Does It Mean What We Think It Means?

In the movie The Princess Bride, one of the villains, Vizzini, spends the first part of the movie yelling out “Inconceivable!” every time he is confronted with or surprised by something new.  At one point in the film, one of the other main characters, Inigo Montoya, says, “You keep saying that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Often when I’m reading scripture I hear this same humorous exchange in my head.  “I do not think it means what we think it means.”

This coming weekend’s Gospel is about the calling of the first Disciples; in particular, Nathaniel.  When Philip first tells Nathaniel about “him whom Moses in the law and also in the prophets wrote,” Nathaniel’s response is, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  It’s interesting how this line could easily be, and most certainly has been, taken out of context over the centuries.  Most would assume that Nathaniel is implying that Nazareth is not a good place and anyone from Nazareth can’t be good – couldn’t possibly be the Son of God.  However, this line would probably be better translated something like, “Really?  Nazareth?  Can the Son of God, the King of Israel, really be from Nazareth?

This exchange is one of the primary reasons why reading scripture can be one of the most divisive things we do.  At face value, without any context, Nathaniel’s question could be interpreted as a negative and overtly judgmental statement about Nazarenes, rather than a question asked out of surprise or curiosity.  Throughout history, scripture scholars, church leaders, and theologians have pored over passages like this and have tried to provide some contextual guidance. But how do we know which interpretation is the most accurate?  How do we, Christians, know who has the closest version of the truth?  Wars, massacres and other atrocities have happened because people with power were certain they had the whole truth about the Christian scriptures. So, how do we decipher who is right and who is wrong?

One of the greatest paradoxes of our Christian faith and one of the surest ways to know whether or not a truth really is “The Truth” is simply to admit that we don’t have the full truth.   A lot could be reconciled in our divisive culture if we made it a regular practice of ending every sentence with, “…but I know you also hold a piece of the truth, let me hear yours.”


The “Building Bridges, Building Hope” blog is written by Susie Tierney, Executive Director, of the Center for Social Ministry.  Susie hopes the blog will encourage others to be “bridge-builders” in this politically divisive time, and will promote dialogue and common ground-thinking. To sign up to receive our “Building Bridges, Building Hope” blog click here.