Inhabiting a Word


Once the Rabbi Eliezer was teaching his disciples how they should read scripture. “If a man really wants to understand a word in scripture,” he said, “he has to enter into it with his whole being.”

This confused the disciples so that one of them asked, “Teacher, is it not impossible for a grown man to enter into a small word?”

The Rabbi Eliezer smiled and his voice grew quiet. “I did not speak about men who think they are bigger than words.”

According to the ninth chapter of Proverbs, “The fear of The Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” “Fear of The Lord” is a phrase in the Hebrew Scriptures that means something like “humility before God.” The way of wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that God is greater than we are and that His word is greater than we are. Rabbi Eliezer, in this wonderful little story from the Babylonian Talmud, is reminding his students that they must search scripture in a posture of humility. They must be willing to not see themselves as the consumers but the consumed. Liberals and conservatives, allegorists and literalists, are all guilty of bending and contorting scripture to fit their own desires and agendas rather than bending their desires and agendas to fit scripture. When we come to scripture with preconceived notions and search out those verses that agree with us, then we see ourselves as giants towering over the book. How foolish. Do we not know that God made us small enough to inhabit a word?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Divorce Party

Once there was a happily married man and woman who lived in a small village. For years they prayed to God to provide them a child and, try as they might, it never happened for them. This made the man very sad. So sad, that he went one day to the Rabbi and asked for a certificate of divorce so that he could marry a woman who would be able to bear him children.

The Rabbi was a wise man and he knew that this request, if granted, would only lead to further unhappiness but custom dictated that the man’s request shouldn’t be denied. The Rabbi thought for a second and then said, “I will grant you your request but under one condition. You and your wife have spent 10 years together and that is something to be celebrated. Please, go celebrate your divorce as you would a wedding. Throw a party in honor of the time you two have spent together and the next day, I will grant you your certificate of divorce.”

The man actually thought this sounded like a wonderful idea so he set to work at once making the preparations. He invited all of their friends and family, got the finest wine, and the best food then, a few nights later, the celebration was had!

It was a splendid party. There was music and lively company, and the man’s wife was as beautiful as he had ever seen her in a brand new gown. Towards the end of the evening, the man, full of wine, was so favorably disposed that he announced to the woman in front of everybody, “My darling wife of ten years, though we part I do not want you to think I am not still fond of you. Ask for anything in this home and it shall be yours. Choose whichever of my possessions is most precious to you and take it home with you to your father’s house!”

The man’s wife smiled and accepted the offer. That was the last thing the man clearly remembered before passing out. When he awoke, he was lying in a strange bed. Startled, he ran down the stairs and there at a table sat his wife and her parents eating breakfast.

The man suddenly recognized where he was. Confused, he asked, “Did I get so drunk last night that I staggered to your former home?”

The man’s wife laughed. “No dear, last night at the party you invited me to take home the thing in the house that was most precious to me. So I had your friends carry you and put you in my bed.”

Suddenly the man came to his senses and realized how deep his wife’s love was for him and he could feel his own love deepening for her in his heart. He resolved not to go see the Rabbi for the certificate of divorce after all. And it was just as well because the Rabbi wasn’t really expecting him.

It’s been said that marriage is a union between two forgivers. In any relationship, we can make rash decisions and it is a true loving partner that reminds us of what is really precious. Love is based on honoring and cherishing the other person no matter whether they can provide you with what you think will make you happy or not. For those who walk in the way of Jesus, there may be another message in this parable as well. It is people, not goals, that are precious. The mission of the Church should never reduce beloved children of God to mere means to meet an end. We are called to focus our love and attention to human beings regardless of their imperfections or what they can or cannot provide, simply because they are made in the image of God. In life as in marriage, the secret to happiness is forgiveness and grace

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Ruby Ring

Once there was a King whose most prized possession was a ruby ring that had been in the royal family since before anyone could remember. It was passed from king to king and it was worn on special ceremonial occasions. Whenever the king put on the ring, everyone was truly dazzled by its beauty and perfection.

One day, the kingdom was celebrating a festival and the King decided to make an appearance before the people. The king asked his servants to fetch the ruby ring and they did. When they brought him the small gold box that contained the ring. The king opened the box and gasped. There on the face of the ring was a huge scratch. At first the king was furious and demanded to know which of his servants had scratched the ring. After the king was satisfied that no one knew how the scratch had got there, his anger subsided into gloom. He closed the box and sent it away and decided after all that he wouldn’t be going out.

Soon, the servants were distressed because the king had cancelled all his public appearances and refused to leave the palace. Finally, one suggested to the king that he might send out a call for the jewelers in his kingdom to try their hands at repairing the ring. So the king announced that anyone who could repair his ruby ring would receive a great reward.

