Auxiliary Bishop Sylvester David offers his prayer and reflection for the people of the Archdiocese of Cape Town for today, Friday 2 July 2021, during this time of the Coronavirus pandemic. It is also available on the Archdiocese of Cape Town’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Please also see below the text of his reflection, primarily for the deaf.
Reflection on the first reading of today’s Mass (Genesis 23:1-4,19; 24:1-8,62-67).
The Old Testament is fascinating and filled with literary gems which fire up the imagination. The narratives are constructed in such a way as to draw the reader into the world created by the text – a forgotten art in these days of instant messaging and shortened formatting of messages. The idea for the bible reader is not so much to resolve issues as it is to live in the world created by the text and through that process to negotiate the struggles we experience in our present situations. Sometimes, when reading the text one has to contend with non resolution for such is the nature of mystery. At other times, one is consoled – but all the while the Bible reading nourishes our faith life. And so, as I normally do in these reflections, I encourage you to read the text which the Church gives to us for our growth in faith.
Our reading for today is a selection of verses from two chapters of Genesis. The reading starts with the death of one matriarch (Sarah) and ends with the arrival of another matriarch (Rebecca). In between we see Abraham the man of faith negotiating a burial plot for his deceased wife. This is an exercise in external relations which seem so remote on today’s international stage. Abraham, who is held up as a model of faith and obedience, expresses his insufficiency to foreigners – the sons of Heth, a descendant of Noah, and whose name means the one whom God has strengthened. He is appropriately named as he uses his strength to console a stranger. It is important to note that the reading presents Abraham as having been blessed by God in every way (Genesis 24:1) – and yet this blessed man was not self absorbed in any way. In Genesis 23:5ff we see the humility of this patriarch. He acknowledges his dependency and also the sovereignty of those he negotiates with. If only this model of dealing with neighbours in today’s world could be practiced, we will have fewer wars, quarrels and the trading of insults.
Another negotiation in the text is the finding of a wife for Isaac. Once again, decency and extreme hospitality prevail. Laban – the brother of Rebecca, discerns that this is the way of the Lord (Genesis 24:50) and hence no interference can hinder it. Rebecca’s name is significant. It means ‘to tie firmly’ and also ‘to ensnare’. Later in the text (cf. Genesis 27) she will dupe Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing his elder brother Esau was entitled to. This was not duplicity on her part – it was a mere acting out of what had been revealed to her by God in Genesis 25:23. The matriarch was not passive, but was an active agent in bringing about God’s plan. The younger receiving the benefit of the elder is a famous theme in the Bible and shows that God works through the small and the humble. We see this clearly in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). It is interesting in our story for today that the name of the well (Lahai Roi) is: “the well of the one who lives and sees me”. The indication is that God witnesses the negotiation – lending credibility to the well worn saying that marriages are made in heaven.
Once again the story helps us to understand the struggle for power even between siblings (cf. Genesis 25:22-23). Even in the chosen patriarchal family there was struggle. However through negotiation rather than avoidance, denial and the generation of false narratives; God’s purpose is achieved. The promise God made to Abraham is set to continue. The call and response dialogue indicates that entitlement theories are foreign to the missionary spirit in the Bible as Abraham purchased a burial plot on foreign soil. He must have been grateful that the Canaanites did not put up a wall to keep the neighbours out. Biblical neighbourliness demands acceptance of otherness. South Africa comprises a mosaic of different cultures and creeds and where the rights of any group are trampled on or cancelled, it makes for extreme unhappiness and causes immeasurable suffering. But where the spirit of unbuntu is practiced we see humanity at its absolute best. For those who are not South African ubuntu comes from our national lexicon and is a term which refers to the qualities of compassion and neighbourliness. Nelson Mandela is a prime example of someone who embodied this spirit.
Let us pray: Lord, from the beginning the Bible testifies to hospitality and the acceptance of otherness. Help us to embrace these values so that lasting peace may endure. Your Son himself became refugee in a foreign land when the murderous Herod planned his assault on innocence. Help us to treat all your children as brothers and sisters whom you love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.