These days it is easy to be caught in the world of instant facts and information. Answers are as easy to find as a click of a computer key on a website. There can be a kind of idolatry which confuses access to information with wisdom. An “informed” person with many facts can easily lack the wisdom to see them in a larger context. There is a Christian version of this attitude that believes that everything a person needs to live a Christian life can be found exclusively in the New Testament. Such thinking, though, ignores and neglects the very context in which the New Testament is written.
Scripture for the early Christian Church was the Old Testament. In many ways the New Testament can be seen as a commentary on the Old Testament reaching its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Studying and meditating on the Old Testament gave the early Christian authors a deep understanding about who Jesus was and how he had come to fulfill the God’s promises to the people.
There was an early Christian priest who disagreed with this reliance on the Old Testament. His name was Marcion and he lived in the middle of the second century, dying in about A.D. 160. As a Christian leader he was an excellent organizer and businessman and established communities all over the Mediterranean world. However what he taught about the Old Testament was not in agreement with Church teaching.
Marcion taught that Christianity proclaimed a Gospel of Love (so far so good). But he also taught that the God of the Old Testament was a cruel and oppressive God of the Law. He taught that the Old Testament God had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. Marcion did not believe that the Old Testament was inspired.
The Catholic Church in the second century rejected Marcion’s teachings, and affirmed that the Old Testament is indeed Sacred Scripture and that the God of the Old Testament is the God of Jesus Christ. The Church today also affirms the permanent relevance of the Old Testament for Catholics.
In reading the dynamic of God’s relationship with his people in the Old Testament leading to the coming of Jesus, we find intimate companions and intercessors who have experienced the same sense of loss and redemption.
The Church teaches that the Old Testament is indispensable for Christian life. All the books of the Old Testament are inspired by God and of permanent value for Christians. The covenant of God with the people of the Old Testament has never been revoked. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #121).
The Church further teaches that the Old Testament is a witness to the way in which God gradually taught the human family the depth of his saving love. As such the Church considers the Old Testament to be
a store of sublime teachings about God, sound wisdom about human life, and a wonderful treasury of prayers, and in them the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way. (Constitution on Divine Revelation #15)
In spite of this teaching on the validity—and, indeed, the necessity of understanding the Old Testament—too many Christians have a Marcionite attitude, believing that there is nothing to learn from this source of wisdom and blessing.
Pope Francis regularly preaches on the Old Testament readings in the liturgy. Commenting on the story of creation in the Book of Genesis, Pope Francis especially notes that in making everything good, God intends that everyone find their place in a human family. The human family is a true fraternity where all live in harmonious relationships with God and one another.
All of creation forms a harmonious and good unity, but above all humanity, made in the image and likeness of God, is one family, in which relationships are marked by a true fraternity not only in words: the other person is a brother or sister to love, and our relationship with God, who is love, fidelity and goodness, mirrors every human relationship and brings harmony to the whole of creation. God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other.
(Vigil of the Prayer for Peace, Saturday, September 7, 2013)
In the story of Abraham’s journey in faith (beginning in Genesis 12), Pope Francis notes that we see the beginning of the story of our own journey, of the faithfulness of God, and the infidelity of his people. Most of all it is the story of God’s patience as he continues to educate and form his people as his own children. (Embracing the Way, p. 20)
Reflecting on the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, Pope Francis helps us to understand that they are not simply a record of rules and regulations, but a gift from God leading us towards a life that is truly free and fulfilling. (Embracing the Way, p. 21)
Reading the Old Testament in the life of the Church is to learn, to recall, to remember, to memorize the more complete story of the people of God. There were times of imprisonment, of famine, of escaping through the desert, of establishing and losing two kingdoms. And through it all God was walking the way with his people.
In our own lives we tend to want to forget times of troubles, times when we have lost or broken relationships, of mistakes we made, of being sinfully cruel to people in our lives. These were times when we questioned the presence of God in our lives. In reading the dynamic of God’s relationship with his people in the Old Testament leading to the coming of Jesus, we find intimate companions and intercessors who have experienced the same sense of loss and redemption. Reading their stories we recognize that God patiently waited for them as he waits for us to recognize he is our constant companion.
What is the image we have of God? Perhaps he appears to us as a severe judge, as someone who curtails our freedom and the way we live our lives. But the Scriptures everywhere tell us that God is the Living One, the one who bestows life and points the way to fullness of life. I think of the beginning of the Book of Genesis: God fashions man out of the dust of the earth; he breathes in his nostrils the breath of life, and man becomes a living being (cf. Genesis 2:7). God is the source of life; thanks to his breath, man has life. God’s breath sustains the entire journey of our life on earth.
Homily, 16 June 2013Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.