Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Thomas B. Woodward
Everyone here knows my policy of refusing to exclude groups just because they irritate me; but I am close to reconsidering on the matter of statisticians. Now there is a profession for people with time on their hands!
Someone had contracted with a group of these people to do a survey on new arrivals – and the preliminary report took up a whole staff meeting. The big question was “Who or what is the first thing you want to know when you arrive?” The winner, with 37.5%, was “Will my husband/wife be here?” The second, with 22.5%, was “Will I see my pet, ___, again?” The third (and most disturbing) with 12.5% was wanting to know the results of a recent sports event (men) or soap opera crisis (women) -- and in sixth place was “I want to know what God is really like.” Sixth place! Give me a break!!
Matthew said I was just upset that I was not the first person the newly arrived wanted to see. I disagreed with him, of course, but that is what it is all about, isn’t it? I put on a good face for the old timers, but I feel a major depression coming on. Jesus all but ensured that the depression would be deep and long lasting with his cheap shot: “I can’t imagine how anyone so infinite can be so small.”
I stayed in my room all day today.
I stayed in my room all day for the second day in a row. A new record.
I did it. I made it to lunch and I did the right thing. I asked for help in dealing with the depression. I don’t remember much of the discussion and very, very little about the advice – except for John. John took my hand in his, looked me straight in the eye and said, “God, get over it. You created all these creatures for your pleasure and joy; so why shouldn’t they feel towards one another the same kind of affection you have for each of them? If anything, you are a victim of your own success in creating such a lovable creation.”
In better spirits I ate two desserts, drank a rare cappuccino and smiled for the first time in four days. I think if I ever had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, the guy I would have in charge during the interim would be John.
With much trepidation I went to Jesus to ask him how he saw Monday’s report by the statisticians. Jesus saw right past my disappointment and hurt. He asked me what it was that the new arrivals most wanted to know about me. I told him I didn’t hear that part of the report – I was too upset about being sixth on the list.
Jesus said that two things stood out. The first, he said, “was that they wanted to see your face, especially the lines on your face. They wanted to see what the accumulation of thousands of years of compassion and hurt and love look like.” I told him I thought that was really lovely – and that I could not have asked for a deeper appreciation. I am a great believer in the lines on people’s faces. It’s the first thing I look for in the elderly, the lines on their faces. There are sad lines and there are compassionate lines. There are also lines of anger and bitterness. The lines on our faces tell our stories. In a way, we work hard for the lines on our faces (I remember reading somewhere that we earn the peculiar lines on our faces). How touching that others want to see mine.
What a great image that is – the lines on my face. I know I’m often worried about the way I’m perceived. The worst is that old dichotomy between “the God of the Old Testament” and “the God of the New Testament.” Whoever dreamed that up should be grateful not to have divulged that disgraceful thought anywhere near my hearing!
Glee in creating . . .passion for justice . . . generosity of the holiness code . . . the compassion for the widows and the victims . . . the rescue of the oppressed . . . having to work with (to be honest with myself) pretty substandard leadership – I think I’ve been pretty consistent all the way through eternity.
After yesterday, this would have been a wonderful day for quiet meditation and reflection, but when Jesus sensed that I was more myself and (I hate the jargon) that my boundaries were once more intact, he sought me out to tell me the second thing the newly arrivals wanted to know. He said, “They want to know if you really are male.” I should have guessed, known.
Then, Martin Luther said he wanted to challenge Buddha to a debate. The Buddha said that he would be honored to share a platform with the great pastor; but, he said, he would probably not be doing much of the debating, himself. He was hoping, he said, that Herr Martin would allow others to share that burden on the Buddhist side. I am looking forward to seeing who Martin will choose.
How many times have I written this: thank Me for Sabbath time. I will use the day fantasizing about “The Great Debate,” as Martin is advertising it.
The great night finally came. The place was full. And Brother Martin, bless his heart, had recruited several friends to join him at the Christian table – Peter, representing first century Christianity, himself representing Reformation theology, and St. Augustine as the “closer.” Martin and Augustine started the debate off to much applause and enthusiasm from the crowd. Augustine outlined the case for Christianity and detailed some of the more important Scriptural references. Then Martin took over. Martin had obviously been working with some of the more effective Black American preachers in preparation for the debates, because he was constantly interrupted with “Preach it, Brother Martin,” and “You lay it down and we’ll pick it up” as well as more “Amens” than most Lutherans have heard in a lifetime.
When Martin finally sat down, Gautama slowly approached the front of the stage, sat down, closed his eyes for several minutes and then, simply, stared at those sitting in front of him with such love and compassion and caring. That was it: no words, no gestures, no explanations. Sitting at the back, I could feel the tension for the first half hour. Then it melted away and it was like all the doubt, all the confusion, every bit of the need for explanation or information was sucked right out of the auditorium. We were all just there.
When the timer waved the yellow card, Buddha rose, bowed to the crowd, bowed to the Christian table . . . . and returned to his seat. Not a single person clapped or whistled. There was just respectful silence. It seemed clear to me that, at that point, the debates were over.
Peter did his best. He really did. If anybody can preach the resurrection, Peter can. And he did. It was clear to me, though, that Brother Martin had made a mistake by calling on Peter, not John. John would have shared his reverence for the great Buddha and then, quite humbly, would have spoken about the quiet and powerful presence of the Risen Christ as companion to the great Buddha, not his competitor or superior. Peter did his best, though; it just was not sufficient for the evening.
The final part of the program was the best. One of Buddha’s staff asked the crowd’s indulgence to accept, as the Buddhists’ final offering, a presentation by an adult and a children’s’ Buddhist choir. Then out came a mixed adult choir, followed by a large children’s choir, all dressed in lovely saffron robes. None of us was prepared for what was to follow.
