Quo Vadis Petre?

Quo Vadis Petre?

Peter trembled and fumbled over his words, uncompleted words, and it was only when Christ put his hand upon Peter’s shoulder was he able to bring himself, at best, under control, but he was unable to take his eyes off the face of the Master in which Peter recognised the inconceivable sorrow and broken-heartedness he had witnessed at the last supper. Continue reading Quo Vadis Petre?

Evil cannot be cured through exclusion.

Evil cannot be cured through exclusion.

Those who pay the price for evils and injustices are the just, not the unjust. The world is full of people, whom we do not even consider as such, who are paid for the evil done by others: they are the excluded.
In ancient times lepers were the excluded ‘par excellence: one who has been stripped of all dignity as a person, a non-person. The leper is perceived as a walking corpse, which slowly deforms and whoever touches it is quite easily contaminated: the leper represents absolute evil and visible death. The law of the leper is complete exclusion, ostracism, banishment: they were the ordinary citizen dead, the living dead, not yet physically dead but cut off from any and all family ties and relationships. The leper also represented that fundamental death which is solitude followed by that real death, illness, which was the cause for exclusion.
The leper is an extremely powerful image to expose to view, that humanity lives its entire existence accompanied by a fear of death and that, moving forward, they become old, and if all goes according to plan, will loose only a few bits and pieces. In some respects, therefore, life is nothing more than decay: a discarding of the flesh and then, first and foremost that profound form of leprosy which is expulsion, solitude and exclusion.
Jesus Heals the Leper
Mark 1:40-44A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”

Jesus then sent him away at once, after first sternly warning him, “See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.” 

We are witnesses to a multitude of transgressions. The first being that the leper actually approaches Jesus: the lepers where prohibited from approaching let alone getting close to someone. The second, surprisingly, is that Jesus physically touches him: healthy citizens were prohibited  from touching lepers, otherwise they too would become unclean. Thirdly, we are  filled with wonder at what Jesus actually said to the leper “See that you tell no one anything about this” and then sends the leper away in order that he may present himself to the priests at the temple … sorry… hang on a minute… am I not to say anything to anyone or should I speak? The fourth being that the leper, instead of making his way into Jerusalem, goes to announce the good news. The fifth is that from that moment onward Jesus stays away and tends to remain in deserted places, just like the lepers who are made to stay away from everyone and have to live in deserted places, far from villages, towns, cities, a total exclusion from the human community.

“A man with leprosy approached and, kneeling before him, begged him, “If you choose to do so, you can make me clean.” 

We have a right to go to God. Not because we are good, beautiful or even true adherents of Christianity. All that excludes us from life is the title we have to go toward God: just as someone would go to a doctor when  they are ill. Over the years I’ve heard many people say “I’m not worthy”: no; instead, this is the only title we have. A leper, therefore, embodies every human being and their leprosy and consequently, a leper is every human with his lepers, their banishment, their solitude, the feelings of guilt they are burdened with.
The leper supplicates, on his knees. Man for himself is in vocation and prayer. Falling to his knees, he lets go of his modesty: we always seem to be ashamed to ask and recognize that our limitation is our need for others. This person finally wants, prays for a beautiful and good life, integrated, physically and socially and religiously and with all of humanity. The word prayer has the same root word as precarious ‘precārium’ to entreaty or petition: it means that you can live on what someone else has given you and can also take away from you again, but he has given it to you. All of us basically live off what the other gives us, our existence is based upon the relationship that others grant us. If they cut us off, we are finished.
So, every relationship is the object of prayer: you cannot misappropriate a relationship if it's not a relationship. Prayer is the fundamental covenant of humanity; an animal will simply take something they want by force if its stronger, whilst a person tends to asks for something they want. What satisfies is not that you have stolen or taken something, but that which is given to you out of love or mercy, out of goodness. This is the essence and significance of prayer which exists within every single relationship. We are all precarious in the sense that it actually constitutes who we are, aware of the limits, of the need we have for others and therefore the request, ‘the prayer.’ In every relationships we cannot demand or insist on anything at all from the other because that person would not give it to you: its a gift.

Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

In translations of this passage, one usually reads that Jesus was “moved.” Though many codexes state that he was ireful, angry, and it sounds bad, but if something sounds bad, its generally far more genuine. Jesus gets angry in front of evil, while we resign ourselves. He will also be angry at the Pharisees, at moral evil. Wrath is salvific if it is not against a people but against evil. Also this reading, “Angry,” is quite captivating: when God becomes angry it is always a good sign, it means “I am tired of this now, I have lost my patience, we need to change the situation.” It should be stressed that this feeling of rejection is in regard to the disease, compared to something that makes you a prisoner, with the attitude that seems to have taken hold of a person, but not with the person themselves.
The result of this ire and emotion is Jesus holding out his hand. The hand is power: with a hand God brought Israel out of Egypt, with their hands mankind acts. Using one’s hands and no longer one’s bite are the principles of humanisation. The sensation of touch is the only reciprocal action that exists: I can look but not be seen, listen and not be heard, but if you touch me then I have been touched.
Violation of the law. The law serves to prevent the spread of evil. In the case of leprosy, the first law is that the leper cannot come near anyone, the second is that he must not be touched; and if one does not respect these rules, leprosy spreads and everything is over. Undoubtedly, there is a rationality to this. The law judges a person and condemns them, but it does not save: it condemns not so much the evil committed but the criminal, used as a deterrent against evil. Jesus, on the other hand, does not condemn evildoers but frees them from evil, therefore its no longer the law. Jesus' dissension with the law is not because he believes that the law is wrong, laws indicate whom society considers to be right and who has erred, and those who are sick, yet if one is sick, what would a doctor do? Does he eliminate them? No, he cures them.

Immediately, the leprosy left him and he was cured. Jesus then sent him away at once… 

Jesus touches the leper and the leper touches Him.
It seems surprising that Jesus sends him away. Why? Because there is something far more profound beneath his action: its not as though Jesus heals a person in order to get something in return or to make someone his dependant. When Jesus redeems the leper from isolation, sending the leper back into the fabric of relationships, Jesus hands him back his freedom as a person.

“See that you tell no one anything about this. Just go and show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed. That will be proof for them.”  

Jesus wasn't seeking fame or notoriety, nor for people to come to him in order for a miracle to be performed: Jesus was far more interested in people living as children of God, as brothers and sisters. When Jesus’ asks the leper “not say anything to anyone,” almost immediately the opposite happens: in fact, the law prescribes the exclusion of lepers and that any healing that may have occurred must be confirmed by a priest [When duly confirmed as the Law requires (see Leviticus 14:2-3), the cure of a leper will attest to the priests the power of Jesus over an evil that destroys humans]. Now we shine a light on upon that controversy, being against the law it becomes a constant within the following passages: there is one who has transgressed the law of exclusion because he has touched the leper, and the leper has touched him, yet the leprosy was cured. This testifies to the fact that there is something other than the law: it is the gospel, the good news. The good news is that man can finally be free and therefore enables them to re-establish their relationships.

Cover picture by Davide Disca, «Benedizione», watercolour on handmade paper, 34 x 34 cm, © 2011

Continue reading “Evil cannot be cured through exclusion.”
Ruth the Moabite. Woman, brave foreigner, mother.

Ruth the Moabite. Woman, brave foreigner, mother.

The good are: the one’s who listen and put the Word of God into practice“.

A Commentary on the Biblical Book of Ruth —מגילת רות, Megilath Ruth, “the Scroll of Ruth”, and one of the Five Megillot—.

For the last few days I have quite randomly been chivvied by my inner voice to re-read the book of Ruth. I’m not at all sure what prompted the situation, yet on those rare and few occasions that I have been ‘prompted’ I have learnt the hard way, that it is best to not ignore it and do as prompted. So somewhat worrying as to how it might be perceived — here I write my very first ever biblical commentary on any book, starting with the book of Ruth, which, within the canons of the Christian churches is treated as a historical book. I learnt more about Ruth —after-all, women have often been overlook by the patriarchs.

Women have left their footprints in the desert sands of the early testament days and upon Christendom— therefore should we not get to know them better?

