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Reflections on memorising Scripture

Reflections on memorising Scripture

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Jesus said: ‘If my word remains in you, you will truly be my disciples’(John 8,31). The early Christians took this seriously. They learnt large sections of Jesus’words by heart. What is our responsibility in this regard?

Nowadays it is not difficult to come by a printed copy of Sacred Scripture. We can either obtain the whole Bible, a copy of the New Testament or separately printed copies of the Gospels. A selection of versions is available ranging from rather literal translations (e.g. the Revised Standard Version) to more up-to-date, readable renderings (e.g. the Good News Bible). Some versions provide helpful introductions and footnotes (notably the Jerusalem Bible).

However, has this plethora of printed editions really benefited us?

Possessing the text in print may make us believe that it has become part of us; but could we be fooling ourselves? Studies have shown that many homes have a copy of Scripture without it ever being consulted. The truth is: the inspired word is only part of us to the extent that we have internalised it; that is, to the extent it has become part of our mental resources and inner vision of life.

Would it be such a bad idea to commit to memory striking phrases of the Gospel? We know from psychology that we all carry in our mind ‘parental injunctions’: phrases we copied from our parents and teachers that enshrine principles and values. By repeating these principles internally, we make them the unconscious carriers of our day-to-day decisions. Why not give such a central role to Jesus’sayings?

* ‘If you're not faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true (spiritual) wealth?’ (Luke 16,11)

* ‘If you salute only your friends, have you done anything special?’ (Matthew 5,47)

* ‘As for you, even the hairs on your head have all been counted. You are worth much more than many sparrows’. (Matthew 10,30)

* ‘With my own eyes I have seen your salvation which you have prepared for all nations’. (Luke 2.30-31)

* ‘Don't be afraid. It is me!’ (John 6,20)

It is not difficult to gradually build up our inner store of such Gospel values. All we need to do is retain a beautiful phrase when we meet it; then repeat it often in the course of the day. We should also promote the ‘treasury approach’with regard to the printed copy of the Bible. Instead of keeping the whole book as an amorphous mass of text, we could mark in it passages that touch us in a special way. These texts we could meditate on with preference and read more often. Sacred Scripture then becomes a more personal book.

Questions for reflection

1. In which things do you rely on memory, in which on writing? Are there passages of the Gospel that you know by heart?

2. Consider these passages from Matthew 6,1-6.16-18:

Do not practice your piety before people, hoping that they will see you. For then you will have no reward from your heavenly Father.

So when you give alms, do not blow the trumpet, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to receive people's praise. I tell you, they got their reward. Rather, when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your alms are given in secret. And your Father, who sees what you do in secret, will reward you.

And when you pray, do not do like the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing up in the synagogues and the streets to be seen by people. I tell you, they got their reward. Rather, when you pray, go inside and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees what you do in secret, will reward you.

And when you fast, do not look gloomy, like the hypocrites. They put on a dismal expression so that their fasting is seen by people. I tell you, they got their reward. Rather, when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting is not seen by people but by your Father. And your Father who sees what you do in secret, will reward you.

a. What traces of memorisation do you discover in this text?

b. What, do you imagine, was the occasion of Jesus formulating the text?

c. What happened to the text in Matthew's Gospel (see 6,1-18)?

John Wijngaards

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