BY TERESA PIROLA
Late last year, I saw the news headline and laughed aloud. “Vatican appeals for more scandalous homilies.” Not the usual counsel one hears emanating from the Vatican! In this case the call for enlivened preaching, drawing on the graphic stories and ‘scandal’ in the bible, came from Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Well, if it’s biblical ‘scandal’ that will help spice up a homily, then the Book of Genesis has got to be a homilist’s best friend. Let’s take a few examples from the family life of the great patriarchs and matriarchs:
As Abraham ‘goes forth’ on his divinely inspired journey, he tells his beautiful wife Sarah to pose as his sister. Why? So that a local king can have his way with Sarah without seeing Abraham as a threat!
Later we find Sarah insisting that her husband have sex with her servant Hagar in order to produce an heir. Then, when things don’t work out the way she planned, Sarah convinces Abraham to banish Hagar and her child to the desert wilderness - effectively a death sentence.
A generation later, Rebekah and Jacob (mother and son) conspire in a deception that sends shock waves through the family.
Then Jacob himself is deceived. He gets a rude awakening the morning after his wedding night to discover that the woman he thought he had just slept with (Rachel) was in fact her sister Leah!
Further, the problems among Jacob’s children abound. Joseph enters the story as a spoilt, arrogant, ‘dobbing’ teenager, hated by his brothers who attack him and sell him into slavery. Meanwhile Judah transgresses an incest taboo, and Reuben has had a sexual encounter with his father’s concubine.
By this stage we have read too of the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, and the massacre that follows when Dinah’s brothers take justice into their own hands, vigilante-style.
And all this before we reach the end of the first book of the bible! Phew.
Even taking into account the customs of ancient cultures, one can be forgiven for wondering how our ancestors could have viewed these stories as the divinely inspired Word of God... What were they thinking?!
Well, if it were me I’d be thinking that the biblical storytelling is masterful in capturing the human complexities with which God has to work. Life is not a neat formula-existence involving perfectly behaved people. It can be messy. Confusing. And... profoundly graced.
Not only does God draw close to us in and through the fragile human condition, God brings forth wonders. It is through such an ancestry, faithful yet flawed, that Jesus emerges. If you have ever felt dispirited by family dysfunction or parish scandal, hey—read Genesis and be mightily encouraged!
At another level, too, the timeless ‘shock value’ of scripture keeps before us the real depths of human existence, lest we turn faith into formula, intimacy into loveless duty, mission into boredom. To explore the ‘scandal’ narratives of the bible is to enter into conversation with the unpredictable, wildly surprising, table-turning, ever-living Word of God.
In this regard, in my own life as a Catholic I have discovered traditional Jewish approaches to the bible to be a goldmine of insight. Where I might be tempted to skirt around the edges of the Hebrew Scriptures (‘Old Testament’), I find generations of Jewish sages plunging headlong into the biblical jungle.
For them, every perplexing twist in the storyline is an exciting invitation to discern spiritual meaning. They probe, ponder, question, imagine... They creatively ‘fill in the blanks’ with further storytelling (Midrash) where the text is silent or begs elaboration.
They argue with one another, not in a spirit of conflict but in a common search for an ever-deeper grasp of the truth of what the sacred text might be saying. And if they agree on one thing it is that no single interpretation can exhaust the inexhaustible mystery of God.
There is much we can learn from the sheer brilliance of Jewish interpretative traditions, which is why I revel in my ministry which encourages Catholic parishioners to discover the vitality and, yes, the ‘scandal’ of the bible with the help of Jewish wisdom.
Image: 'Sarah Presenting Hagar to Abraham' by Adriaen van der Werff (1659-1722).
Teresa Pirola is a Sydney-based freelance faith-educator and founder/coordinator of the Light of Torah ministry.
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