When I lead a session of lectio divina in a parish, I often quote a fourth-century Christian writer who is unknown to most of us. He comes from a place, a time, and even a church with which few of us are familiar.
Obscure though he may be to us, this ancient figure has much to teach us about reading the Bible. And so, I’d like to introduce you to the Church Father who is known as St. Ephrem the Syrian. First, a bit of background about the Christian world in which he lived.
Toward the East. In the days immediately following the first Pentecost, the gospel began to spread throughout the world, beginning in Jerusalem. It traveled westward, through western Turkey and Greece, reaching Rome through the preaching of Peter and Paul. The first Christians in this area—the arc from Jerusalem to Rome—received the gospel in Greek and later in Latin.
But the gospel also traveled eastward. It spread into modern-day Syria, eastern Turkey, and Iraq, and down along the eastern coast of India, where today ancient Christian churches trace themselves back to the apostle Thomas. In these areas east of Jerusalem, the first Christians heard the gospel preached in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Ephrem was born into this Aramaic-speaking Christian community as it was entering its golden age, in the fourth century. Early sources tell us that he was a deacon and catechist who lived a life of exemplary moderation and simplicity. We also know that he spent his last ten years in the ancient city of Edessa (modern-day Sanliurfa in southeastern Turkey), which was an important center of Eastern Christianity and scholarship. In fact, Ephrem was Edessa’s most famous Christian citizen—renowned for his writings, but also for his care for those afflicted by a famine that struck Edessa in 373.
A Poet-Theologian. Ephrem has long been honored as a saint (his feast day is June 9), and because of his theological insights, Pope Benedict XV also declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1920. The pope praised Ephrem’s outstanding knowledge of Scripture and said that he and St. Jerome were a pair of shining lights, “one illuminating the West, the other the East.”
Unlike Jerome, who wrote in Latin, Ephrem wrote his hymns, homilies, and biblical commentaries in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. Also unlike Jerome, Ephrem liked to use poetry to express theological truths. For example, here is how he recalls the excitement he felt as he began reading the Bible:
I read the opening of this book
and I was overjoyed.
Its verses and its lines
spread their arms.
The first one eagerly wanted to kiss me
And it drew me onward toward its
companion. (Hymns on Paradise 5:3)
Don’t we sometimes share Ephrem’s experience? When God’s word comes alive, we too feel embraced and drawn in. We too feel a sense of joy and a desire to read further.
Pondering with Ephrem. Ephrem read the Bible with extraordinary attention and intensity, at times focusing his attention on what might seem to us a minor detail. For example, while reading the Good Samaritan parable, he noticed that Jesus set the story in a particular geographical location: “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho” (Luke 10:30).
Can you think of another gospel parable set in such a specific place in Israel? The sower and the seed, the prodigal son, and the rich man and Lazarus come to mind, but these take place in more general locations—a field, a house, a gate. The fact is that Jesus set only two of his parables in a specific geographical place: the Good Samaritan, and the Pharisee and the tax collector, which unfolds in the Temple in Jerusalem (Luke 18:9-14).
Because Ephrem probably knew the gospels by heart, the setting for the good Samaritan parable jumped out at him. Why did Jesus name the cities between which the man was traveling? What was he trying to tell us?
A Detail Makes the Difference. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho was in the region of Judea, a long way from the place where Samaritans lived. Ephrem concluded that the person beaten by robbers and lying half dead on the roadside was a local Jew. This insight brings the challenge of the parable into sharp focus.
The traveling Samaritan on the Judean road is a foreigner, and an unwelcome one at that. Remember that when Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-42), John points out how unusual this interaction is. He underlines the social distance between the two groups: “Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans.” Sure enough, when the disciples return to find their master in conversation with this Samaritan, they are astonished (John 4:9, 27). Jesus is crossing a cultural divide!
So is the Good Samaritan. When he sees the wounded Jew along the road, he could well feel justified in crossing over to the other side. After all, a gulf of prejudice and religious hatred separates their two communities. But the Samaritan sees not an enemy to be shunned but a brother in need. He sees what he and the wounded Jew share in common—their fragile humanity—and that becomes the bridge he crosses to care for his brother in need.
As for the wounded Jew, we may wonder what he is thinking when this foreigner approaches him! Normally, he would have shrunk from contact with a Samaritan. But in his dire need, his own prejudices and hatreds vanish. The two men become brothers.
