Context is everything

The Church is universal, and so is stupidity. Being a member of one automatically co-opts me into the other.

Oct 13, 2023

The Church is universal, and so is stupidity. Being a member of one automatically co-opts me into the other. One of the most misguided things about one’s interpretation of our faith is based on the admonition to turn the other cheek. Based on Matthew 5:38-40 Christians are supposed to offer the other cheek to be hit after someone strikes us. However, taking this literally, with no understanding of context or knowledge of the storytelling styles of the time of Jesus is to invite trouble.

If you don’t know it already, it is time you were told. Not everything in the Bible is to be taken or to be understood literally. The creation story? Myth. But that word does not mean what you think it does. Readers of today interpret the word ‘myth’ as ‘make-believe’ or ‘legend’. However, myth as a genre is a type of writing that seeks to explain the origins or the meanings of things.
The creation story in Genesis is a case in point. In calling these stories ‘myths,’ we are simply saying that they are not to be read literally. Science has already proven the theory of evolution. We may be creationists because the Bible says that God created the world in six days (yes, six, because He rested on the seventh!), but we do not need to defend the belief that God actually created the universe in seven days. The objective of Genesis is the spiritual truth that God is the creator of all things. That is why biblical scholars spend decades combing through the sacred texts, refining interpretations, comparing translations, weighing rhetoric against the understanding of a particular audience in a particular time in history.

Bible knowledge is an important and integral component of our lives as Catholics, but of equal importance is the understanding of context. The time of Jesus differed dramatically from our times, and parables meant to help agrarians understand the concepts of social justice, mercy and generosity may not be as clear cut to us today.

Of late I have struggled with the kind of mercy demonstrated in the parable of the good Samaritan because of something that happened in my neighbourhood. About ten years ago, after being asked to be the liturgical coordinator for my BEC, I decided that I would launch a charm offensive on people or families which were listed as members of the BEC, but who did not attend gatherings.

As liturgy coordinator, I was sure that I was going to be able to change the minds of those who did not attend gatherings because they were ‘boring’. I messaged, visited and called at homes and managed to get a few of the outliers to agree to attend an up-coming gathering. After that gathering, I messaged the new attendees to ask for feedback on the session. I was taken aback when a man from one of the families texted me saying he had been “so mesmerised by (my) feet, that he had not been able to pay attention.” That red flag should have been warning enough to cease contact with that person, but I was zealous and perhaps a bit too fool-hardy. I was adamant that my faith and ability to make the word of God come alive would convince this man of God’s love, strange peccadillos aside.

The reality was a stream of messages which began innocently enough, but quickly escalated to sexual innuendo and lasciviousness. I alerted my BEC coordinator, and was advised to block him on both phone and social media. Yet, I still hung on to the mistaken belief that I could ‘fix’ him.
That all ended when I caught him walking past my house at all hours of the day. There were times when I was in the yard tidying up or feeding the dog when I looked through the spaces in my wall and found him staring at me. When I rounded on him in indignation, he would turn and walk away, saying nothing.

His stalking became so bad my neighbours noticed, and would call to tell me he was outside.

And then, I caught him removing garbage bags from my rubbish bin! I tried to be merciful, as my heavenly father is merciful, and wondered if he was going through my trash for food, but my friends shot down the idea. To protect me, they began taking away my rubbish and placing it into their own bins. A visit to the local police station confirmed what I already knew: unless he threatened or made a physical move on me, he was standing on public land. Taking household discards from a municipally given bin was also not a crime. The police could not, and would not, take any action. This went on for close to three years.

Recently that man’s family was evicted from the house they had rented. In spite of how disgusted I was at his behaviour my heart was sore for them. It was, I thought, a clear cut case of hating the sin and loving the sinner. It took a severe admonishment from a fellow catechist to stop me from offering any kind of aid.

“Be aware of your motivations,” she warned. “Are you trying to be like God, or to be God? Do your intentions stem from true compassion, or from a misguided understanding of what it means to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8)?”

And just like that, I realised that our calls to love, mercy and justice must also work with Jesus’ admonishment for us to be as gentle as doves, but as wise as serpents (Matt 10:16).

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action.)

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