When I was a little kid, I used to love listening to the stories that my great-grandmother would tell. She was born in Sicily in 1898 and had a very full, very interesting life. She was a tiny woman with a quiet voice and a very nostalgic heart when I knew her, and she was one heck of a story-teller. She loved telling stories about the Mafia, to my Grandfather’s horror. He would always tell us not to listen to her, that the stories weren’t true, and he didn’t want her glorifying the mob. But, I didn’t know what he was talking about and loved listening to her, and would sit with her whenever I could.
I was probably around eight years old when she told me about the day her house became her own. It was during the Great Depression and things were bad for everyone; including her family. She was about to lose her home to the bank because business just wasn’t good enough to pay the bills. Her brother, who was a “friend” of Vito Genovese, took her to the bank to see what could be done. They arranged a meeting with the bank manager, went into his office and closed the door, and Grandma’s brother explained the situation to him. He said, “My sister is trying to take care of her family that she loves in the safety of her home. You have a family that you love. You wouldn’t want any harm to come to them.” And so, the man saw his point and signed the deed over to my Grandmother.
I thought that was the best story I had ever heard. What an understanding man! To do such a nice thing in such tough times and save my Grandma from being homeless! He must have been the nicest man ever.
And then, I saw the movie “The Godfather.” I was 31 years old when I finally saw it. I wasn’t allowed as a kid, and never got around to it as an adult until then. The story my Grandma told me came flooding back to me, and I suddenly had context. I finally understood the true meaning of the story. That guy wasn’t being nice—he was terrified for the safety of his family! My uncle threatened that man’s children! I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand how Grandma could tell that story, knowing full well what it meant, and be pleased with it. Not just pleased with it—proud of it. I felt all of my Grandfather’s mortification.
Context is everything. We need to know background to have an appreciation of the stories we hear in order to comprehend their meaning. This is as true with the Bible as it is with any other literature. As Catholics, we study the Bible from a Contextualist point of view. That means that when we study a passage from Scripture, we need to extract the meaning that God intended, not to put our own ideas into the passage to make it work for us. We look at what type of literature it is, who the author was (or whatever we can find out about the author), who the intended audience was, what the historical/cultural context was, what the literal meaning was and what the spiritual meaning is. We look at the whole of Tradition as our context for understanding, too. (i.e., we read the Hebrew Scriptures with the lens of them having been fulfilled through Christ.)
One of the beautiful things about Scripture is that the Holy Spirit inspired all of it, so whatever the intended meaning, it also has meaning for each of us individually. God continues to speak to us through Scripture, and every time we read it, we are having a conversation with God. But, to neglect understanding the context is doing a disservice to both the text and ourselves.
If you have an opportunity to, join a Bible Study. If you can’t, there are loads of excellent resources online where you can study at your leisure. Here are some resources you might want to check out (but, if you can do it in community, all the better!!!):