GETTING THE RIGHT MESSAGE
by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Summer 1993
THE WHOLE of Sacred Scripture has but one purpose: to reveal God’s love to us. “God is love”, we read in John’s letters. “Whoever knows love, knows God. Who does not know love does not know who God is” (1 John 4:7). This we have to keep in mind whatever part of Scripture we are reading.
God is not human, but we are. That is why, when God speaks to us, he speaks through human authors, who think and talk like us. The inspired words have to be understood as a divine message couched in human language. It is useful to look at some of the implications of this.
When we meet someone at the beginning of the day, we say: “Good morning. Did you sleep well?” In Thailand, people will ask: “Where are you going?” In India: “Do you feel well? How is your family?”
The people of Uganda have an elaborate ritual of Uuhs, Oohs and Aahs that accompany an encounter. In all these cases the various phrases and gestures fulfil a general human need: of re-affirming friendly contact.
Now we may even go a step further. The most important thing in such situations is not what we say but the fact that we speak at all.
We all know the difference between a breakfast where everyone is munching toast in an icy silence or the same breakfast with people bubbling over with excited chitchat. It often matters little what we talk about. “We’re on speaking terms”: that is the message.
A lot of the Old Testament also falls within this category. Through prophets and storytellers God began a long conversation with us. By it he established that he wanted to be our friend, that he is on speaking terms with us.
It would be wrong, therefore, to look on every single sentence as a mighty pronouncement containing a brand-new item of revelation. Rather, in one century after the other, God proved his concern by cajoling, challenging or chiding his people; just as we ourselves do as caring parents.
And that brings me to another point. When we talk to children, the language we use with them changes as they grow up. We introduce more adult language and difficult topics. We can explain things we couldn’t before.
Similarly, especially in the Old Testament, there is a progression from simplistic and crude notions to more refined concepts. In the earlier books it is still said that when parents sin their whole family will be punished for it (Exodus 20:5; Joshua 7:25).
In later texts there is the purer insight that God will only punish each person for his or her own sins (Deuteronomy 24:16; Ezekiel 18:20).
It is not that God changed his mind, of course. But our human understanding changed over time. Many Old Testament texts carry the mark of immaturity: religious favouritism, superstitious fear, approval of violence, and inadequate moral standards.
Small wonder that Jesus had to state repeatedly: “You have heard that such-and-such was said to people of old, but I say this to you!” (Matthew 5:21, 27, 31 etc.).
When reading older texts we should therefore use a lot of common sense and replace imperfect notions with the more refined revelation found in the New Testament. This applies especially to the notion of God.
The ancient Hebrews looked on God as a very strict tribal king who could be ruthless and without mercy. This is reflected in texts such as “You shall annihilate the Amalekites from the face of the earth. Kill their men, women and children. You shall not show them any pity” (Deut. 25:17 – 19).
Could Jesus, or any of his disciples – Matthew, Luke, Paul, or John – ever say such a thing?
Many Catholics, I am afraid, ascribe to God traits of harshness which do not fit into the loving Father image proclaimed by Jesus. These traits may derive from experiences people have had of strict and dominant parent figures. At times they take their origins from undigested Scripture texts. The Old Testament God of earthquake and thunder still lives on in many minds.
Almost all nations believe in a Creator. Almost all natural religions abound with fears of supernatural powers who can wreck and ruin us at will. Our Christian message is unique in proclaiming that God really cares for us, because he is Love. Without revelation we could not know this.
Without Jesus being “God among us” and “God dying for us” we would not know the depth of his love. But how can we preach this message to others if the God in our heart bears the features of a tyrant?
So let us read Scripture carefully, remembering that harsh and crude texts of the earlier times need to be purified in the crucible of later revelation. The whole message of Scripture is summed up in these words: “God is light. There is in him no shade of darkness” (1 John 1:8).
Marvellous! No shade of darkness!