This morning, at Mass, I sat in my place and listened to one of our Sisters reading the passage from the book of Jonah assigned to be read today. After Jonah had been swallowed by a large fish, spent three days in the fish’s abdomen, and coughed out onto the beach, he went to Nineveh to preach repentence to the pagans who lived there. But he didn’t like the Ninevites, and hoped secretly that they wouldn’t do penance. However, much to his displeasure, they DID! Jonah was so angry that he asked God to take his life. Then he went out into the desert to wait and see what would happen to Nineveh. The Lord sent a nice vine to grow up overnight and shade Jonah. But then, the next morning, the Lord sent a worm that ate the vine and it died. Again, Jonah was furious and said, “I’d rather be dead!”
While this comic tale was being read, the Sisters sat there, just like our secular congregations do, without cracking a smile. They listened solemnly to the story of the vine and the worm and the anger of Jonah, grumbling about the goodness of God to Nineveh and God’s not-so-good treatment of him. But you see, some parts of the Bible are to be taken very seriously and reverently, while other parts are written tongue-in-cheek and may be laughed at as God intended.
This understanding of the various literary genres, as they are called, is very important in our approach to the Bible. And this is where the vital importance of the Church comes in. When every man and woman thinks that he or she has the right to interpret the Bible as he or she sees fit, you have a hopeless hodgepodge of ideas, which inevitably leads to disagreement about religion. Was the original sin a matter of stealing forbidden fruit? Was the Noah’s ark story literally true, with all those different animals and enough food for them during their time in the ark? Did our great variety of languages really originate when God changed the language of those trying to build the Tower of Babel so that they couldn’t understand one another and thus succeed in building a tower to heaven? But if these stories are not to be taken literally, then what about the ten commandments, the parables of Jesus, the institution of the Church and the sacraments? That’s a totally different matter; those things are divinely true and are to be written on stone and on the fleshly tablets of our hearts, as scripture itself says. And who is to decide which is which? The Church founded by Our Divine Lord, and led by the successors of Saint Peter. That is why the presence of the pope, and all his predecessors and all his successors, is such a gift to us from Christ and will always be the defining element of Christ’s church. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven,” Our Lord said to Saint Peter and his successors. It is only they who can authentically distinguish between the Jonah-and-the-fish story and the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel in which Our Lord promises to give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. How blessed we are to have this leadership, this guidance, this infallible teaching of the truth which Our Lord came to bring to the world! Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.