Anyone who wants to interpret scripture MUST get to the context of a given passage. You can never take a passage out of context… it never stands alone. In other words, you can not take a passage out of scripture, set it all by itself and say, “see, this MUST mean this or that”. Its imperative that you take the passage in context with the verse before it, and the verse after it. Additionally, you must consider the verse in light of the chapter it’s written in, the book it’s written in, the testament it’s written in… the bible as a whole, and the 2000 years of lived tradition in the Church. For example, the Church doesn’t throw out its understanding of Marriage now, after 2000 years, simply because some folks want to redefine it to “gay” as a “sign of the times”. This is the problem with most personal interpretations… they look at the surface reading and pay no attention to the actual context… the intent the author intended to communicate to the reader.
We often think that just because we pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance we are somehow guaranteed a correct interpretation, but, this is simply not the case! Does that mean the Holy Spirit is not capable of this? No, of course not! God can do as he wishes, however, this is NOT how He works normally. He gave us a rational intellect, and His sure guide (1 Jn 4:6), the Church (1 Tim 3:15), and He expects us to use them. Here’s a good analogy to illustrate my point. I took this example straight from well known author, speaker, and Catholic Apologist, Patrick Madrid (PatrickMadrid.com). Read this statement…
“I didn’t say you stole money…”
Question, do you know what I mean by this? Its pretty straight forward right? Are you sure you know what I mean?
Did I mean… “ I did’t say you stole money…” meaning it was someone else who said it.
Did I mean… “ I did’t say you stole money…” meaning, I wrote it in an email, or sent it in a text.
Did I mean… “ I did’t say you stole money…” meaning it wasn’t YOU that stole it, but, someone else.
Did I mean… “ I did’t say you stole money…” meaning it wasn’t money you stole, rather, jewels or food, etc.
So clearly you can understand how this simple statement can change in meaning depending on the emphasis that the author intended. So how can one be sure to know the correct context? Where does Scripture say to turn to? The Pillar and foundation of Truth… the Church – 1 Tim. 3:15! In fact, it is the Church, and NOT scripture that leads us to the spirit of Truth and guards us against the spirit of error (1 Jn. 4:6).
Here’s another example. A common attack against the Catholic Church is that we call our Priests “Father” when Scripture says not too. Is this true? Let’s take a look:
Matthew 23:9 (RSVCE)
9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.
Wow, seems pretty clear hu? “Call no man your father!” So, where does the Catholic Church get off calling its Priests “father” then? Well, we must get to the context… we must understand the intent the author was communicating. Did he intend to say we must NEVER call a man on earth “father”? Let’s see… first let’s look at the verses before and after this verse.
Matthew 23:8 (RSVCE)
8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren.
Matthew 23:10 (RSVCE)
10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ.
Ok, right off the bat I see a problem… “father” is NOT the only supposed prohibition listed in this chapter. Funny how the “bible-only” Christians want to give the whole world a pass on “teacher” and “master” but, have no issue “sticking” it to Catholics on “father”, seems hypocritical to me. I’ve also heard it said that Jesus is here referring to “religious” figures being called “father”, not ordinary folks like our fathers here on earth who raised us. Is that true? Well, the plain words are “no man on earth”, so it would seem that is NOT the case, however, let’s look at another passage from Jesus.
Luke 16:24 (RSVCE)
24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus clearly calls Abraham “Father”… wasn’t Abraham a man of the earth? Didn’t he also offer sacrifice to God and lead the tribe (the size of the people at the time) in corporate worship of God? Yes of course! That sure sounds religious… didn’t Jesus know he wasn’t supposed to do that? I know, silly question. What about others? Surly the Apostles understood that you should NEVER call another man, even a religious figure, “father” right? Let’s look at just a few examples from St. Paul…
Acts 22:1 (RSVCE)
1 “Brethren and fathers, hear the defense which I now make before you.”
Ephesians 3:14–15 (RSVCE)
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
1 Corinthians 4:15–16 (RSVCE)
15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.
Philippians 2:22 (RSVCE)
22 But Timothy’s worth you know, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.
1 Thessalonians 2:11–12 (RSVCE)
11 for you know how, like a father with his children, we [Note: that “we” is the hierarchy of the Church, united as ONE] exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you 12 to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
Philemon 10 (RSVCE)
10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment.
Boy, didn’t St. Paul receive his appointment as Apostle from the hand of Christ Himself? Yes of course! Then why on earth didn’t he get the memo that he wasn’t supposed to call any man on earth “father”… especially himself as an Apostle/Bishop in the Church? Is scripture inspired by God? Yes! Does it contain error? No! Then how can we reconcile such an “apparent” error? Easy, by better understanding the context… the intended understanding of the author of Matthew 23. First… here are a few more examples….
Hebrews 12:9 (RSVCE)
9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers to discipline us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live?
1 John 2:12–14 (RSVCE)
12 I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his sake. 13 I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one. I write to you, children, because you know the Father. 14 I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.
