... so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all who cause others to sin and all evildoers. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth. - Mt 13:36-43
And this brings up an issue that often troubles me - what should I do about scripture passages that seem to contradict my idea of who Jesus is? I don't have a good answer, so usually I just ignore the stuff that disturbs me, but in a search for more info, I found an interesting article at American Catholic ... Interpreting the Bible: The Right and the Responsibility by Sandra Schneiders, I.H.M., a member of the faculty of the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California.
The article mentions the different poles of Biuble interpretation ... the fundamentalist view ...
that the Bible is the literal word of God, virtually dictated by God to the sacred authors and therefore to be taken literally as completely free of error of any kind (historical, scientific, theological, moral, social, etc.) and absolutely authoritative for the reader.
... and the other extreme taken by secular scholars (I prefer to err in this direction) ...
The Bible, in such a context, ceases to mediate an encounter with God and becomes primarily a source of historical knowledge about ancient Israel and the first Christian communities.
The Catholic Church's approach, the article says, is not to embrace one or the other mentioned above, but a combination of the best of each ....
The biblical texts, then, bear all the marks of human composition: historical conditioning, prejudice, factual error and moral limitation, as well as deep theological and religious insight into the mystery of God's relationship with humanity. It is this twofold character of the biblical text, its mysterious divine depths expressed in humanly fallible language, which makes interpretation necessary.
It's at this point in the article that we get closer to the answer to my original question. There's a lot of info in this section, but I didn't want to leave out too much, so ...
1) Just as we try to gather all the clues we can (facial expression, tone of voice, context and so on) to interpret ordinary communication, so we need as much information as we can gather about the biblical text we are trying to interpret. It is helpful, therefore, to read a nontechnical but academically sound commentary on the book or passage one is studying in order to have an overall sense of its meaning and its special problems.
2) We should try to keep a balance between respect for the enormous cultural, historical and linguistic distance separating us as modern readers from the ancient world of these texts and basic confidence in the capacity of the humanity we share with these ancient peoples to help bridge that distance. Just as someone who is not a specialist in 16th-century English literature can enjoy a Shakespeare play, so a nonspecialist in biblical matters can understand much of the biblical text if she or he is willing to make the necessary effort.
3) We should read the biblical text as holistically as possible. Before returning to meditate on a single verse that has captured our attention, we should read the whole text in which it appears, that is, the whole parable, narrative or discourse. Details have fuller meaning and are less likely to be misinterpreted if read in context.
4) Since the Bible is the product of a community experience and is meant to nourish and guide the community of believers, it is helpful to share biblical study and prayer with others. Because every great text has multiple meanings and layers of significance, different dimensions of meaning will be discovered by different readers. Furthermore, sharing interpretation minimizes the chances of totally erroneous or idiosyncratic reading.
5) It is important to pay special attention to those texts that make us uncomfortable. God's ways are not our ways. Revelation often breaks through precisely where our personal biases and social prejudices are called into question and not just where we are comforted or confirmed in what we already think.
6) We should try to discern the "trajectory" or direction in which a problematic text is leading its readers, even if the text did not get to a fully satisfactory position. Paul, for example, did not get to the point of condemning slavery outright but he set out in that direction when he told slaves that their servitude was not really to their human masters but to Christ, and when he challenged Philemon to accept his escaped slave Onesimus as a brother in the faith.
7) Finally, we need to read the Bible prayerfully. The ultimate purpose of reading Scripture is not to find out the answers to our questions or to obtain theological information. It is to gradually put on the mind of Christ so that we will be able to find answers for our time and world that reflect God's creative and saving will for all people.
That last bit seems to be speaking especially to me ... I do read scripture for answers to questions and for theological info, but perhaps I'm approaching it the wrong way. Someone gave me a piece of advice on this subject recently ...
Getting to know what we should or should not be doing isn't just about trying to find out God's opinion on the subject but about getting to know the God behind the subject. The primary revelation isn't this or that proposition but God.