25 February 2012

‘Believing and Belonging’ (2): Five Bible Studies

The Samaritan Woman at the Well ... an icon in the Church of Aghios Nikolaos in Vathy on the Greek island of Samos … an icon of listening, diversity, dialogue and respect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saturday 25 February 2012 (9.30 to 10.50 a.m):

Archbishop’s Certificate Course in Theology,
Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

Bible Study 1:

The Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-15):

The Visitation of Abraham … a modern icon but an old and familiar image

Abraham is the great patriarch of the Old Testament, and his story is a key story in the Hebrew Bible. Abraham began life as a stranger and a wandering Aramean (Genesis 12; Deuteronomy 26: 5), and his journey from Haran in modern Turkey to Bethel in Canaan was an epic journey (see Genesis 12: 1-9).

In his old age, Abraham finds himself one day sitting at the door of his tent, in the heat of the day. And unexpectedly he finds himself welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre. He takes good care of them, he sits them down, he washes their feet, he brings them food and drink, and Sarah and Abraham find that in welcoming these strangers they are entertaining angels and receiving God as their guest. Sometimes the guests are referred to in the plural, but sometimes the story uses the singular form when we are told the Lord is appearing to Abraham, as Abraham addresses “My Lord” and as we are told the Lord spoke.

As a consequence, God makes a promise to Sarah that at first seems laughable and unbelievable. But this is a key story in the unfolding of God’s plans for all of humanity and all of creation.

This story is traditionally depicted in Orthodox iconography as a visit not by strangers or angels, but a visit by the Triune God. Hospitality is no mere human transaction – “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”

This story has resonances of the many meals Jesus will have strangers in the New Testament, and an anticipation of the heavenly meal in the world to come. The promise to Sarah also anticipates the promise to Mary, one an old woman beyond the age of expecting a child, the other a young woman too young to expect a child.

The story is reflected in the New Testament in the Letter to Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13: 1-2).

Points for discussion:

This story brings together several strands of thinking about the stranger than recur again and again throughout the Bible. The promise to the Patriarchs is a promise with universal significance; the command to love is a command not just to love God and to love our neighbour, but to love the stranger and the alien too; there are no ethnic boundaries in the kingdom.

How welcome is the stranger in my church on a Sunday morning, or in my home?

How would I feel when, just as I was looking for a moment’s peace and quiet, I was disturbed by the arrival of three strangers?

How far does my hospitality extend?

How seriously do I listen to what strangers have to say to me?

Bible Study 2:

Joseph and the immigrants (Genesis 41):

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s Dream (Arthur Reginald, 1894)

This story provides the Lectionary readings for Morning Prayer next Saturday [3 March 2012], verses 1-24, and for Morning Prayer the following Monday [5 March 2012], verses 25-57. It is a story that is full of strangers. Joseph, who has been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, begins his life as a slave, as a stranger, as a foreigner and an immigrant. It was not his choice to end up in Egypt, but then how many immigrants or refugees came to Ireland not by choice design but due to circumstances beyond their control?

In the story of Joseph in Egypt, we read: “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43: 32). Nevertheless, Joseph rises to a position of privilege and power, and the man who was once an outsider becomes an insider, the man who was once a stranger now becomes known to all in power.

By means of his gifts, Egypt prepares well during seven years of plenty for seven years of famine that follow, and the man who was once a poor stranger and who arrived without anything he could call his own and who became a prisoner now becomes a blessing to the country in which he had found himself.

Later on, long after the events in this passage, we read that a king arose in Egypt who “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1: 8). This Pharaoh claimed the foreigners were becoming too many and planned to exterminate them (Exodus 1-2). He made life miserable for them, withholding the necessary materials while forcing them to make bricks. God hears their cry and heeds their suffering, and desires their freedom. But even then, they spend another forty years as wanderers and strangers in the wilderness.

Points for discussion:

Read the story of Joseph in Genesis. Ask whether you know anyone who has arrived in this country penniless and without a choice of where they were going.

Can you imagine someone who came to this country as a stranger but became a blessing?

Can you think of people who left Ireland due to circumstances beyond their control but who became a blessing to their new home country?