“Rather than more words or silence,” the young choral director said, “we have prepared a short program – not for your edification, but for your entertainment.” The adult choir then sang a haunting, a capella version of Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing (and nothing’s plenty for me),” and then a knock-your-socks off Gershwin parody, “Porgy and Less,” with saffron robed baritone and soprano pouring their hearts out to one another. If that was not enough, the children’s’ choir (introduced as “Gautama’s Guys and Girls Junior Choir”) ended the program, and any remote semblance of dignity to the evening, singing, to a familiar tune:
Buddha loves me, this I know;
for the Buddha-book tells me so.
When I hear that great big gong,
I know I’ve been gosh-darn wrong.
Yes, Buddha loves me!
Yes, Buddha loves me.
Yes, Buddha loves me:
The Buddha-Book tells me so.
The Buddhists were right: the only path to humility is through silence or the ministry of the fool. They had given the gift through both. After many hugs and embraces, we all left in a spirit of reconciliation and joy. Peter and Augustine seemed crushed. I will speak with them tomorrow. Brother Martin was the only one that evening who laughed louder than me.
There can be no debates between us, only rejoicing in one another’s truth and laughter at our common folly. Like a fool, I jumped up and shouted, “I’ll drink to that!”
There has been a major shift in the interpretation of the parables of Jesus in recent years. In simplest terms, several Biblical scholars believe that it is no longer helpful to interpret the parables at all. Why could this be so? While earlier New Testament scholars believed that each parable had a point or a lesson to apply, others have found it more helpful and more true to the force and place of the parable in Jesus’ teaching and presence to concentrate on the experience of the parable, itself. In other words, our task is not to apply the parables to our lives, but to experience the world revealed in the parable, itself.
Discovering the generosity of the owner of the vineyard in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard may move us to emulate that generosity, but our worlds are untouched. We know from our life in the world that good advice and good examples, while salutary, do not change our basic orientation in the world. One of the things that we do know about the parables of Jesus is that they represent a basic shift in our orientation to the world. In this parable (Matthew 20:1-15) it is when we are involved emotionally and spiritually in the struggle between the workers who were first recruited and worked all day and those who were hired last and worked only an hour for the same wage that we begin to understand the shift in orientation. It is, I believe, when we also become involved in the conflict with others in the parable, with members of Jesus’ party, and with casual on-lookers that we move even deeper into what Bernard Brandon Scott refers to as the re-imagined world of Jesus.[i]
This shift from interpretation to re-experiencing is crucial. To conclude that God intends to treat all people with generosity and in ways that do not necessarily reflect our own cultural notions of fairness and justice is one thing. To live, even in one’s imagination, within this world of shifted priorities and ethics is quite another.
I began to understand this shift when working several years ago with a clown group composed of people with various disabilities. One of the middle-aged clowns was a woman named Maureen, who had been paralyzed for decades by a phobia about being close to men. She had been given reassurance upon reassurance and had been told in counseling that she could find men with whom she could trust herself. No amount of good advice or insight seemed to help at all. However, when Maureen donned her clown suit and went into the community to clown, she found it easy to joke with men, to chuck them under the chin in fun and even to sit in their laps flirting with them in the safety of her clown character. She was in another world, or in what for her must have felt like a parallel universe.
It took less than two years for her let go of the phobia and have relatively intimate relationships with men outside her clowning, because she had experienced another world. She made the switch from one world to another, from one kingdom to another. And so is the hope God holds out for us, in our attachments and orientation to the world the parables opposed. What is important to know is that the parables cannot be reduced to lessons about life or exhortations to live with different values. Gabriel Marcel wrote that life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived: so it is with the world disclosed in and through the parables of Jesus.
Two illustrations of this come to mind. The first is the notion of Jesus as the “Word.” Jesus cannot be reduced to words or images or descriptions: it is his life, his story, his presence which are the “word.” It is all of that which God meant to say. The earthly Jesus and the response of the faithful to him and the experience of the church of the risen Christ is “what God meant to say.” That is the word. Any work with the words and world of the parables ought to take place within the context of the Word.
The second illustration comes from the arts. The great dancer, Pavlova, was once asked what she meant by one of her dances. She replied, simply, “If I could have said it, I certainly would not have danced it.” So, too, with the parables of Jesus. Were the message of the parables possible to list in a series of aphorisms or guides to successful, fruitful or spiritually enhanced lives, Jesus might well have provided such a list. But this is about living in a whole other world or environment altogether – one you cannot understand from the outside. In that way it is like falling in love, living in the circus or even learning how to ride a bike! You know what it’s like when you get there, but you can’t get there without just being there.
The heart of what follows is a series of entry points into the world of the parables of Jesus. Each entry point is suitable for a congregation either at worship or in a retreat setting. With most of the parables, I have stressed the humor inherent in the parable or in its telling or re-enactment. I have done this, in part to honor the humor or comic spirit in the parable and, in part, to allow the different sensibility found in the parables to sneak into our consciousness. Most of the parables are deeply comic – and others do well, I believe, when dressed in comedy’s clothing.
I have introduced each of the parables with an “Outline of the Parable,” in which I have described the parable’s setting, its probable use by Jesus, and an overview of its meanings. Following the introduction, I have provided suggestions for staging or exploring the parable and a sample script for introducing the parable verbally to those in attendance. I have also included “Closing Lines” for use after the performance of the parable, as a way of bringing some closure to the experience. The “Reflections” are further thoughts about the parable and represent my experience within the life of the parable.
[i] Scott, Bernard Brandon, Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus, Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California 2001.