How to Read by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index
Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
The scholar comes forward and, to test Jesus, asks Him an insincere question - or, rather, asks him a good question in an insincere manner: "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk 10:25) Of course, our Lord knows the man's heart. So He responds with two questions of His own: "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" (Lk 10:26) It does not appear (at least in the English) that these questions are merely different ways of asking the same thing. The second question follows, not to reinforce the first but to get at a different issue altogether. Our Lord's first question concerns the content of the law. His second concerns the disposition of the reader.
His two questions touch on the two poles of revelation. There is first the objective content of God's truth: "What is written in the law?" Then there is the subjective reception by the individual: "How do you read it?" These two poles must go together. It is not enough to read the truth. We must read it with the proper disposition.
The scholar answers the first question correctly. He knows the content of the law. But he fumbles the second question because he does not read in the proper manner. He reads Scripture with a view to justifying himself. He uses the content of the law - God's revealed Word - not to grow in holiness or advance in virtue of know God . . . but to show off, to prove himself before God.
The whole episode alerts us to the importance of being properly disposed to receive the truth, and in particular to read Scripture. For the content of God's word ("What is written in the law?") to benefit us, we must receive it with the proper disposition ("How do you read it?"). So, what characterizes this proper disposition? How do we read?
First, we should read Scripture with a view to being instructed, not just to master the material. The Bible is not a textbook. We do not simply study it, get the stories, facts, and figures and then close it up. We read Scripture so that we will discern the truth to which we should conform our lives. If we do not have a prior willingness to change and be changed, then many of Scripture's truths will remain inaccessible to us. The scholar in the Gospel erred in that he had mastered the material - but he had not allowed the material to master him.
Second, we should read Scripture to encounter God's proofs, not to prove ourselves. The scholar wanted to prove - to justify - himself by rattling off memorized verses. He was showing off and using Scripture to do so. As a result he missed the meaning of Scripture: it is a record of God's faithfulness and saving deeds, a proof of His fidelity to sinful man. If our purpose is self-promotion, we will never penetrate this meaning of Scripture.
Third, we should read Scripture with confidence in its truth. Those who approach Scripture with a critical or suspicious eye will never benefit from it. They have set themselves up as the Bible's judges ("Well, we know that in fact that miracle could not have happened . . . Jesus could not have said that . . . What St. Paul really means is . . ., etc."). When we run across a difficult passage - perhaps hard to understand, more likely hard to accept - we should presume that the problem is not with God's word but with our reading or understanding of it. The problem is not the content of what we read but how we read it.
God's word seeks the proper recipient. It does not desire the mere intellectual who wants to conquer a challenging text, or the boastful reader who wants to exalt himself or the critic who reads with a jaundiced eye. Scripture seeks those who, as they open the pages, also open themselves to the word.
To Sunday Gospel Reflections Index