More than a fish story

Published January 1, 2003

The Catholic Difference

I may have used this story before, but if so, it’s good enough to repeat.

Father Raymond E. Brown, S.S., spent the better part of his life studying the Gospel of St. John, on which he was arguably the world’s leading authority. Before his untimely death a few years ago, Father Brown was asked whether he was looking forward to meeting St. John in heaven. Yes, Father Brown, replied, but there was one thing that concerned him. Do you remember, he asked, the scene in John 21 when the evangelist writes that the apostles caught “a hundred and fifty-three” fish? Father Brown had been wracking his brain for decades, he admitted, trying to figure out what “one hundred and fifty-three” meant. And that was the problem. “When I meet St. John and ask him, ‘Why did you write ‘one hundred and fifty-three fish?’ I’m afraid he’ll answer, ‘Because there were one hundred and fifty-three of them.’”

Father Brown had the humility and humor to understand that the historical-critical method, with its ingrained skepticism about the historicity of Scripture and the plain meaning of biblical texts, was apt to make itself look foolish from time to time. It’s an attitude and a lesson that homilists could usefully absorb.

The Second Sunday of Advent offered a particularly rich Scriptural feast last month: Isaiah 40 (the comforting of the people of Israel, the voice crying in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the coming of the God who feeds his flock like a shepherd); 2 Peter’s profound meditation on time (“…with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day”); and the fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel, where John the Baptist proclaims that “one mightier than I is coming after me.” That’s a lot of provocative material for a preacher to work with.

Yet one homily I heard that day went out of its way to make two points. First, the author of Isaiah 40 wasn’t the “Isaiah” who wrote the previous thirty-nine chapters of the book, and in any case he wasn’t speaking of the coming of Christ but of the return of Israel from its Babylonian exile. And second, 2 Peter wasn’t written by the Simon Bar-Jonah whom Jesus renamed “Peter,” since the text dated from perhaps 120 a.d..

What’s the point, I wanted to get up and ask?

All right, so the author of Isaiah 40 wasn’t predicting the coming of Christ the way the weatherman predicts the next snow storm. If the Church believes that the Bible is a single “canon,” a body of truths which God wished to reveal for our salvation, then surely the parts of the Bible illuminate each other, and Isaiah 40′s vision of a savior who “comes with power” and yet “gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom,” illustrates important aspects of the saving person and mission of Christ.

As for 2 Peter, perhaps the letter was indeed written by someone in the “school of Peter” who, according to the custom of the time, used the master’s name to indicate that the letter drew on his teaching and carried his authority. Again, who cares, for homiletic purposes? According to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “By means of the homily the mysteries of the faith and the guiding principles of the Christian life are expounded from the sacred text….” The specific authorship of 2 Peter is irrelevant to that homiletic duty; indeed, getting into such critical arcana distracts from breaking open the mysteries of the faith through the text. In a liturgical season in which time is very much on our minds, surely there was richer fare to be found in 2 Peter that raising questions about its authorship.

Used lightly, historical- critical biblical scholarship can help enliven a homily. But the Mass is not a seminar and the homily is not a term paper. To treat Scripture, at Mass, as if it were a laboratory specimen being examined under a microscope for flaws reinforces the notion that the Bible is the experts’ book, not the people’s. And that, too, was not what Vatican II had in mind.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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