The next day, hundreds of jewelers were lined up outside the palace. Each one eager to take a shot at fixing the ruby ring. However, jeweler after jeweler failed. The scratch was so deep and profound that the jewelers couldn’t get rid of it without possibly ruining the jewel further and none wanted to risk the king’s anger. After a few days of this, the king began to lose hope. One by one, the best jewelers in the land left defeated. And each time, the King lost more hope that his ring would ever be repaired. At the end of the week, there was only one person left in the line: a peasant with tattered clothes.

At first, the king’s servants thought the man a beggar and tried to run him off but the man assured the servants that he was in fact a jeweler and was looking to repair the king’s ruby ring and claim his great reward. The servants were doubtful that this rough looking serf would be able to do what the finest jewelers in the land could not but what did they have to lose? So they let the peasant jeweler with the tattered clothes into the palace.

When the jeweler entered the throne room, the king laughed. “Is the situation so hopeless that you’re bringing random people off the street?”

“No my lord,” One of the servants replied, “This is a jeweler and he has come here to fix your ruby ring and claim his great reward.”

The king looked at the peasant jeweler suspiciously. He had his doubts but what did he have to lose? So he had the gold box brought out. Once the box was opened, the peasant jeweler looked at the ring and saw the deep scratch. “It can be done easily,” he said, “I’ll just need a week of privacy to work on the ring.”

The king agreed and ordered that the jeweler should have a special room in the palace which would be guarded day and night. He also ordered that meals should be brought to the peasant for the week while he worked on the ring.

And work he did. Tirelessly for an entire week, day and night, the jeweler could be heard hammering and chiseling and sanding and polishing until finally, a week later, the peasant jeweler emerged from his room with the gold box. He and the box were immediately brought before the king. The king took the box. His hands were trembling. This was his last hope. Was it possible that this poor jeweler had accomplished what the finest jewelers in the land could not? The king opened the box and gasped.

But this time it was a good gasp. The king smiled a great big smile and said, “My ruby ring is even more beautiful than before! As a great reward you are now the King’s official jeweler and you shall live in this palace, you and your family, and be well taken care of.”

With that, the king slipped the ruby ring on his finger and everyone in the room gasped as well. The ruby truly was more beautiful than ever. The peasant jeweler with the tattered clothes had done what no other could. Instead of trying to get rid of the imperfection, he had adorned it with petals and thorns and a leaf. He had transformed that awful scratch into a beautiful rose!

As this beautiful parable shows us: when we focus on imperfection, we miss the possibilities. God in his grace finds the rose in the scratch, the beauty in the scar. How often do we look at our lives and see only the broken places? How often do we focus on the places that have been marked by tragedy? How often do we look at one another and see only what is wrong? We who walk-in the way of Jesus are called to remember the promise of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians, that He who began a good work in each of us will be faithful to complete it. That though the image of God is scarred in each of us, the master jeweler is working tirelessly around the clock to see it fully restored.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Sapphire Tablets

When Moses was on top of Mount Sinai, God spoke to him saying, “I am going to give you ten commandments etched on two tablets but you must first bring to me the two tablets.” Then God showed Moses the two sapphire stones the law would be written on and commanded Moses to bring them into his presence. Moses tried to lift the two stones and found that they were much too heavy for a single man to lift. After struggling with the stones, Moses finally gave up and said, “I am sorry. These tablets are much too heavy for one man to lift.”

God answered, “I wanted you to see this for yourself so that you would know the miracle I am about to perform. The words I am about to etch into these tablets have such power that they will lift the tablets for you.”

So God approached the tablets, his glory obscured by the cloud, and he began to etch in the sapphire tablets the words, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…” And each Hebrew word, as it was written by God’s own hand, blazed with holy fire, then glowed deep red. And each letter etched into the stone tablet took on a life of its own and sang a psalm of thanksgiving to the Creator.When God finished writing the commandments on the stone tablets. Moses picked them up and they were light as pillows. It was then that he realized the power that the words had given to the heavy stone.

As Moses came down the mountain with the two tablets in his arms, he heard the sound of laughter and drunken singing. As he came closer to the camp he could see the Hebrews had fashioned for themselves a giant golden calf and that they were worshipping it and engaging in all manner of perversion. When the glowing red letters on the tablets saw the revelry and apostasy, they were truly disgusted and they fled the stone tablets and flew to the top of Mount Sinai back to their divine source.

Suddenly, in the sight of all the people, the tablets once again became too heavy for Moses to carry and he dropped them on the ground where they smashed into a thousand pieces.