Power in the Parable. By noticing the easily overlooked detail—“from Jerusalem to Jericho”—Ephrem opens up this parable so that its message comes to the surface, and the life-changing power of the gospel bursts in. This is the moment when, as Pope Francis puts it, God “sends his Spirit into our hearts to make us his children, transforming us and enabling us to respond to his love by our lives” (The Joy of the Gospel, 112).
This is the Spirit who entered Ephrem’s heart, both transforming and inspiring him to release the power of the gospel for the people of his day. Now Ephrem helps us, so that the same Spirit can enter our hearts and change us as we read God’s word.
What does this transformation look like? To mention only one current example, we can see the effects of lifelong reflection on the gospel in Pope Francis himself. Just after his election, he worried about the Swiss guards who stand at his door all night. To celebrate his birthday, he entertained the homeless; in July of last year he traveled to Lampedusa, Italy, to personally welcome illegal immigrants fleeing war and poverty. Like the Good Samaritan, Pope Francis crosses invisible boundaries that we have created in our world, and he encourages us to do the same.
Realistic, Reassuring Advice. Ephrem’s careful way of reading Scripture might leave us thinking, “How can I do this? It’s hard to notice every detail.” I often hear this lament from avid readers of the Bible, and Ephrem must have heard it too. While writing his commentary on the gospels, he paused to offer a word of encouragement that is just as helpful today as it was in the fourth century.
He begins by asking God, “Who is able to plumb the depths of possibilities of one of your words?” The question reminds us that any biblical passage is so deep and powerful that we will never grasp it sufficiently. The Bible is like a fountain, Ephrem suggests: “We leave behind more than we take, like thirsty people drinking from a fountain.” Whatever we receive from a particular passage is not the only meaning to be found there. New insights, new meanings, keep bubbling up to the surface. It would be silly to think that we could drink the fountain dry!
And so, Ephrem concludes, “Rejoice in what you have taken away, and do not complain that so much is left over. What you have taken away is your portion. What still remains is your inheritance.” In other words, make the most of whatever drink you have received for today; there’s always more waiting for you tomorrow.
I pass along St. Ephrem’s helpful advice whenever I hear folks worry that they’re not getting everything out of a passage like the Good Samaritan. I hope his wisdom can guide you as well.
Read the text with utmost attention. Notice all the details you can. Then rejoice in the insights the Spirit gives you. Rejoice that this passage can transform you now, in this very moment! Don’t feel frustrated about all that you have yet to discover. Don’t worry that you haven’t got the “right” interpretation. Your desire to deepen your love and understanding of God’s word will bring you back to it again and again. And God will show you more each time.
Craig E. Morrison, a Carmelite priest, teaches Aramaic and biblical interpretation at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. St. Ephrem’s family of churches lives on today. See below for more information.
St. Ephrem’s Family of Churches
The ancient Syriac-Aramaic Christian tradition that gave rise to St. Ephrem lives on today in several Eastern churches.
The West Syrians are Christians who belong to either the Syrian Catholic Church, which is in union with Rome, or the Syrian Orthodox Church. Both grew out of the early Christian community in Antioch (Acts 11:26) and surrounding areas—present-day Syria and southern Turkey. Because of the region’s turbulent history of war and persecution, these two churches together have fewer than half a million members worldwide.
The Maronites had their beginnings as a distinct community in the fourth century, when disciples gathered around St. Maron, a monk living near Aleppo, in Syria. Several centuries later, their descendants moved to Lebanon, establishing a Syriac-speaking church in union with the Bishop of Rome. Today the Maronite Catholic Church has more than three million members worldwide.
The East Syrians began developing their Christian way of life and liturgy in the first-century Persian empire—what is now eastern Syria, Iraq, and northwestern Iran. Some of their descendants today belong to the Assyrian Church of the East, which separated from Rome after the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431). The majority are members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, which returned to union with Rome in the sixteenth century. With their homelands a battlefield, many of the million or so Chaldean and Assyrian Christians now live in other parts of the world.
The Thomas Christians trace their origins back to St. Thomas the Apostle, who preached the gospel in India. Numbering about ten million worldwide, they belong to some seven different churches, two of which are in union with Rome: the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church.
All of these ancient churches have diaspora communities in Europe, Australia, and the Americas. Why not look up these brothers and sisters in Christ and join them for worship one Sunday