Welcome the Stranger: A Pentecost Story

April 18, 2018 by Beth Richardson

The Jewish celebration of Shavuot (shah-voo-awt), Pentecost, Feast of Weeks -- is seven weeks after Passover. During Jesus' time, Shavuot was the time when the farmers brought two loaves of bread and first fruits of the land to be dedicated at the Temple.

It was Pentecost, Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. Seven weeks earlier, the Hebrew people had celebrated Passover, remembering that they had been strangers and sojourners in the land of Egypt. Remembering that Egypt had welcomed them and fed them when they had no place to go. But their numbers grew, and they had become slaves of Egypt. And God sent Moses to free them from that slavery.

Passover, the time of early spring planting, when the seed goes into the ground, dies, and is reborn to new life. Passover, the festival when the Hebrews ate only unleavened bread, remembering that they had left Egypt so quickly their bread did not have time to rise. 

Now it was Shavuot, Pentecost, the celebration of the first harvest. God brings forth fruit from the earth to feed God’s children.

The roads to Jerusalem were crowded with people going to the Temple to dedicate to God the first fruits of their labors. Among them were two people from a village in southern Egypt, Beneswafe. Ibrihim, a farmer, and Leyla, his wife, were making their first trip to Jerusalem. Like the other pilgrims, they were carrying a basket filled with figs, grapes, olive oil, honey,  pomegranates, and two loaves of bread. 

Since Passover, lbrihim had counted the seven weeks and watched his crops grow. As his figs matured, he watched for the first fig to ripen. When it ripened, he didn't taste it in the field or take it in for his family to eat at dinner. He tied a string of reed around it to set it apart for God and he said, "Let this be the  first fruit."  

The days before Shavuot were busy ones as lbrihim and Leyla prepared for their long journey. They dried their figs and grapes so that they would not spoil. They prepared food and drink to eat on the way.

Along the road, they stayed at the homes of other Jews who welcomed them as strangers, for they had been strangers who were welcomed to the land of Egypt.

The night before Shavuot, they slept outside the walls of Jerusalem. Early the next morning, they will make their way to the Temple.

Once at the Temple, Ibrihim will stand before the priest, his basket of fruits on his shoulder.  The priest will take the scroll and read from Deuteronomy 26:11. After the reading, Ibrihim will place the basket by the altar, prostrate himself, and depart.

Also during the day, they will hear the reading of the scroll of Ruth … because Ruth’s story is set at the time of the harvest; because King David, the great-grandson of Ruth, was born and died on Shavuot; because Ruth was from  the land of Moab, a stranger who was welcomed into the family of Israel. (Read Ruth 2. Not only was Ruth a foreigner, she was also a Moabite, of whom it was said that no Moabite shall enter the congregation of the Lord. “None of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam … to curse you” [Deut. 23:3-5].)

It was 9 o'clock in the morning. Ibrihim and Leyla had risen early and crowded through the gates of the city of Jerusalem. Now they were walking through the streets with crowds of people headed toward the Temple. Everywhere they looked they saw people with baskets of first fruits. Most of the people carried baskets of willow. But sometimes they caught a glimpse of a basket made of silver or gold and carried by a person dressed in fine robes. 

All around them, they smelled the sweet scent of grapes and pomegranates and the smell of people who had walked a long way to get there. And all around them, they heard the noises of the city: people selling their wares, children laughing as they ran through the crowd, and people speaking languages they could not understand. They had not talked to anyone in their own language since the second night of their journey.

Leyla remembered the story of the tower of Babel and thought to herself, “Surely this must have been what the Tower of Babel sounded like!”

Ibrihim and Leyla stayed close together as they walked through the city. They did not want to get separated in this strange place. As they passed through a small square, they could sense a movement, an excitement in the crowd. When they looked over to one side of the square they saw a glow above one house. It was almost as if the house was on fire. But as they looked a little closer they could see that –- yes –- there were flames. But the flames were not attached to the house. It was as if the flames were dancing in the air. And then they heard a noise and they felt a wind starting to rush around their heads.

Ibrihim, if he stood very tall, could see that underneath the flames was a small group of men. The men were shouting, all of them at once, and the people around them were listening closely. The crowd turned almost as one  toward the glow and toward the men and, in awe, the crowd fell silent.

As the silence fell, Ibrihim and Leyla could hear words and phrases coming to them on the wind. Words in their own language. Phrases from an ancient story that they knew: ''In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab. …” (Ruth 1:1)

They could see that all those around them were hearing the same story. And all listened with new understanding to a story of covenant, to a story of great love. “So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife … and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, ‘Blessed be the LORD, who had not left you this day without next of kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. And the women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, ‘A son had been born to Naomi.’ They named him Obed; he was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:13-17)

Of course, we don't really know what it was that they heard from the Galileans. But we do know what they did: “Many of them believed [the] message and were baptized, and about three thousand people were added to the group that day. They spent their time in learning from the apostles, taking part in the fellowship, and sharing in the fellowship meals and the prayers. … All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions, and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their home, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God, and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:41-42, 44-47, TEV)

And they called it The Church.

From Alive Now May/June 1990. Copyright © 1990 by The Upper Room.

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