Q. I am engaged in a plan to complete the Bible in its entirety. The program invites one to read a short section from the Old Testament each day, pray two of the psalms and finish with a brief passage from one of the Gospels (currently Matthew).
But something that I have noticed puzzles me. I have just finished the story of David and Saul, and it strikes me that throughout the Old Testament (at least so far), God has been a bit of a warrior, delivering enemies into the hands of those who are faithful.
Yet when I come to the New Testament, Jesus seems to speak against violence. Why the change? (Regina, Saskatchewan)
A. First let me commend you on your plan to read the complete Bible. That is surely a worthy endeavor; not every part of the Bible is read publicly at Mass, so your understanding of God’s revelation will certainly be deepened. (One can find online suggested programs for accomplishing this goal, including some which allow you to complete the project in one year.)
The question you raise — about the seeming contrast between the God of the Old Testament, destroying enemies of Israel by violence, and the Lord of mercy portrayed by Jesus — is an age-old one. I am not sure that there is an answer that completely satisfies the contemporary reader and believer, but let me try.
That there is violence in the Old Testament is indisputable. Some would point out that the Canaanites, for example — vanquished through God’s help to give the Promised Land to the chosen people — simply got what they deserved: They had been a brutally aggressive people, engaged also in bestiality, idol worship, widespread prostitution and even child sacrifice. But that explanation, I believe, falls short.
I would stress, instead, that it was only gradually that the God of creation revealed himself to the human race; the Bible is an unfolding story in which we slowly come to know the Lord of grace and love. The Old Testament reflected the Middle Eastern culture and attitudes of the time, and God revealed himself according to the understanding and circumstances of that day. It was only when Jesus arrived that he showed us more fully what God is like.
It should be noted, too, that there can be seen throughout the Bible an admixture of the God who loves tenderly and the God who calls us to task. Exodus 34:6, for example, hails the Lord as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity,” while Matthew’s Gospel warns of the danger of eternal punishment and says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt. 10:38).
So to draw a division between an Old Testament God who is angry and judgmental and a New Testament God who is loving and merciful is simplistic and inaccurate.
Q. Why are there different titles for parish priests? Some are designated as pastors (which is the term I grew up using), others seem to be called sacramental ministers and still others are known as parish administrators. It’s a bit confusing for old-timers like me. Could you help to explain? (Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin)
A. A pastor is a priest appointed by the bishop to lead a particular parish and is charged canonically with the work of “teaching” and “sanctifying” that faith community (Canon 519). Only an ordained priest can hold the title of pastor.
In some dioceses, due to a shortage of priests, the bishop may appoint instead a “parochial administrator” or “pastoral administrator.” This person may be a deacon or vowed religious but is more frequently a member of the laity. He or she is responsible for ensuring that the worship services, pastoral programs and business affairs of the parish are carried out.
When someone other than a priest is appointed as administrator of a parish, a priest is appointed as the “sacramental minister” to celebrate the eucharistic liturgies for that congregation. That sacramental minister is often a retired priest or one holding a full-time job within the diocesan administration, or it could be a priest assigned to multiple parishes for the celebration of the sacraments.
Sometimes, too, if a parish is “between pastors,” a priest may be named as the temporary “administrator” until a permanent pastor is assigned.
Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St. Albany, N.Y. 12208.