“Ruth from the Kingdom of 𐤌𐤀𐤁 Moab. Woman, stranger and mother” 

The Book of Ruth describes her story, set in Judea at the time of the Judges (X century BC), of a gentile רוּת—Ruth, who was the ideal of piety, but, she was also the great-grandmother of the future King דָּוִד בֶּן יִשַׁי—David ben Yishay. Ruth, who had married a Jew who had emigrated to her country, had left Moab after she was widowed. Deciding to emigrate with her Israelite mother-in-law נָעֳמִי—Naomi, to the land of Israel. When she arrives she is met by a relative of her late husband, בֹּעַז—Boaz, son of שַׂלְמוֹן— Śalmōn and his wife רָחָב—Rahab. Boaz was a wealthy man, a landowner from Bethlehem in Judea, and relative of אלימלך—Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. Don’t you just love O.T. genealogies?  Well, the plot thickens, Boaz unexpectedly decides that he wants to marry Ruth and redeem her from her desperate plight. The recurrent theme of these events throughout, is one of a very strong bond which exists between the young widow and her mother-in-law Naomi, also a widow, a bond that will ensure that the two women are never separated even during the most desperate of moments. Ruth, still a young woman sacrifices her last chance to rebuild a life in he homeland of Moab in order to remain and care for Naomi now a frail old woman.

The Names of Old Testament women in the New Testament

(Matthew 1:2-16 and Luke 3:23-38)

Among the many names in the genealogy of Jesus, with which Matthew begins his Good Announcement, unlike what almost always happened in Jewish genealogies, there are women’s names.

And these are quite particular women; not of those that exemplify the house of Israel, like those great figures of Rachel, Leah, Sarah.

Instead, and ‘In their place’ we find the names of Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and that of Bathsheba the wife of ‘Uriah’ the Hittite, and later of David.

It certainly cannot be a coincidence that Matthew places them in the Saviours genealogy, “forgetting” those who appear as the authentic “mothers” of Israel. The four he mentions are all, in one way or another, “last” women; but precisely in that “the last will be the first” and “God has chosen the poor, the weak of this world”.

Tamar daughter-in-law of Judah is mentioned in Genesis Ch. 38.

She is the wife of the firstborn of Judah, Er, the mother of Perez and Zerah, the ancestor of David and Boaz, the latter figure that we will find in the Book of Ruth. Rejected by Er, Tamar is forced to prostitute herself in order to have a son by Judas. The first woman that Matthew remembers is therefore forced to such an act to ensure that her offspring will lead to the same Saviour.

Rahab is a famed prostitute of Jericho. Knowing that the Lord has assigned her land to Israel, she confesses “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” (Joshua 2:11), and hides in her house those scouts whom Joshua had sent to Jericho to prepare for their conquest, thus rescuing them from capture and certain death.

Bathsheba is a sign of one of David’s mortal sins. Lusted after with indomitable passion by David, she is however also the wife of Uriah the Hittite. David desired her and made her pregnant. To conceal his sin, David summoned Uriah from the army in the hope that Uriah would lay with Bathsheba and therefore make him believe that he fathered the child. But Uriah was unwilling to violate the ancient rule which the warriors in active service undertook to remain celibate on campaign. After repeated and unsuccessful efforts by David to persuade Uriah to lay with Bathsheba, David order’s his general Joab, to place Uriah on the front lines of the battle, therefore sending Uriah to his death during the assault against the Ammonites. David did this to hide his sin. This displeased God, who commands Nathan the prophet to go and chastise David. The king ashamed, immediately confesses his sinful act and expressed sincere remorse. God punishes David by taking his new born son by Bathsheba. The unnamed boy, struck down by severe illness died a few days after his birth. David accepts the death as his punishment from God thinking it was over. The prophet Nathan reminds David that his house would further be punished for the murder of Uriah. Bathsheba later gave birth to David’s son Solomon.

Bathsheba is a profoundly different figure from those of Tamar and Rahab. As much as they appear to be effective, industrious and resolute, whilst Bathsheba submissive, meek and silent to us, a figure who suffers mysteriously, involved in events that seem to completely overwhelm her; Bathsheba is unable to prevent or judge.

And now we return to Ruth the Moabite. Among the women of the genealogy mentioned by Matthew she is one of the most disquieting, and quite “rightly” so! Because the First Covenant dedicates a very short yet fulminating book to Ruth from the Kingdom of Moab.

According to Genesis 19:30–38, the forefather of the Moabites was Lot by incest with his eldest daughter. Having escaped from a Sodom engulfed in flames, Lot takes flight with both his daughters to the mountains. His daughters decided to continue their father’s line by having intercourse with him. They get him drunk and lie with him; a situation that to some extent reminds us of Tamar’s own situation. The first of these daughters conceives Moab forefather of the Moabites, while the second daughter conceives Ben-Ammi forefather of the Ammonites. Therefore both, the Ammonite and the Moabite, will be referred to throughout biblical tradition as an incestuous peoples. They would not be allowed to enter the assembly of the Lord: “No Ammonite or Moabite may ever come into the assembly of the Lord, nor may any of their descendants even to the tenth generation come into the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:4). And here it is that a Moabite becomes the ancestor of King David and as a consequence and ancestor of the Messiah himself!

