When you start to need glasses, it can be hard to tell. Clarity of vision tends to slip quietly away. After a visit to an ophthalmologist and a new set of eyeglasses, things change radically. “All of a sudden I can see!” It seems ridiculous that you did not go sooner. Seeing is such an amazing advantage over not seeing.
The glasses help to focus the light entering the eye, so that it hits correctly, and the information can be transmitted to the brain in such a way that it is processed and understood. When you are missing your glasses, everything seems a little fuzzy.
Maybe we need metaphorical glasses to read the Bible: Bible glasses. This would be the preparation we have to read and interpret the Word of God appropriately.
Can you understand the words coming out of my mouth?
When we hear somebody speaking a foreign language, it is a mystifying experience. We can tell that there is significance in the vocalizations emitting from his mouth, but we are completely unprepared to interpret it. Sometimes, we can have a similar experience with the Bible. “We need to be sure that we understand the meaning of the words we read.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 147) Whenever there is translation from one language to another, shades of meaning can be lost in the process. This is always a danger with the Bible, but also an opportunity to go deeper into some of the vocabulary and learn a about the context.
When we pray the “Hail Mary” in English, we say “full of grace.” This is the translation of one Greek word. The word for grace is charis, which also has a connotation of joy and favor. The word kecharitomene pronounced by the angel Gabriel during the Annunciation has a richness of meaning. “Full of grace” is a valid translation, but it could also be “highly favored one” or “the one perfected by grace.” Getting to know the vocabulary of the Bible helps to understand the richness of meaning that is being communicated.
Why is it so hard sometimes to understand the Bible?
Biblical language is old and removed from our understanding
We have to remember that “the biblical text which we study is two or three thousand years old; its language is very different from that which we speak today.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 147) Even if we were to speak Hebrew or Greek, two of the principal biblical languages, we are living in a world two to three thousand years later and in a different geographical region. Even today, we perceive regionalisms and are aware of words that have fallen out of use in only a generation. To say “groovy” now belies an effort to introduce vintage words into the conversation.
There is an even greater distance between us and the biblical language. Even if we can translate correctly, we have to factor in the different cultural contexts. We do not have Pharisees wearing phylacteries walking down or streets, so to understand what Jesus is saying when he refers to these cultural phenomena we must dig deeper. With time and effort, we are able to form a biblical mindset that helps us to interpret the text. How do we avoid making a mistake?
Respect the text for what it is
To understand a Bible passage, we open up the Bible with a spirit of reverence. “Our most important goal is to discover its principal message, the message which gives structure and unity to the text” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 147) We are not there to read in personal interpretations, looking for a justification in the text. Rather, we want to let the Bible speak. This attitude does a lot to make sure that we are reading the Bible correctly.
“The central message is what the author primarily wanted to communicate; this calls for recognizing not only the author’s ideas but the effect which he wanted to produce.” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 147) It is good to pray while reading the Bible, asking for the Holy Spirit’s guidance to get the message that he wants for today. The Bible has a perennial value, while it was written in a certain historical moment. Understanding the text in its historical context is the first step to understanding its meaning for us today.
Video in English: https://youtu.be/9ujqMeGPC1E
Video in Spanish: https://youtu.be/R-smfLRbUsI