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Both sheep and elephant

St. Gregory the Great on the Scriptures:As the word of God exercises the wise by the mysteries it contains, so quite frequently it nourishes plain folk by its surface-meaning. It presents openly the food it offers the little ones; it keeps hidden what will hold people of loftier reach in suspense of admiration. It is, if I may put it this way, a kind of river that is both shallow and deep, in which a lamb may wade and and an elephant may swim. (Gregory, Morals on Job, Preface, iv; PL 75, 515)


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At that time, Jesus said in reply, "I give praise to you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and learned you have revealed them to the childlike." (Matt. 11:25). I wonder, though, if St. Gregory hasn't gotten it a little backwards. Sometimes the surface meaning that nourishes the little ones has more solid nutrition than the expected deeper meanings that tie the lofty in intellectual knots. (Cf. G. Will.)

How to preach to both lambs and elephants is not always clear.

Putting a lamb in water where elephants have been wallowing is likely to dirty their fleece.

The characterization of the two kinds of readers as members of different species seems to assume that the lambs would drown in the depths in which the elephants swim, and that the elephants would have to stomp through the shallows to get to a place where they could move more efficiently.Yet today we know that no reader really reads the same book twice. As we grow and change and experience more, learn more, we process the book differently. The wisest, most experienced reader was once one of " the little ones." And "plain folks" need not remain "little ones" forever. They can become more discerning-- and versatile-- readers of scripture.

I recognize the value that allegorical reading has in being able to situate the Church in a sort of cosmic framework of salvation history, but I often think that apart from that function, allegorical interpretation cheats the reader of the opportunity to experience the richness of Scripture. In other words, the surface situation in a book like Job probably provides more fruit when tackled head on than when read as foreshadowing Christianity.

That quotation tells us more about Gregory than about the word of God.

Also, sheep dislike walking in water.

people of loftier reach: that smacks of elitism. Does Gregory the Great consider himself a "wise one" or a "little one"? Why are those terms in opposition? Does he count himself among the "plain folk" or the "people of loftier reach"? I am all for education, learning, and the cultivation of the mind, but this text is close to offensive.One could also conjecture that, like research or exercise or, I am told, economics, 90% of the results come relatively easily, and experts spend most of their time trying to extract the remaining 9%. It's the law of diminishing returns: most people get most of whatever fruit can be obtained simply by reading Scripture "plainly", and the theological heavyweights put their elephant brains to the task and get a little more out of Scripture by expanding enormous effort.I'm all for it - pushing the boundaries of our understanding is necessary - I wouldn't be an academic if I didn't believe that - but the associated claim of superiority is nonsense.

Naturally I'm reading this quote of Greg the Great with 21st century eyes. It's offensive now, but it may have been perfectly natural in his days.

The idea that people occupied a place in a hierarchy relative to their capacity for understanding was pretty standard; the idea was that revelation could be accommodated to everyone, regardless of their relative position in the hierarchy.

As a little one, I have always felt that the trouble with the Gospel is not that its message is hard to understand, but that it is hard to perform. As a result, some wise ones today, although I think not so much in the Catholic Church, are exercising their wisdom by formulating and preaching the Prosperity Gospel, claiming that accumulation of wealth, prestige, and power is a sign of God's favor, which stands Christ's plain teaching on its head, but which is admittedly an easier doctrine to sell and to buy in our modern, grasping world.Less exegesis, more praxis.

John, I honestly do not understand what that has to do with Gregory's statements.

Susan Gannon: Your comment anticipates tomorrow's selection.Perhaps I should explain how I read and use passages like the ones chosen from Augustine, Gregory, or others. I don't expect them necessarily to provide great help in interpreting the so-called "literal sense" of the Scriptures, although at times I think they are very good at that. I think in particular of Augustine's commentary on St. John's Gospel. I read them for the insights into the faith and the life of the Church that for them were occasioned by the liturgical use of the biblical texts and assisted by their method of discerning various levels of meaning. They have NT warrant for their effort, of course: in 1 Cor 10:1-11 recounts many of the events of the Exodus and the forty years in the desert and says: "These things happened to them as an example.... They have been written as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come." See also 1 Cor 9:8-12 where Paul justifies his rights by citing the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out grain," and then asks, "Is God concerned here for oxen, or does he not rather say this for our sakes?"I agree with Abe Rosenzweig that the allegorical reading can rob the reader of a chance to experience and appreciate the richness of the biblical text, and I think Gregory's massive set of moral reflections on the Book of Job is a perfect example. But, to repeat, I cite the Fathers not to recommend allegorical readings of the biblical texts, but for the insights occasioned by those texts that happen to have particularly struck me.

John Prior: I'd conclude from your comment that we need better exegesis, too. Exegesis and praxis need not be inversely proportional.

I am sorry, Abe, I thought I was being tolerably clear. Sloshing about in the depths may occasionally reveal deep meaning, but it roils the surface, sometimes turns up mere mud, and is an occasion of vanity. It seems to me, too, that Christ employed the shepherd and sheep motif as charming and vivid metaphor in a society where real sheep were everywhere. But even by Gregory's time, it had begun to take on a tone of disparagement. It needs to be treated carefully.So how about better exegesis and more modest exegetes?

Gregory did get it backwards as did Origen and many fathers of the church. Nothing wrong with academics or intellectuals. But they will have a tougher time than the little ones in entering. The largest blemish on the Fathers of the Church is that they let the Empire thrive and the Way, the real faith, diminish. Yet the simple people still got it as they corrected Origen who got to lofty while he missed some essentials.

To me the problem with the use of term "sheep" .... while perfectly acceptable in describing our relation to Christ the Good Shepherd ... is its use by those who exalt themselves to the level of Christ and deem themselves more like elephants.Elephants plod and lumber and are easily brought down by the nimble. Sheep scamper, are nimble and relish the good earth that has been given to them.

Huh. I'm not sure whether what I learned in university re: theology, or what I learned in the 4-H re: bovidae makes me want to face-palm more when reading these responses.

Once I was with a group of European hikers in Africa and we saw an elephant in the distance. We all wanted to take our cameras and get a bit closer, but our local guide was very nervous. As soon as he saw the elephant raise its head to look at us, he said: "Quick, let's go away!" That's when I learned that elephants are dangerous. Once I was on a farm in the late winter and learned to go around the fields every morning at day break, counting sheep to account for anyone that might be missing: a mother sheep might have hidden under a bush to give birth. We would find the newborn lambs, gather the small ones up in our arms (they let themselves be picked up peacefully - those newborn creatures have no idea that the world is a dangerous place) and bring them home. If they were chilled, we'd turn on the oven (at low temperature) and put them in so that they would warm up. All the female sheep had been impregnated by artificial insemination, so all the births happened at roughly the same time - different every year, since it was planned in such a way that the lambs would be just the right size for eating at Easter. (In France people traditionally eat lamb for their Eater meal.)But what does St Gregory the Great know about elephants?


About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.