However, even before Matthew, Ruth figured among the ancestor of the great King David, and therefore a small portion, of the great Book is dedicated to her, which in the Hebrew Bible is placed among the כְּתוּבִים — Kəṯûḇîm or “Writings”, together with the Books of Psalms, Proverbs, Job and the Song of Songs. In my opinion this composition is much more in keeping with the character of the Book than our Christian layout, which places it, like the Septuagint, among the historical Books, but for entirely extrinsic reasons. It seems that the Book dates back to the IV-V centuries BC, a very significant period in the history of the Land of the Israelites, a period in which Israel struggles to defend the integrity of its faith against foreigners, cultures and traditions, a period of safeguarding, one might say, following the great catastrophe of exile. And this highlights even more the extraordinariness of the testimony that the Book of Ruth provides us.

Humility that Struggles

The contents of the book are known, but it is worth remembering. A man from Bethlehem in the Kingdom of Judah is forced to emigrate due to famine from his home to the Kingdom of Moab. He emigrates with his wife Naomi meaning “good, pleasant, lovely, winsome,” and also his two children. The family settles in the territory of Moab without any conflict with the natives who reside there (or at least nothing is mentioned), and yet he is mercilessly struck by the Lord. His fate is similar to that of Job. “Without reason” the Lord puts them through the hardest trials and tribulations.

After the death of her husband Naomi, she also has to mourn her children, one of whom was married to Ruth. Naomi then changes her name “Do not call me Naomi [‘Sweet’]. Call me Mara (מרא) ‘Bitter’, for the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20) and she tells Ruth: “my lot is too bitter for you, because the Lord has extended his hand against me.” (Ruth 1:13). Naomi feels utterly abandoned, alone and a stranger in the land of Moab. She invites her two daughters-in-law to abandon her, not to follow her on her desperate return to Judea.

Although saddened by having to abandon her mother-in-law, one of them decides to stay with her people. Ruth, on the other hand, without explaining the reason, apparently without any reason, does not detach herself from Naomi-Mara. “Do not press me to go back and abandon you!Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. Where you die I will die, and there be buried. May the Lord do thus to me, and more, if even death separates me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17). It is an absolutely unpredictable word, made of absolute love, a decision that calculates nothing, that exchanges nothing. Pure gift. And yet it is the testimony of a totally human and earthly love; Ruth unconditionally loves a person of flesh and blood. She did not convert to Naomi’s God, but since she loves Naomi she too makes her God her own. She reaches the God of Israel through love for her neighbour, for her most abandoned neighbour, desperate for her.And therefore Ruth leaves her land with her blood relatives, abandons all of her “her” to give herself entirely to the other.

The Barley of Beth-Lechem

Matthew could not fail to recall in this figure the radical words of the “decision” that Jesus himself made: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor…then come, follow me.”  (cf. Matthew 19:21). So does Ruth: to follow Naomi, Ruth has to abandon her own god Chemosh —revered as supreme god by the Moabites—, Ruth humbles herself to the poorest trades, gathering behind the peasants, collecting that which is left over from the peasants work, just like the poorest of the poor in Israel.

Naomi without a husband and without children; Childless Ruth, widow, and a foreigner at that, not just any foreigner, but a Moabite, one of those incestuous and cursed people who will never enter the assembly of the Lord. Both have been brought down into utter humility: truly humbled into the humus, literally to the “soil, ground”.

But Ruth is of the stock of Tamar and Rahab. Her humility is also made up of struggle. She works in the countryside of Boaz meaning “in him is strength”. Although he is a relative of Naomi, he is not duty bound to look after her family. However, he gives food and work to the Moabite, welcomes her and slowly (mentioned in her story, although with great modesty) he feels affection for this foreigner, until he delivers her from her first relative and takes her as his wife. From the bond between Ruth and Boaz the father of King David’s father will emerge.

Ruth’s Wedding Belt

A disarming achievement

But how could Ruth “conquer” Boaz, the “strong”? Freedom does not come to the inactive nor the unmindful; it comes only to those who ardently want to conquer it. It is written: the kingdom of heaven will be of the “violent”, of the βίαιος (biaios) strong, violent, a Greek term that cannot be translated otherwise, originating from βία (bia), strength, force, violence; only through the narrowest door, is the kingdom of heaven “assailable”.