This midrashic tale was written in part to explain why Moses smashed the stone tablets when he came down from Mount Sinai and saw the Hebrews worshiping a molten image. The original story in Exodus 32 sure makes it seem like Moses smashes the tablets in anger but the ancient rabbis couldn’t fathom that a great man like Moses would behave in such a reckless way. They came up with many explanations but this creative story is far and away my favorite. More important than getting Moses off the hook, this midrash teaches us something profound. God’s word has power! It can lift even the heaviest burden but it cannot abide sin. God’s Word, even when etched in stone is living and dynamic. Those who walk in the way of Jesus are reminded by this parable of the Word who put on flesh and dwelt among us and lightens the burden of the law for us in bright red letters. Why would we bow to something manmade when we could follow the living Word back to the divine source of all things?

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

The Rooster Prince


A very wealthy King had a young Prince who was to be heir to his entire Kingdom. The prince would wear fine robes and attend elaborate feasts where he would sit at the head of the table and discuss the great issues of the day with esteemed guests from all around the world. Everyone looked to the Prince for inspiration and leadership. 

One day, no one is really sure why, the Prince suddenly decided that he was a rooster. He stripped down to all but a loin cloth and squatted beneath the table pecking at scraps like the rest of the roosters, clucking and crowing as roosters do. At first, everybody thought this was a joke, but it soon became clear that the Prince had indeed convinced himself that he was a rooster.

This went on for weeks and the Prince didn’t snap out of it. He remained beneath the table in his loincloth, behaving like a rooster. The King was greatly disturbed and didn’t know what to do. He secretly had the best doctors in the Kingdom brought to the castle to try and restore the Prince to his former self. One by one, they did their best. Some tried to convince him logically that he was not a rooster with well reasoned arguments but the Prince would just look at them, turn his head sideways and cluck. Others tried to scare his sense back into him. Some even tried feeding him elaborate concoctions but none of it worked. The Prince still believed that he was not a Prince, but a rooster. Finally, the King brought in the local Rabbi.  

“Rabbi, please, I beg you,” said the King, “Restore my son to what he once was.”

The Rabbi looked at the Prince squatting under the table pecking at the scraps and said, “I believe I can do this but you’ll have to give me a week.”

The King agreed and the Rabbi set to work. He stripped to all but a loin cloth and got under the table and squatted. He pecked on the scraps and clucked and crowed like a rooster just like the Prince. The Prince immediately warmed to his fellow rooster.

 After two days of this, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we eat good food from plates. There’s no reason we must peck at these scraps.” 

The Prince shrugged and agreed with an approving, “BUCK BUCK,” so the King ordered the servants to put all the finest foods from the top of the table underneath the the table and for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, clucking and crowing, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork.

After these two more days were up, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know we can still be roosters if we talk to one another. There’s no reason we must cluck and crow.”

The Prince looked at the Rabbi and said, “Sure. That makes sense.” So for the next two days, the Prince and the Rabbi squatted under the table in nothing but their loincloths, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods with a knife and a fork. 

Finally, on the sixth day, the Rabbi said to the Prince, “You know, we can still be roosters if we wear clothes and sit at the table. There’s no reason we must squat beneath the table in nothing but our loincloths.”

The Prince agreed to this and for the rest of the day, they sat at the table in their robes, talking with one another, while eating the finest foods imaginable with a knife and a fork. On the seventh day, the Rabbi bid farewell to his fellow rooster and the King thanked him from the bottom of his heart. For the rest of his days, the Prince did all the things a Prince (and later, a King) was supposed to do. He was a source of inspiration and leadership to the entire Kingdom and no one knew his secret: that deep down, no matter how he acted on the outside, he was still a rooster.

There is a profound truth at work in this engaging Jewish parable. We cannot bring true healing unless we are willing to get on people’s level. The meaning of the word “compassion” is to “suffer with.” Compassion means getting in the trenches with people and experiencing the world from their perspective. As disciples walking in the way of Jesus, we’re called to approach our neighbors the way he did. According to pastor and speaker, Ryan Leak, only 8% of Jesus’ miracles were performed in the synagogue. Jesus met people where they were at. He ate with them, drank with them, laughed with them, all the while offering steps towards healing and forgiving. When we come alongside people and help them take tiny steps toward wholeness, we are doing the sacred work of discipleship.  The way of Jesus is the way of suffering with others and bringing them through that suffering into new life. The Gospel is all just lofty talk if we are not willing, like Jesus washing his disciple’s feet and the Rabbi ministering to the Rooster Prince, to strip down to our loincloth, get on our knees, and serve.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…


The Star Prophet


A myth was well known among the Cherokee about some hunters who set out long ago toward the land of the sun. Along the way, they came across two large gray birds. Whenever the hunters shot arrows at these birds, sparks would fly off of them. They trapped them in nets and brought them back to their camp. At night, the birds began to glow brighter and brighter until they burned through the nets. At last they flew into the sky shining brightly but getting smaller and smaller until they were two tiny white dots among a sky full of other tiny white dots. This, according to the myth, was how the Cherokee came to know what stars were. 

