Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Ephrem the Syrian and the Parables (part 3)

Ephrem the Syrian

Similar to Ephrem’s interpretation of the Rich Man and Lazarus parables, his reading of the Good Samaritan also stresses God’s command to extend mercy to everyone in need. Ephrem argues that the historical context (e.g., the logistics of travel from Jerusalem to Jericho) indicates that the wounded man was a Jew, which means that he “became a reproach to the priests and the Levites on account of the Samaritan, because they did not take pity on the son of their people.” The Law commands the priests and Levites to show compassion; they did not, but the Samaritan did. Therefore, Jesus’ parable declares that one’s neighbor is anyone in need of any race, even from among one’s enemies, not just “the son of one’s [own] race.” The lack of allegorization in Ephrem’s interpretation is striking, especially in comparison to other early interpretations such Augustine’s, although in Ephrem’s Hymns on the Church (33.3), he appears to compare the role of the Samaritan to the role of Jesus; they both bend down in mercy to help the wounded one.

One of Ephrem’s major works, Hymns on the Pearl, focuses on the parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matt. 13:45-46; Gospel of Thomas 76). In this work, found toward the end of his Hymns on Faith, Ephrem develops the image of salvation as a precious pearl (McVey 1987: 11). He begins:

On a certain day a pearl did I take up, my brethren;
I saw in it mysteries pertaining to the Kingdom;
Semblances and types of the Majesty;
It became a fountain, and I drank out of it mysteries of
            the Son (1.1).

Ephrem moves beyond the image of the parable as symbolizing the kingdom of Heaven to other “mysteries.” The primary focus of these mysteries—which include Truth (1.1; 2.1, 3.4, 5.4, 6.2, 7.3), faith (3.5), the church (1.1, 6.7, 7,7), the Eucharist (1.2), Mary (1.1), baptism (2.1, 5.3), and virginity (1.1, 3.4)—involves the body of Christ:

In its brightness I beheld the Bright One who cannot
            be clouded,
And in its pureness a great mystery,
Even the Body of Our Lord which is well-refined:
In its undivideness I saw the Truth
Which is undivided.

Thee He used as a parable of that kingdom, O pearl!
As He did the virgins that entered into it, five in number,
Clothed with the light of their lamps!
To thee are those bright ones like, thou that art clad in
light! (3.4)

In these hymns about salvation, Ephrem includes warnings about falling into heresy; he employs the Wheat and Weeds parable in one such warning. True faith is continuous from Abraham, the prophets, and the apostles (7.1), but heretics, deceived by Satan, cannot understand the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the true faith, and they subvert orthodox teachings (7.2):

Satan saw that the Truth strangled him,
And united himself to the tares,
And secreted his frauds,
And spread his snares for the faith,
And cast upon the priests the darts of the love of preeminence (7.3).  

He sowed tares,
And the bramble shot up in the pure vinyard! (sic)
He infected the flock,
And the leprosy broke out,
And the sheep became hired servants of his!
He began in the People,
And came unto the Gentiles, that he might finish (7.4).

Ephrem declares that these heretics incorrectly believe that Jesus is “only a Son of man” and  envision him as either a “creature or of a thing made.” They refuse to recognize that Jesus himself “was the Maker” (7.5).

For Ephrem, then, symbols are polyvalent and multifaceted; one meaning does not exhaust their potential, and one meaning does not exclude another meaning. The pearl symbolizes the kingdom of heaven, but the image of the pearl also serves as a door that opens and reveals many facets of the “Truth” and symbolizes not only the kingdom but also Christ, faith, the virgin birth, his crucifixion, and many other things. As the first stanza indicates, the symbol of the pearl serves as an invitation to—and as the starting point for—meditation (Brock 1992: 56). As Ephrem writes, the pearl “became a fountain, and I drank out of it mysteries of the Son” (1.1).

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