To help stimulate this discussion, you might think of Saint Patrick who came to Ireland first as a slave but later returned as a missionary, Eamon de Valera who was born in New York but became President of Ireland; or the many Irish emigrants in America whose family rose to fame, such as the Kennedys; or immigrants who later went home again and became a blessing to their own country, such as Kader Asmal who became a South African cabinet minister.

Joseph was forced to eat on his own because the Egyptians believed that to eat with the stranger would be defiling. Have the new strangers in our midst found themselves welcome in the homes you know?

Discuss also how you enjoy the new ethnic restaurants and take-away outlets in your area. When you go there, do you ever ask the people who work there where they come from?

Are they welcome in your church?

Are their children welcome in your school?

Can you imagine the modern equivalent of foreigners being forced to make bricks with straw?

You might like to consider the wages offered to East European building workers on some sites, or talk to some of the Chinese students working late hours in a local supermarket or filling station.

Try to write an imaginary conversation between a would-be refugee or an illegal immigrant trying to justify a right of entry to immigration officers at the airport or a port.

Bible Study 3: Ruth

Ruth and Naomi ... a modern icon

The Book of Ruth is a compact story of an uprooted family. Elimelech from Bethlehem and his wife Naomi emigrate to Moab, bringing their two sons with them. Eventually Naomi finds herself a widow in a strange land, and when both her sons die she is left dependent on two foreign daughters-in-law. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returns to her own family, but the other daughter-in-law, Ruth, clings to her mother-in-law, telling Naomi: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1: 16).

Naomi and Ruth were destitute when they arrived in Bethlehem. Naomi is known to few people there, and the two widows find themselves poor strangers and exiles in a strange land. The system of gleaning, which allows the poor to garner some food from the corners of the fields at harvest time, allows Ruth to gather food for both of them. And while she is gleaning, she meets Boaz and they marry. Two women who were exiles and strangers come to a new-found prosperity. Ruth gives birth to a son Obed, who is the grandfather of David, and the ancestor of Jesus. The stranger finds sympathy and love, and the love shown to the stranger becomes a blessing not just for Israel but for the whole world.

Points for discussion:

What issues does the story raise?

Try to imagine the story in today’s setting, with a family leaving Ireland and returning with a “foreign wife” or a family coming here and, beset by tragedy, returning home.

How do we respond those strangers in our midst who come to our doors asking for the gleanings of the field?

How do you feel about the Roma women selling or begging with her children?

What would have happened to God’s plan of salvation if Ruth had decided not to go back to Bethlehem with Naomi, if Boaz had said no to Ruth’s request, if Ruth had never married again?

Bible Study 4: The healing of a woman’s daughter (Matthew 15: 21-28, or Mark 7: 24-30).

The Syro-Phoenician Woman ... a modern icon by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM

After a very trying and busy time, Jesus tries to find some rest and quiet in the area of Tyre and Sidon – in territory associated with Elijah, the prophet who, in Kieran O’Mahony’s words, “was markedly, even offensively, open to foreigners.” his plans to retreat into hiding are frustrated when a woman from the region comes to him with very pressing demands.

In Saint Matthew’s account she is a Canaanite woman; in Saint Mark’s telling of the story she is a Greek or Syro-Phoenician woman. In either case, she is a Gentile, a stranger, a foreigner, a Greek-speaker and a woman. Her religion, language, nationality and gender put her beyond the compassion of the disciples.

But Jesus refuses every effort to send her away. She is direct and aggressive in demanding healing and justice. And in demanding justice and healing for her daughter, she is demanding them for herself too.

The dialogue between this woman and Jesus must have sounded crude and aggressive. She is a pushy woman, who forces herself into the house and with a touch of melodrama throws herself at the feet of Jesus, demanding he should heal his daughter. But Jesus appears to speak with contempt: he compares his fellow Jews with as “little children,” while Gentiles are compared with dogs. Dogs were then regarded as unclean animals, and as the time it was a popular teaching that dogs were the only animals to be excluded with certainty from heaven.