This myth was probably in the lazy hunter’s head when he wandered from his party and happened on a white settlement. There at the settlement, he laid eyes for the first time on a strange European bird called a peacock. Immediately, the lazy hunter traded his belongings with the white settlers in exchange for the peacock. The hunter then killed the peacock and stripped it of all its strange and beautiful feathers. He took them to an old beaver lodge near the camp that only he knew about, and that could only be reached by diving under a lake. There, in private, he made a great headdress out of all the peacock feathers.

The other members of his tribe began to wonder what had become of him. It wasn’t until several weeks later that the lazy hunter showed up suddenly at a dance night with his new headdress and claimed to have been among the stars. He showed them the “star feathers” from his headdress as proof of his tale and began to tell the people secrets that the stars had told him. The people were entranced by his story. Then just as soon as he arrived, he disappeared into the night, claiming he was returning to the heavens (but really he was going back to his little beaver lodge).

Soon the man came to be known as the Star Prophet and he would show up weekly at their dances and tell more stories and issue more proclamations from the heavens. The people revered him and always sent him gifts of food, pelts, beads, and other offerings to give to the stars in return for their guidance. This went on for many seasons and the Star Prophet grew fat and rich off of the offerings.

One afternoon, a hunting party was out past their normal route when they happened upon a white settlement. There, they too discovered the peacock. It was then that they knew the Star Prophet was a fraud. They were afraid that no one would believe them because the people had grown to love and respect the Star Prophet. So they decided to expose him the next time he showed up at one of their dances.

Sure enough, the Star Prophet returned a couple nights later with a message from the heavens and collected generous offerings from the people before disappearing into the night. After the Prophet disappeared, one of the hunters stood up and said, “Come, let us follow the wise prophet into the heavens so we can worship the stars with him!”

So all the men went from the camp and followed the Star Prophet at a distance. When they saw him dive into the water and not come up, one of the hunters proclaimed that the way to heaven must be through the lake and said, “Let us go find the door to the sky!” So all the men jumped into the lake where the prophet had jumped in and found the opening to the old beaver lodge. There they found the lazy hunter in his hole surrounded by gifts and peacock feathers.

As long as human beings have brushed up against the divine and had genuine religious experiences, there have been charlatans all to willing to take advantage of the faithful. As this playful Cherokee story warns us, it is not always easy to tell the difference between star feathers and peacock feathers. So how DO you tell a false prophet. According to Jesus, you know them by their fruit. By closely examining our leaders and looking for signs of integrity and good works we can judge whether their charisma is the result of the work of God in their lives or something else. A good question to always ask is “does this person’s ministry benefit the world or himself?”  Jesus admonishes us to be on our guard against false prophets. Such people, like wolves masquerading as sheep, prey on the vulnerable and cash in on people’s trust. Today, televangelists smooth talk old ladies out of their social security checks to pay for their extravagant lifestyles and to what end? It is an unfortunate reality that to many of these people are not producing much in the way of fruit, just a lot of peacock feathers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

Dying to the World


There was, among the desert fathers, a man who often cried aloud during his prayers: “I have died to the world!” He did so very loudly and very regularly so that the other fathers began to anticipate hearing the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world.” Some were inspired by this and began to cry the affirmation out in their own prayers while others were a little annoyed by it.

One day an older father was walking with a young disciple and they heard the man in his prayers call out, “I have died to the world! I have died to the world!” 

The older turned to the younger and said, “Let me offer some advice: Don’t be so sure you’ve died until you’re dead.”

To quote Miracle Max in “The Princess Bride”, “There’s a difference between mostly dead and all dead.”  The process of sanctification, dying to the world and becoming alive in Christ, being more and more conformed to his image, is a lifelong one. Christian perfection is something we must ever strive for as disciples but we must always do so, as the Apostle Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” Sin is always lurking somewhere in the recesses of our hearts ready to mount a comeback and all it needs is a little pride. To walk in the way of Jesus is to constantly be dying to the world and being born anew in him. We are called to walk this way with humility, knowing that as long as we are living, there is always more dying to be done.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…