Problems abound when we pull a few lines of Scripture from the context in which the author put them, but we do that during every Mass.

Biblical writings were intended to be read as a whole, not chopped up and offered in bite-sized chunks. We know how aggravating it is to have someone come in late to a movie or TV show and constantly badger us with questions like, "Who's she? What are they talking about? Why's he crying?"

On the other hand, Scripture scholars are grateful when someone asks similar questions about a liturgical text. Rarely does anyone inquire why the author wrote this book or how this particular section fits into the whole writing.

God in history

Just as we cringe when someone quotes us out of context, the authors of Scripture must wince when we do that to their words. Each of Sunday's three readings has a context -- a place in which the author put it or a situation that prompted its writing -- that doesn't always come through in the few verses the liturgy gives us.

The author of the first reading (Deuteronomy 26:4-10), for instance, wants no Jew to forget that Yahweh has been part of their history. Only because God entered the lives of their ancestors, liberated them from slavery and guided them into the Promised Land, can these particular Israelites even offer the first and best part of their harvest to Yahweh.

That profession of faith in God's saving actions parallels our Eucharistic profession of "the mystery of our faith." Jesus' dying and rising has immersed Him in our history just as deeply as Yahweh is embedded in Israel's history.

That's why it's important to note how a third-person narrative quickly morphs into a first-person account: "My father [Jacob] was a wandering Aramean....But when the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us...."

There's no past to God's being part of our lives. What Yahweh did for them, Yahweh does for us. What a context!

Paul (Romans 10:8-13) carries this concept a step further. One set of circumstances against which all the Christian Scriptures must be heard is the admission of Gentiles into the Church.

Though Jews would agree with the quotation Paul employs -- "Yahweh is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" -- most would limit such intimate nearness to Jews alone.

Paul and some of his fellow ministers stepped over the religious line by noticing God's presence even in non-Jews. "There is no distinction between Jew and Greek," he writes; "the same Lord is Lord of all, enriching all who call upon Him. For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'"

God's always pushing people to go beyond the faith limits in which they're comfortable.

Temptations

That's why Luke (Luke 4:1-13) places three specific temptations at the start of Jesus' public ministry. Before Jesus steps into His role as the itinerant preacher of God's kingdom, He clarifies His priorities.

Jesus is not giving up a secure carpenter's position in Capernaum to supply people with enough to eat, nor to acquire a position of power, nor to accomplish stupendous feats. Luke clicks off those temptations in the context of some in his community who believed Christianity should accomplish the three things Jesus rejected.

It's certainly not newsworthy or prestigious to go around pointing out that God is present and working in our day-to-day, often boring lives. Yet, unless we regard that insight as the central part of our faith, we're not living that faith in the context in which our sacred authors thought it should be lived.

Outside that context, no biblical faith makes sense.

(2/22/07)