The woman responds, perhaps with wry humour, with an image of children playing with puppy dogs, away from adult view, under the table. Jesus appreciates this encounter: her insistence on meeting Jesus face-to-face, her refusal to be oppressed because of ethnicity, religion, language or gender, as well as her forthright way of speaking and her subliminal but humorous comparisons are all part of the drama in this story

And this combination produces results. In Saint Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds to her demands and, as a consequence, when she returns home she finds her child has been healed. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes further – he commends her for her faith and her daughter is healed instantly.

Points for discussion:

The confrontation between this woman and Jesus, the way they enter dialogue with each other, and the consequences of that dialogue are important when we consider how we deal with strangers and foreigners.

Do we find them pushy and demanding? How do we respond when the foreign woman in our society wants the same treatment in hospital as Irish-born children?

How do we respond when foreigners who are more open and joyful in conversation, appear to be encroaching on our privacy on the bus, on the street or in a shop?

Are we like the Disciple, and want to send them away?

Or are we like Jesus, and engage in conversation with them?

Do we think we have some privileges that should not be shared with the outsider and the stranger?

Bible Study 5: The Samaritan woman at the well (John 4):

Saint Photini ... the Samaritan woman at the well

The Samaritans are religious and cultural outsiders for the Jewish people in the New Testament period. Although these two people share the same land, the Samaritans are strangers and outsiders. Although they share faith in the same God and share the same Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Samaritans are seen as having a different religion. Jesus tries to break down those barriers. The Good Samaritan is not a stranger but is the very best example of a good neighbour (Luke 10: 29-37). Among the Ten Lepers who are healed, only the Samaritan returns to give thanks, and this “foreigner” is praised for his faith (Luke 17: 11-19).

In this story in Saint John’s Gospel, the Disciples are already doing something unusual: they have gone into the city to buy food; but this is no ordinary city – this is a Samaritan city, and any food they might buy from Samaritans is going to be unclean according to Jewish ritual standards. While the Disciples are in Sychar, Jesus sits down by Jacob’s Well, and begins talking with a Samaritan woman who comes to the well for water. And their conversation becomes a model for how we respond to the stranger in our midst, whether they are foreigners or people of a different religion or culture.

Jesus presents the classical Jewish perception of what Samaritans believe and how they worship. The Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Bible – the Pentateuch or Torah – as revealed scripture. For their part, Jews of the day pilloried this Samaritan refusal to accept more than the first five books of the Bible by claiming the Samaritans worshipped not one the one God revealed in the five books but five gods. Jesus alludes to this – with a sense of humour – when he says the woman had five husbands.

In other circumstances, a Jewish man would have refused to talk to a Samaritan woman or to accept a drink form her hands; any self-respecting Samaritan woman would have felt she had been slighted by these comments and walked away immediately. Instead, the two continue in their dialogue: they talk openly and humorously with one another, and listen to one another. Jesus gets to know the woman and she gets to know Jesus. All dialogue involves both speaking and listening – speaking with the expectation that we will be heard, and listening honestly to what the other person is saying rather than listening to what our prejudices tell us they ought to say.

When the Disciples arrive back, they are filled with a number of questions but are so shocked by what is happening before them that they remain silent. Their silence reflects their inability to reach out to the stranger. But there are other hints at their failure and their prejudices: the woman gives and receives water as she and Jesus talk, but they fail to return with bread for Jesus to eat and they fail to feed into the conversation about faith and about life. They are still questioning and unable to articulate their faith, but the woman at least recognises Jesus as a Prophet. They made no contact with the people in Sychar, but she rushes back to tell the people there about Jesus. No one in the city was brought to Jesus by the disciples, but many Samaritans listened to what the woman had to say.

Points for discussion:

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman is a model for all our encounters with people we see as different or as strangers.

Am I like the Disciples, and too hesitant to go over and engage in conversation with the stranger who is at the same well, in the same shop, at the same bus stop?

If am going to enter into conversation with the stranger, am I open to listening to them, to talking openly and honestly with them about where they come from and what they believe?

When the conversation is over, will they remain strangers?

How open am I to new friendships?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. These Bible Study notes were prepared for a study session on the Archbishop’s Certificate in Theology course in Christ Church Cathedral on 25 February 2012.

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