TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ JER 26:1-9; MT 13:54-58 ]
Quite often, beautiful, thought-provoking and well-meaning messages are taken out of context and the centrality of the message is lost because it has been jeopardized by people, some vindictive, some malicious, some innocent and some politically, religiously and economically motivated. A case in point was Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s address at the University of Regensburg in 2006. The crux of his speech was to champion the correlation between faith and reason. Faith cannot exclude reason; neither can reason exclude faith. The Pope’s diagnosis for the division in the world is the battle between secularism and religion. Secularists tend to see the world through reason alone, excluding the transcendence. On the other hand, some faith believers see life through faith alone, excluding the use of reason. The former will lead to a lob-sided and incomplete understanding of reality, but the latter will lead to fundamentalism and fanaticism.
However, this profound speech of Pope Benedict was hijacked by fundamentalists and the press, which focused on a quote that he took from the erudite Byzantine Emperor Constantine regarding the Prophet Mohamed and Islam. It was cited with the intention to show that “violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul” and that violent conversion is “not to act in accordance with reason” which “is contrary to God’s nature.” Because this quote was taken out of context, it gave the impression that the Pope was portraying Islam to be a violent religion. Furthermore, when that part of the quote was circulated through mass media, there was an uproar, demonstration and attacks on Catholics.
This is a clear example of how messages can be distorted and cause harm and division when they are taken out of context. There is a greater danger today because of social media, where people just quote the words of a person out of context and post it on the internet, facebook, WhatsApp’s, etc. I am sure all of us feel unjustified when people interpret us out of context. And many of us innocently pass on messages we receive without verifying the larger context of what has been said. When we selectively pick and choose part of the message and circulate it, we are engaging in fake news, or worse still, half-truths, because news that is distorted is even more damaging. For preachers and teachers, we are often quoted out of context or our messages are read out of context! As a result, it can cause much misunderstanding.
This was certainly the case of Jeremiah in today’s first reading. He was instructed by the Lord to warn the people of the consequences if they failed to repent of their sins of injustice, discrimination, dishonesty, murders and worship of the pagan gods. “The Lord says this: ‘If you will not listen to me by following my Law which I put before you, by paying attention to the words of my servants the prophets whom I send so persistently to you, without your ever listening to them, I will treat this Temple as I treated Shiloh, and make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.'” The focus of Jeremiah’s speech was on the need for repentance and to follow the Law if they were to find peace and security. Instead of acknowledging their evil hearts, the priests, prophets and nobles whose stakes were challenged, turned the whole thing into an accusation that Jeremiah was insulting the religion because he spoke of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. For the Israelites and the Jews, the Temple was the pride of the people. Through the Temple too, they held the people together and this was where their income and status were derived. So for Jeremiah to prophesy the destruction of the Temple was to insult their faith in God who dwells in the Temple. Hence, they seized him and sought to put him to death.
It was so in the case of our Lord as well when He preached in His home town. He came back with the noble intention of sharing the Word of God with them and to heal the sick. Instead of being edified by what He said and did, the townsfolk were not thinking about His message or what He could do for them. They became envious of Jesus and started to entertain doubts in their mind, not because of what He said and did, but because they knew Him when he was young. “Jesus taught the people in their synagogue in such a way that they were astonished and said, ‘Where did the man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely? Is not his mother the woman called Mary, and his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? His sisters, too, are they not all here with us? So where did the man get it all?’ And they would not accept him.”
Again, Jesus was seen out of focus. What was more important was what Jesus is today and not what He was. We must judge the tree by its fruits. They should have evaluated the Lord’s words and deeds so that they could come to a conviction of His mission and message. Instead of focusing on the identity of our Lord, they were more concerned about the fact that He was one of them. The remark of our Lord was very telling when He said, “‘A prophet is only despised in his own country and in his own house’, and he did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” How true in daily life. Our peers will not accept what we say but they will listen to what others say. We have an emotional and psychological block in receptivity to the entire message when we are prejudiced against a person.
In the light of what we have reflected, what does it mean for the one who is called to teach the truth, the one who hears the message and those who transmit them? In the case of Jeremiah, the Lord instructed him, “You must speak all the words I have commanded you to tell them; do not omit one syllable. Perhaps they will listen and each turn from his evil way: if so, I shall relent and not bring the disaster on them which I intended for their misdeeds.” Like Pope Benedict and Jeremiah, we must be ready to speak the truth even when it makes us unpopular. We must not hold back what the Lord commands us to tell the people. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of our conscience and of God.
The question is how we should convey the message of God. This is the most important question today beyond the truth of the content of the message. Should we preach like the prophets of old, like John the Baptist condemning the people so that they could be awakened from their ignorance and stubbornness? Perhaps in those days and even now for some people, it works. Through fire and brimstone, some people are shaken up. Using a soft and gentle approach will not strike their hearts. However, in today’s world, because of higher education, most people are thinkers. For such people, a softer approach that is rational and appealing to the heart would be more palatable. Indeed, in the gospel, Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16) He also remarked, “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” (Lk 16:8) So today, in view of the fact that our message might be quoted out of context, we need to be more careful in calibrating our message.
Secondly, those who are the recipients of the message must look for the substance, not the presentation. The content is more important than the packaging. Unfortunately, today, people only are interested in the packaging, not the content. They prefer to listen to a speaker that entertains rather than enlightens. Some speakers are not good at delivery but their talks have lots of substance and content. Yet others can make people laugh, but gives nothing for them to bring home. So we must go beyond the packaging. Rather, we must examine the content of what is said or written. We can disagree with the way it was presented or we might not even like the speaker. However, we should be objective enough not to focus on the secondary issues but consider if what is said is true, edifying and helpful to our lives.
Finally, for those who are spreading and passing on the message, we must verify the truth of what we pass on, especially when it is something negative or highly sensitive. Passing on fake news, which is not merely untruths but distorted truths, can cause division, disorder, riots and killings. So we must be extremely cautious before we forward such incendiary news and messages. It is not just our duty to verify the truth of what was said but also to know the context of what was said so that we will not misrepresent the person. Failure to do so is to be an accomplice of fake news and to be lacking in charity and honesty. Unfortunately, newspapers, especially when they are looking for soundbites, often take the quote out of context and people who read the text without bothering to know the whole story are prejudiced right from the start based on what they have read. However, with good news, let us forward and pass on generously to all so that all can be edified and inspired.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.