This Lenten season I propose to follow the lections from the Hebrew Scriptures
This Lenten season I propose to follow the lections from the Hebrew Scriptures, taking them as my point of departure for reflection upon the whole grand sweep of the Bible, culminating in the events of Holy Week and the most important event in the history of the world. I invite you to come with me.
26:1 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 26:2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.
26:3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us."
26:4 When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, 26:5 you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 26:6 When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 26:7 we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 26:8 The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders;
26:9 and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 26:10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me."
You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. 26:11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
In the heart of the Jewish celebration of the first fruits of the harvest, filled with joy for God’s generous provision, nestles a reminder that has echoed throughout the history of the Jewish people, that “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” That once Jews were Gentiles? That a people proud, and justly so, of their heritage are like all the rest of us, children of immigrants, outsiders.
The other day I tried to explain, ineffectively as it turns out, to my son-in-law why Ruth is revered in Judaism. Sure she was David’s great grandmother. She is the one who expressed the loyalty and devotion still sung at weddings, “Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people; and thy God, my God.” To her mother-in-law! What sometimes is forgotten, and must not be, in the exquisite devotion of that moment is that Ruth is a Moabitess. Understand: David, the shepherd boy, the Psalmist, the greatest of Israel’s kings, beloved by his people and himself a lover of the Lord, rises from a bloodline enriched by an outsider to the promise to Israel. Ruth is a Gentile.
I was born in the USA. When the other children in my elementary school class identified themselves as Italian or Irish, I chose the word I had heard my mother use, “British.” But, to tell the truth, I never felt very British. Nothing distinctive in my daily menu. No spaghetti. No fish on Friday. It turns out, however, that I was not that different from Chester Falsetti or Johnny Griffin. I too would be listed as “immigrant stock,” since my mother arrived in Stamford CT from Northern Ireland at the tender age of 9. I was an outsider and didn’t know it, because English was my tongue and I lived in a house on a hillside, not down by the river.
Of course, had I been conversant with the Scriptures at an early age, I might have discovered that in its pages, where the movement is always bringing outsiders into the inside, the clear message is that we are all strangers in a foreign land. To wit the lyric from Brahm’s German Requiem, a paraphrase of Hebrews 13:13, that “Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt.” That is, “Here we have no continuing city… but, instead of “city” our edition, the one from which our choir sang thirty years ago on Long Island, had “place.” On earth we have no continuing place.
We speak, perhaps a little too easily, of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. One thread woven into the whole fabric of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is not only the feeling but the fact of alienation. From the moment Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden to the great consummation when from the ends of the earth the nations will be gathered before the Lamb of God, we are outsiders, descendants of the wandering Aramaen and followers of the peripatetic Galilean.
He, that Galilean, is the ultimate outsider, about whom it was written that when he came to us there was no room for him in the inn; that, though the whole world was created through him and for him, nobody knew him. In fact, he was not only not welcomed, he was put to death as a common criminal. He didn’t fit in. He didn’t live up to his friends’ expectations, to say hardly anything about his enemies’ contempt. It took a long time (and it would be fair to say, we are still learning the extent of it) for the world to begin to see that he might be God’s design for a world still reeling from the calamity at the Tower of Babel, where our divisions north and south, east and west, color, religion, and language, have been used to sever the bonds of our common humanity, and pit us brother against brother.
He, that Galilean, does it by taking the hurt and the hate into himself on that cross toward which this Lenten season is tending. And through that cruel wooden instrument he sends into this world a new dispensation of love, strong, strong love, that swallows up the evil we do, insider to outsider or (better) outsider to outsider. Until we can sing with the children of the Aramaen a song attributed to Ruth’s great-grandson, paraphrased by Isaac Watts from Psalm 23, that we are “no more a stranger nor a guest, but like a child at home.”
Wanderers no more we thrive within the heart of God. A hope, a promise toward which this life is tending.