Irecently heard a National Public Radio review of a book whose author attempted to track down how we learned the Scripture we purport to know.

Her thesis — that very few people actually learn the Bible by reading the Bible — wasn’t surprising to us who teach Scripture. The vast majority who claim to know Scripture have acquired their knowledge from catechism proof-texts, biblical quotes used in homilies and sermons, and old-time Bible histories, but rarely from the Bible itself. I find, for instance, that almost no Catholic brings a Bible to a "first-time" session on the Bible!

The author’s insights especially apply to Sunday’s Gospel (Mt 25: 31-46). Before 1970, we never heard it proclaimed during any weekend Eucharist. And if we depended on our grade school Bible history to give us Matthew’s message, we might never have learned it.

Missing pieces

Most of us Catholic school old-timers learned our Scripture from Bishop Gilmour’s "Bible History." Its title page assured us that it was sanctioned "for the use of the Catholic schools in the United States." Yet, we didn’t always learn what our sacred authors actually taught on a given subject even when the late Cleveland bishop actually treated that subject.

He begins his treatment of Sunday’s Gospel judgment passage, for instance, by stressing something contrary to Matthew’s theology: "The negligence of men, and the little influence that the mere love for God has to change the mind, rendered it necessary to add fear to the other motives for serving God."

He continues, painting a picture of the world’s last judgment: the good on Jesus’ right; the bad on His left. He quotes Jesus’ words to the good, "Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world," and finally ends with Jesus’ command to the wicked: "Depart from me, ye accursed into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels."

But never once in his entire treatment of Matthew 25:31-46 does Bishop Gilmour mention the criteria which Jesus employs for determining the sheep and the goats — "I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me."

Were we to hear Sunday’s three readings in the context of the Scripture which presents them to us, we’d see three different pictures of God’s care and love of God’s people.

Images of God

Ezekiel’s picture of Yahweh as a shepherd who "tends His flock when He finds Himself among His scattered sheep," shows one dimension of Yahweh’s concern for His exiled people (Ez 34: 11-12, 15-17).

Paul shows a different aspect of that concern when he creates the image of the "new Adam" and applies it to Jesus (I Cor 15: 20-26, 28). Just as the Genesis Adam’s actions gave all people the experience of death, so the new Adam’s actions offers all people an opportunity to experience life. Paul believes that the good which brings life is always more powerful than the evil which brings death. And for him, there’s nothing more powerful than the force of Jesus’ love.

Matthew’s reflection on such deep love eventually leads him to an even more insightful dimension of God’s concern. Not only does God step into our world to help and shepherd us, as both Ezekiel and Paul proclaim, but Matthew believes that we have a God who, through Jesus, actually becomes one with us. "When I was hungry, thirsty and a stranger..."

Which of these three biblical images is correct? The Sacred authors believe they all are. Perhaps the most important insight which a study of Scripture from Scripture conveys is that whenever one speaks of God, one must always employ a "both/and." Of course, "rational" thinking people prefer an "either/or" catechism or Bible history God-image. It makes much more sense.

The only problem is that such an image doesn’t correspond to reality.