Often when I meet with people to discuss Scripture the question arises: did this really happen. Take for instance last Sunday’s account of Samuel’s being awakened by a voice calling to him – so he goes to the priest Eli (his mentor), wakes him up and asks what he wants. Eli – probably disgruntled over being awakened – says he didn’t call him and that Samuel should go back to sleep. This happens three times before Samuel realizes God is calling him directly – and pays attention. Then there is the Gospel of last week in which the first disciples begin one by one to respond to Jesus’ invitation to come and see where he lives – and pretty soon we have a little procession of followers trailing behind this unusual Pied Piper.
Then there is today’s first reading about Jonah – being sent to Nineveh (a ruthless city) to demand repentance – and the Gospel reading about Jesus calling Simon and Andrew and then James and John to leave their fishing nets to join Jesus in “fishing for men”.
So it’s back again to the question that comes up: did these events really happen or are they fables. Well, I trust the integrity of the ancient writers – they are writing about things that radically changed their lives, recording moments that added up to great significance for them and others. To fabricate would only be to fool themselves as much as others. Of course such events are told with embellishment or a succinctness that captures the essence of what happened. But many people, because the Scripture is so ancient, wonder how you can verify these episodes.
Well one way of verifying them, trusting that they really happened is to study the course of your own life. All these events are verifiable in my own life; they have happened and continue to happen to me (and you?). The voice of God has intervened in indirect ways in my life since my childhood – even as it woke up Samuel in the night. Often I did not quite hear it right, went running to someone else for answers to the questions it raised and was just as often told by “people in the know” like Eli to go back to sleep. But sooner or later that “sacramental” voice really woke me up – in this classroom or in some startling or even ordinary experience. The same goes for the Gospel account in which Jesus invites his first disciples to “come and see” where he lives, how he lives, why he lives – and in the supplementary account in which he disentangles his disciples from their nets. The same beckoning, seductive voice caught my attention (and yours?) at several stages of my life, each adding up to a deeper knowledge of who Jesus is and what he’s about. That same beckoning voice disentangled me (and you?) from distorted notions of what’s right and wrong, from a sick sense of low self worth, from biases that I thought were virtuous – and so on.
Of course biblical scholars do hold the Jonah story (with his being swallowed by a whale) to be an inspired piece of fiction with a moral. But I can say, and so can you if you think about, that that whole story has happened to me. How often have I run away from God’s command to do something heroic, how often have I allowed myself to be swallowed up by fear, by self-preservation only to find my condition stifling? And how often have I with the help of God been thrown up out of the belly of that “whale” to follow God’s way as I was first commanded? So you see – every event – even the more imaginative ones – in Scripture is verifiable – both back then in many cases and certainly now, as I myself experience every moment of that ancient biblical drama.