Therefore Ruth is both perfectly humble and perfectly determined to obtain her liberation. Like a daughter of Lot, she walks into Boaz’s bed to get him. Nor is Boaz surprised that Ruth wants to lie with him; if he does not touch her, it is because he himself understands that he wants her to be his wife and in front of her witnesses he says: “Behold, Ruth has become my bride” (cf. Ruth 4:9-11).

Openness and paradoxical nature of the biblical texts, free from any hypocrisy and moralism, truly free from bad common sense.

Ruth conquers her man with a “scandalous” gesture. And just this is blessed by the Lord! Thus was the son Obed born, who will be the father of Jesse, the father of David.

But this Obed is not only the son of Ruth, he is also the son of Naomi! “Naomi took the boy, cradled him against her breast, and cared for him. The neighbouring women joined the celebration: “A son has been born to Naomi!” (Ruth 4:16-17). They named the boy Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David. The bond between these two women was so great that it seemed as though they both gave birth to one child. I believe that Ruth’s adherence to her mother-in-law in 1:14 is now convey in a heartfelt vow of fealty, reaching its pinnacle in a formulary found frequently within Samuel and Kings; cf. principally 1 Samuel 20:13. Even death would not separate Ruth from Naomi: burial in Naomi’s family tomb means that they would remain together for eternity. The biblical tropes of an old woman, who had lost all, including all hope, yet still managed to give birth, is repeated here. Ruth’s pure gift of love to Naomi is “incarnate”  within Obed.

The sacredness of the foreigner

Let us try to better understand the provocative charge within this book.

First of all, Israel’s exclusivity is “in crisis” here, of which within the Bible itself we find countless testimonies: Israel is alone, she is the pure bride that no one can defile, and so on. In Ruth we find the reverse side of that Great Code: a stranger (not just someone whom we host and who becomes a convert, that is, living with us as a member of the family, someone who is “unified” within us), a true and total foreigner, a stranger who is sacred. God does not want the stranger to harmed or  meddled with. In truth, it is the stranger whom we must love. This is the biblical timbre that will be assumed with univocal purity in the words of Jesus Christ. Love overcomes all, differences of race, people, customs and traditions.

But Ruth’s account poses an infinitely greater radical problem.

We have already stated that Ruth follows Naomi and that only because of Naomi does Ruth convert and adhere to the God of Israel. But who is this God? Making this victorious God your own is simple; in classical antiquity it happened quite regularly; it is well known that when the Romans laid siege to a city, before they destroyed it, they invoked their god’s, invite them to come over to their side, inviting them to enter their Pantheon. It has always been easy to adhere to the god’s of conquerors. Ruth, on the other hand, steadfastly follows Naomi, yet Naomi has been abandoned by her God. Ruth follows the God of the vanquished and shares in the bitterness of his faithful. Thus Jesus on the cross obeys God the Father who abandoned him. Jesus, who was abandoned, wants us to follow the will of God, a God who abandons, the exact opposite of a God who manifests himself through signs of victory.

Let’s go a step further: the God who abandons is, in his essence, a “not my” God, He is a God that I can never “take possession of”. Yet this is the extraordinary truth of the biblical God. The biblical proclamation of a hidden God, of God’s silence, of God’s own “ire” which means nothing more, other than His complete silence and His abandonment of us, which ultimately demonstrates that the truth of the matter is that man’s relationship with God does not nor can it ever be based in terms of acquisition and possession. God can never be made to be an “entity” or “thing” upon which one builds a tranquil abode. God can never be reduced to a level of our firm foundation. And this is where  the fundamental challenge of the book of Ruth lies.

Capable of perfect love she is a foreigner in the land of Israel; she reaches out to the God of Israel only by the virtue of love, or rather: genuine care for one’s neighbour; this God is not “hers”, since God can never be transformed or reduced to a foundation or a possession, because He is the Voice that asks us to follow, He asks us to abandon everything and everyone to follow Him; finally, to follow His Voice, to completely “liberate” ourselves to it, we have to have strength, vitality, we also have to appear “threatening” in the eyes of hypocrites and scribes, to the all “too human” portion of our own “laws”.

Continue reading “Ruth the Moabite. Woman, brave foreigner, mother.”