Some of you will recall that I was raised Catholic. So each week at mass I would listen to a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Gospels. And at the end of each the person reading would intone, “The Word of the Lord” and we’d respond together in monotone: “Thanks be to God.” Because we were so excited.
Now, I understand the intent of this little ritual and I truly do offer thanks to God for his Word. But now that I’ve actually read the bible myself, I kind of think that all of heaven must occasionally roll their eyes and guffaw at this response to scripture. Like say that day’s Old Testament reading was from 1 Samuel 6 where the Philistines have stolen the Ark of the Covenant from their neighbors and been duly smited. To set things right, they are instructed to “make models of their tumors” as well as of rats out of gold to give to the Israelites when they return the object. Can you imagine? Make models of your tumors? You cannot tell me that the Israelites didn’t laugh their asses off at being given a bunch of gold lumps cast from the Philistine king’s goiters. And we respond with the same old monotone “Thanks be to God” in such a way that makes it clear that we’ve missed the joke entirely. Once again, these stories and poems and words, so filled with beauty and passion and humor just get flattened into monotony and so lose their power. It’s kind of sad the way we do that (and no – this is hardly a Catholic problem!).
I was thinking about this last night while reading a story about John the Baptist which really, could have come right out of a Monty Python skit:
And the crowds were questioning [John the Baptist], saying, “Then what shall we do?” And he would answer and say to them, “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise.” And some tax collectors also came to be baptized, and they said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” Some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Can’t you just see it – here’s this wild-eyed crazy man out by the river and people come to ask him what they should do to be saved from the coming wrath. He leans in, maybe puts a stinky arm around the questioner and essentially says, “listen closely – stop. being. an. ASSHOLE.” Like it’s some big friggin’ secret or something.
What’s funny is that if he had told them, “here’s a secret ritual you can do to protect yourself – take a dead, plucked chicken, spit down its throat, hold it by the feet and swing it around your head while standing naked in the moonlight at the town gates and throw it over the wall with a loud ‘whoop-whoop'”, there would have been a small crowd of naked chicken throwers at the town gates that night, waking everyone up with their whoops. There would probably still be people doing it today. Merchants specializing in supplying chickens for the ritual would have made some cash. Intellectuals would have written many treatises by now on the theology of the chicken throwing ritual. Disagreements on proper chicken throwing techniques would have lead to splits and century long feuds between adherents.
But knowing the way people are, you have to wonder if the tax collector stopped cheating people or the soldier stopped abusing his power or if anyone actually gave away their second coat or did without a second serving of their dinner and found some beggar to give it to. More likely they took the words to heart, went home and did nothing. They looked at that second cloak and thought about how glad they would be to have it when their first cloak got a hole in it. Or ate that extra piece of bread at dinner because it was too much trouble to go find a beggar to give it to. Besides, doesn’t the Synagogue already fund bread distribution? Maybe the tax collector and soldier cut back on their cheating and abuse so they weren’t as bad as the others. Which should be good enough. And all this time later, we hear the story and probably just like the original audience do not much of anything real in response. Other than intone, “thanks be to God” in the same monotone we always use before heading to the Old Country Buffet for an after service meal. The truth is that John’s secret was hardly a secret. It was all stuff they could have been doing already. Stuff we could be doing.
It’s odd, isn’t it? The way that we will build our theologies and engage in our rituals and moralize and spiritualize and do everything except, you know, the things that will make us and this world we live in better. Sometimes I look around me an imagine what John (or Jesus’) answer to “what should we do” would be today.
“Your dog shouldn’t have more clothing and furniture than the average family in rural India.”
“Stop making excuses for being nasty to your child and go beg forgiveness. Even if they are mouthy and sullen with you.”
“Stop starting fights with people who disagree with you. You disagree. Get over it.”
“Stop holding grudges. Be the bigger person for once!”
“Stop blaming everyone else for your problems.”
“Think about other people for once.”
“You don’t need to make hundreds of times as much money as your employees. Stop being a stingy bastard.”
But as much fun as it is to think of all the “duuuuuuh” instructions John would offer other people, perhaps the more pertinent question is what would he say to you? Or me. I’m sure it’s no more of a secret for us than it should have been for that tax collector and soldier 2000 years ago.