus seems to be speaking about guardian angels. Some readers have been upset because I wrote, in reply to a reader’s question, that the text does not imply that all of us have a guardian angel.

Speaking about children in danger, Jesus says: “See that you do not despise any of these little ones. Their angels in heaven, I tell you, always stand before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). Jesus is not teaching here about guardian angels. The point he makes is that God is concerned about children, especially about those who are in trouble. Since at that time people believed that angels pleaded for the innocent before God’s throne, he uses this as an illustration to underline the seriousness of the case. He does not thereby teach that each person has an individual guardian angel.

The idea that we have individual guardian angels was first expressed by Origen (3rd century AD) and St Basil (4th century), and only became an established devotion in the Middle Ages.

People are, obviously, free to have a devotion to guardian angels, but if I am asked (as I was), what we know about guardian angels from Scripture, I have to tell the truth.

As the Vatican Council has clearly expressed (Decree on Ecumenism, No. 11), not all truths we believe are equally certain or equally important. “There is a hierarchy of truths.” This means that there are different levels of belief. Some are important, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist. If you deny them you are no longer a Catholic. Some are very much down the scale of either certainty or importance. You may believe them or not. Guardian angels fall under this category.

When in the past Christians have gone wrong in interpreting Jesus’ words, it was usually by exaggeration. We have made Jesus say things he did not intend to say.