Acts 7:1–2 (RSVCE)
1 And the high priest said, “Is this so?” 2 And Stephen said: “Brethren and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
One from the Old Testament, thrown in for good measure….
Judges 17:10 (RSVCE)
10 And Micah said to him, “Stay with me, and be to me a father and a priest, and I will give you ten pieces of silver a year, and a suit of apparel, and your living.”
So it would seem that the Church did NOT interpret Our Lord’s word’s in Matthew 23:9 as a complete prohibition of the word “father” being applied to men of earth whether they are our earthly fathers or our religious leaders. If not,then what did Our Lord mean? Reading the context of the chapter, and the book as a whole, the New Testament, the entire bible, and the lived tradition of the Church, it becomes more obvious that Jesus is chastising the hierarchy of the Church (qahal in the OT, and Ecclessia in the NT) for their hypocrisy. Reading the first 7 verses of the chapter gives us the necessary clue… they had authority, but, they liked to abuse it and Jesus was calling them out.
Matthew 23:1–7 (RSVCE)
1 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. 4 They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men.
So, whenever we, as “fathers”, fail at our God-given job to lead our “children” to the one true “Father” in heaven… we have NO BUSINESS calling ourselves by that title… the name by which every family is named, as St. Paul said in Ephesians 3. However, when we do what we were “set-apart” to do… lead our children to God the Father, by word and deed, then we are most fortunate to enjoy such a title! Our Bishops and Priests, are called to this very task… to shepherd the flock of Christ (Jn 21:15-19). When these Bishops, Priests, and Deacons FAIL at their task to lead the flock of Christ to God the Father… they too have no business calling themselves by this title. Here’s an example from the Old Testament where God chastises the “Over The House” serving in the Kingdom of David…
Isaiah 22:15–25 (RSVCE)
15 Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, “Come, go to this steward, to Shebna, who is over the household [note: this is an office], and say to him: 16 What have you to do here and whom have you here, that you have hewn here a tomb for yourself, you who hew a tomb on the height, and carve a habitation for yourself in the rock? 17 Behold, the Lord will hurl you away violently, O you strong man. He will seize firm hold on you, 18 and whirl you round and round, and throw you like a ball into a wide land; there you shall die, and there shall be your splendid chariots, you shame of your master’s house. 19 I will thrust you from your office, and you will be cast down from your station. 20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, 21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your girdle on him, and will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. 22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. 23 And I will fasten him like a peg in a sure place, and he will become a throne of honor to his father’s house. 24And they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house, the offspring and issue, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. 25 In that day, says the Lord of hosts, the peg that was fastened in a sure place will give way; and it will be cut down and fall, and the burden that was upon it will be cut off, for the Lord has spoken.”
Notice, that this person, clothed in liturgical vestments, is given authority from on High? This person, bears the KEY of binding authority in the Kingdom? This person is to be a FATHER to the inhabitants of the Kingdom? Now read Matthew 16:13-20… Jesus is conferring this office upon St. Peter… keys and all! This means that St. Peter is NOW a FATHER to the inhabitants of the NEW Israel… the Kingdom of God (the new Ecclesia – Heb. 12), the one who is to “feed Jesus’ sheep!” Said another way… St. Peter is to be a papa… a Pope to the flock of Christ! BUT… when he fails at his task, leads the flock astray… he is to be chastised by God and replaced. Notice that its NOT the Church that is cast out, thrown away, but, rather, it is the person who is replaced. The office, let another take (Acts 1:20).
BTW – the Greek word for “seat” in Matthew 23:2, is “kathedra” which is the word where we get our English word Cathedral. What makes a Church a Cathedral and not a regular Church? A Cathedral is where the Bishop’s “kathedra” is… his seat of authority.
So, we must be careful that we truly understand what it is we are reading and interpreting… again, God has given us His Church to be our pillar and foundation of Truth… Truth is Jesus. What is the foundation of the body of Christ in heaven? Is it Scripture? No! It is the Church (Rev 21:14)! Our first Pope warned us about misinterpreting Scripture….
2 Peter 3:15–17 (RSVCE)
15 And count the forbearance of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. 17 You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability.
We must be sure to seek the context of any given passage or else we run the risk of totally missing the mark. For a better understanding of this, read Chapter 2 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church – ARTICLE 2: THE TRANSMISSION OF DIVINE REVELATION & ARTICLE 3: SACRED SCRIPTURE. Dive deep into Scripture, but, always refer back to the Pillar and Foundation of Truth, the Church, for your sure guide to the Spirit of Truth!
About the Author:
Joe McClane – The Catholic Hack! – is the director and events coordinator for Fullness of Truth Catholic Evangelization Ministries, as well as an a Catholic New Media producer & Evangelist. He is married to his lovely wife Michelle and they have five children. The Catholic Hack | Catholic Apologetics, Theology & More!