July 5, 2015 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause
July 5, 2015
Fr. George Smiga
There is a knotty problem in today’s gospel, and I would like to focus on it. I think if we do, it will tell us something about the Bible, something about the Church, and something about ourselves. Some of you may have already guessed the line in the gospel to which I am referring. The inhabitants of Nazareth describe Jesus as “the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.” Now, there is no doubt about what the text says: these four men are brothers of Jesus. But although we are clear about what the text says, we are not clear about what the text means. There are a variety of ways of interpreting this line. Let me offer three of them to you.
One possibility is to see James, Joses, Judas, and Simon as real brothers of Jesus—children of Mary and Joseph who were conceived after Mary gave birth to Jesus as a virgin. Second, these four can be stepbrothers of Jesus—children of Joseph by a previous marriage. Third, they can be cousins of Jesus. We have this option because the Greek word for brother can also mean cousin. So here are three possibilities of what this text means. They all work well in terms of the Greek language and the history of Jesus’ time. To understand this passage we have to choose which one is correct.
This leads to a conclusion about the Bible: the Bible does not interpret itself. The Bible must be interpreted. This is important because sometimes you hear religious preachers say, “We are a Bible-based religion and the only thing that is important is that we do what the Bible says.” Fine and good. But what does the Bible say? Oftentimes, the Bible is unclear and someone must decide from several possible meanings which one we are going to follow.
Who decides such things? Churches do. Now I know we can, as individuals, read the Bible and say, “This is what this passage means to me.” But that’s risky business.
So, from the earliest days of Christianity, Christians have come together in groups and together have come to the conclusion that “this is what this passage means to us.” This, of course, means that different churches will read the Bible in different ways. Returning to today’s gospel, the Catholic Church (because it believes that Mary was always a virgin) will not accept the first possibility: that James, Joses, Judas, and Simon were real brothers of Jesus after Jesus was born. If you are Catholic, you have to choose between the four being stepbrothers or cousins. Some Protestant churches, however, do not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary. They choose the first option: that these four were real brothers of Jesus.
Churches decide what at the Bible means. This, of course, means that churches can change their decisions over time. If you open the Bible today, you will find a passage that says, “Slaves, obey your masters.” At one time, Christians believed this was a way of keeping slaves in line. But today no Christian reads the Bible that way, because we all now understand that slavery, as an institution, is immoral. If you open your Bible, you will find a passage that says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands.” Today, understanding marriage to be an equal and mutual partnership, we read that passage differently than they did previously in patriarchal times when husbands could and did tell their wives what to do.
The Bible needs to be interpreted and churches decide what the Bible means. What does this have to do with us? It calls us, as believers, to be humble and open. We believe that the Bible is God’s gift, God’s word. But that does not mean that we have all the answers. We must humbly try to understand the Bible and be open to reading it in new ways.
Pope Francis has called a synod to discuss issues about family life. You can bet that in that synod there will be lively debates about the biblical passages concerning marriage and divorce. The synod will seek to decide how the Catholic Church will understand those passages. This is all as it should be. We, as members of the Church, should be humble and open to prayerfully discern what God’s biblical word is saying to us today.