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Frances Young’s Bible Studies
The following is a resume of what Frances Young said in her two Bible-study sessions, taken with her permission from her own notes.
1)The three readings for this session were:
Old Testament: 2 Samuel 9
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11: 17-end
Gospel: Mark 6: 30-46.
The OT story of Mephibosheth, otherwise called Meribaal (‘The Lord is Advocate’: the Hebrews refused to call him ‘baal’ and renamed him ‘bosheth’, i.e. ‘shame’). M is son of David’s close bosom-friend Jonathan. He is disabled (hence the shame) because he was lamed when his nurse dropped him, as they fled on hearing of the deaths of King Saul and of Jonathan. Subsequently David, now king himself, shows kindness to M by giving him Saul’s lands, and arranging for Saul’s servant Ziba to farm them on M’s behalf. He also arranges for M to eat at the royal table. But is this just kindness? Or is it also a means for keeping an eye on M, who after all, as a direct descendant of Saul, has some claim to the royal title himself, and might therefore be a threat? That David’s motives are mixed is revealed by M’s
failure, during the revolt of David’s son Absalom, to retreat from Jerusalem with the king. Ziba had played on David’s fears by suggesting that M hoped to profit from the revolt, and gain the kingdom himself. As a result, David dispossesses M and gives the lands to Ziba.
When the revolt has been crushed, M comes with others to pay homage to David, and prostrates himself before the king. But Ziba has been hinting that M is after the throne. M appears unwashed and dishevelled, claiming that Ziba has deprived him of his donkey – i.e. his ‘wheel-chair equivalent’. David is unsure whom to believe, and divides the inheritance between the two of them. Yet when a neighbouring tribe demands the deaths of all Saul’s descendants, David spares M because of the oath sworn between himself and Jonathan, son of Saul.
This is a story of mixed motives and fraught relationships. M is marginalised not only by his disability, but also by David’s patronage and charity. But apart from the story’s implications for the right treatment of the disabled, it is also a study of the politics of power and its transference. Eating at the king’s table may not be the privilege it seems to be. Hence the link to Paul’s message to the Corinthians, which is also about whom we are prepared to eat with. The story in 2 Samuel shows that we can sit at table without being in communion with the other guests. Paul sees that we need the person we can’t cope with, to help us confront our failure. But he also sees the death of Christ as potentially transforming, by taking away our fig-leaves so that we are not ashamed any more but are able to welcome those we are unsure of, and to eat with them.
As members of a society divided by race and privilege, resistant to asylum seekers and strangers, we are still wearing our fig-leaves. And the act of sharing in the eucharist judges us, as we continue with our inability to abandon suspicion, shame, guilt, demeaning charity, insecurity and fear. Yet, as he insists, the new creation is always breaking in, as Mark’s chapter 6: 30-46 reveals. Jesus had come into a world full of conflict. But Mark’s story is of the superabundant generosity of God, who provides twelve baskets of food over and above what the crowd needed. Jesus acts out of compassion: the crowd truly eats at the king’s table. This episode is a sign, not of some utopia tomorrow but of the new reality which can be glimpsed today.
2) Second Bible study readings:
Old Testament: Genesis 21: 2-21
Epistle: Galatians 4:21-5:1
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32
The arrival of Isaac (Sarah’s child of promise) creates a potential battle for inheritance with Ishmael, the first-born who is driven out with his mother Hagar. Hence the subsequent battle of two great nations, the Jews and the Arabs. Genesis shows how the bitterest conflicts come from kinship and likeness. There is a link between family disputes and tribal, national and racial conflicts, as we see today in the legacies of Isaac and Ishmael between Jews and Arabs. (cf. the sibling-rivalry sagas of David and Saul, Jacob and Esau, the brothers of Joseph – all coloured by the tribal relations in the centuries of their being handed down). Such sibling rivalries often submerge our concerns about the stranger, the outsider, the marginalised, as illustrated in the example given above in I). But the Bible insists that Israel has to accept the outsider because of her own ‘outsider’ experience, in Egypt and Babylon, while (contrary to the way most societies have behaved: as witness the Scottish v. Irish Celts, the Balkan communities, the Middle East today) it recognises at the same time the conflicts of siblings who are too close and too alike for comfort.
In Galatians Paul uses the Sarah/Hagar conflict in an astonishing way, by identifying the law given on Sinai (Torah) with slavery (Hagar’s situation), and contrasting it with the freedom of Sarah and the divine promise. For Paul, contemporary Jerusalem corresponds to the slave-woman, over against the ‘Jerusalem above’ which corresponds to the freedom of Sarah. Paul’s Gentile converts are the children of this promise, whom the Jews, children of slavery, are persecuting, and whom the Christians must therefore drive out. Religious claims and religious identity thus correspond to sibling rivalry, leading to a point where lies a future of legitimated anti-semitism. This raises huge questions not only about the interpretation, and the future of the text, but about the way religious and ethnic claims reinforce each other. Identity easily becomes a communal consensus under which the individual is ready to allow the community’s claims and needs to over-ride his/her own. Collective identity becomes consensus against another group. The Bible itself thus helps to create such transhistorical identities over time: Jews v. Arabs = Isaac v Ishmael (Genesis); Christians v. Jews = Isaac v. Ishmael (Paul). The question is: how are such deadly identities to be broken?
This is where the parable of the Prodigal Son comes into play. Luke sees the elder son as the Jews, and the Prodigal as gentile/Christian. The elder is distinguished by faithfulness and dutifulness, the younger by his self-regarding fickleness. This leads to a traditional identification of the two as the Pharisee v. the sinner. Jealousy arises when the sinner is preferred, leading to the elder’s self-righteousness and thus to sibling rivalry. But now the father (=God) insists on receiving the younger with feasting and joy, while requiring the elder not only to recognise his own continuing status within the family and his father’s love, but also to open up to the renegade, who has consorted with pigs (i.e. become alien) but has now repented and returned.
Receiving forgiveness transforms relationships, and is difficult because you have to admit to a need for it. The receiving is a pre-condition of the giving. Only God can forgive.
The question of reparations and of oppression and victimisation are beyond the scope of the parable, but are embedded in the discourse on atonement. This requires us to see the Galatians story in a larger context. Paul argument is that God’s grace transcends all human claims, whether on God or on ourselves. God receives us as we are, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek. He doesn’t cancel identity, but overlays it with a new creation, thus overcoming the identities which we ourselves construct, and which inevitably cause differentiation. Jesus had to make reparation, bear the curse, in order to dissolve the enslaving force and make possible the new creation. But for Paul, this new creation and the present evil age overlap: we have to live as if it were already the reality. We have to become what we are. The Bible thus reflects and reinforces the conflicts of the old world, while at the same time creating the new world. We are not called out of our former identities, but are called into a transcending identity. But does not this new identity lose its credibility when it in turn becomes yet another reinforcement of exclusive claims to Christian superiority?