The seminary I went to had a heavy emphasis on writing papers, whereas other seminaries might put more focus on test-taking. Mine was one in which I felt like it was a continuous stream of producing papers that no one would ever read except for the professor.
|Father Richard Kunst
I remember one of the cardinal rules about writing papers for my scripture classes was to never “proof-text.” In a nutshell, proof-texting is taking biblical quotes out of context to argue a particular point. Proof-texting could easily get you into trouble, because if you take certain quotes out of context, it would appear that the Bible is full of contradictions.
This is something a lot of non-religious critics like to point out. You will sometimes hear them ask how can one believe in the Bible when it is rife with contradiction. There are no actual biblical contradictions when it comes to the overarching truths expressed in the Word of God; truth cannot contradict truth. But again, taken out of context we can easily make things sound contradictory.
I will give you my favorite example, which I think I may have done in a past column. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says these familiar words: “… Everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says ‘you fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (5:22). Now if we were to proof text this verse and pull it out of context, it would look very bad for Jesus when in the very same Gospel Jesus says this to the scribes and Pharisees, 18 chapters later: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind fools!” (23:16-17a).
See the contradiction? That is the problem with proof texting.
Proof-texting is not really the point of this column. Rather, I am going to give another example of proof-texting to make a larger point. Again in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your father who is in heaven” (6:1). He goes on to say in this familiar passage that when giving alms, don’t sound a trumpet to be seen, and when praying don’t pray at the street corners so as to be seen. This all makes sense, of course, because we should not have a relationship with God that has the purpose of receiving the praise of men!
But then there is this other passage in the same Gospel. Jesus says something that on the face of it seems pretty contradictory, though of course it is not. In yet another very famous passage from the Gospel, Jesus, speaking to his disciples, says: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (5:16). It seems like Jesus is telling his disciples to let everyone see the good work they are doing, and then less than a chapter later he is telling them not to let anyone see the good they are doing, so what gives?
There is a difference between “showing off” and giving witness. On the face of it, by all outward appearances they may look very much the same, but of course they are very different. If we do charitable acts to be congratulated or if we pray piously in church or elsewhere to show people that we are “holy,” then we are in fact not holy or charitable, we are grandstanders using religion to benefit ourselves.
If, on the other hand, we are doing acts of charity in such a way that we ourselves are transparent, not bringing attention to ourselves but only to God, then indeed we are acting in a virtuous way.
I have often applied this concept to how we priests preside at Mass. If I, as the presider, become the attention-getter, if I say Mass in such a way as to bring attention to myself, then it is the “Father Rich Show.” People do not come to Mass to see the “Father Rich Show” (or insert any priest’s name). People come to Mass to receive the Eucharist and get closer to God. Anything I do that emphasizes attention on myself takes away from Christ and the Eucharist. I, as priest, need to be completely transparent.
So it is with any Christian act, whether it be praying, charitable giving, fasting, you name it. It must not be our intention to get attention. Proof-texting aside, that is a fact.
Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].