When I was a kid, I used to like puzzle books. You know the kind. There would be the puzzle that showed six clowns that looked very much the same and then ask which one was different. Or there would be the picture in which you were supposed to find various things. Later on, I would come to love books of brain teasers, seemingly impossible puzzles to reason out, some of which required hours to suss out.
I remember one puzzle in particular, regarding some pennies, that drove me nuts. You have twelve pennies, one of which is counterfeit. The fake coin is either heavier or lighter than a real coin. You are given a balance scale. Explain how you can determine which coin is counterfeit, and whether it is heavier or lighter, given only three weighs. Sounds impossible, doesn’t it? The book indicated that the average amount of time to reach a solution was twelve hours. That’s one hour per penny! There is a solution. I confess that after several hours of working on the puzzle, I gave up and looked in that back of the book for the answer.
That’s what most of us want. We just want the answer. What’s the bottom line? That’s why watching television is more popular than reading. We’re lazy. Or at least, we can be. As a generation, we’ve grown used to instant gratification. I mean, look at us. Everything has to be immediate. I find myself standing in front of the microwave, waiting for something to cook, and thinking, “Come on! Hurry up!” There are hundreds of advertisements for weight loss products that all promise to take the weight off in no time. And for those who can’t wait two weeks to lose a hundred pounds, there’s liposuction.
Which brings me, as always, to religion. People want instant spiritual answers too. On the one hand, you have the evangelical conservative religious right, those fundamentalists who look at the bible (or the Koran, or the Torah, etc.) as absolute fact and history. Every word in there was inscribed by the hand of the deity. Therefore, the earth is only 6,000 years old. And on the other hand, you have those people who take one look at a holy book and immediately dismiss it as being totally irrational. Therefore, it has nothing important to offer us.
Well, here’s the story on the bible, folks. It was written by people, over a very, very long time. The stories contained within were oral history for perhaps thousands of years. Then they were translated, often picking up the particular opinions and idiosyncrasies of the translators and then they were copied, and re-copied, picking up the particular opinions and idiosyncrasies of the copyists (Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant THAT, could he? That just wouldn’t make sense!). Some of the stories in those books were just plain made up. But that doesn’t mean they’re not true.
We have a different way of looking at the world than people did thousands of years ago. We see everything empirically. We expect everything we read to be factual, if it isn’t designated as fiction, in which case, we accept it as only a story, nothing more. People in the past saw the world as filled with signs and omens. Everything seemed to have some sort of symbolic significance. Everything that happened had a physical meaning, but it had a figurative meaning also. You can’t read the holy books written thousands of years ago with the eyes of modern culture. The holy books, and by holy books, I mean ALL the holy books, not just the bible, are not books of facts; but they are books of truth.
The ancient Greeks knew that there were no gods living on Olympus. They knew that the story of Heracles was just a story. But they also understood that the stories of the gods on Olympus, that the story of Heracles, were meant to teach important lessons about life and being in harmony with life. Of course, there were some Greeks, usually the poor and uneducated Greeks, who thought that all those stories were fact. And the government felt it had to support the state religion. It even killed some, like Socrates, who openly disagreed with it. But even Plato and Socrates knew there were important lessons in those stories we call mythology.
But understanding the lessons of the holy books requires work, and a lot of it. In order to understand them, you have to learn something of the times in which they were written. You have to learn a little about the languages in which they were written. And then you have to understand that none of the books contain direct answers. All the holy books are only books of puzzles, puzzles that beg to be solved. And unlike my puzzle books, there are no answers in the back. And like my puzzle books, the problems often seem to make no sense, and frequently seem to have no solution. Take this reading from Luke, Chapter Ten:
After this, the Lord lifted up seventy-two others and sent them two by two before his face into every city and place where he was about to go. And he said to them, “The harvest is indeed great, but the workers few. Therefore, pray the Lord of the harvest that he might send workers into his harvest. Go. Behold, I am sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no wallet, no shoes, and greet no one by the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a child of peace is there, your peace will be resting upon him. If not, it will return upon you. Remain in that house, eating and drinking alongside them, for the worker (is) worthy of his pay. Do not go from house to house. And into whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat what is set before you, and heal those who are weak in it, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has approached upon you.’ But into whatever city you enter, and they do not receive you, go out into its streets, (and) say, ‘And the dust of the city, that clinging to us into the feet, we wipe off to you. But know this, that the kingdom of God has drawn near.’”
“The one hearing you, hears me, and the one who rejects you, rejects me. And the one who rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, the demons are subject to us in your name.” But he said to them, “I was seeing Satan fall like lightning out of heaven. Behold, I have given you power to tread over snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing will hurt you, no nothing. But do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (literal translation, Luke, Chapter 10)
This piece of text is copied mostly from the Gospel according to Mark. There is a little material thrown in from a lost gospel called the Q document. Many scholars also believe that copyists have added a little of their own material as well. In Mark, Jesus only sends out his twelve homies. But in the Luke version, he sends out 70, or 72 (depending upon the translation). Now, just because there are differences in this story in the gospels, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I bet if I were to ask you and your family members about what happened at Thanksgiving, I’d get some different stories, and that was just a few months ago. But you’d probably all agree on who was there and what you ate.
No doubt, Jesus did send some people out to deliver his message. How many he sent, who knows? Luke probably chose 72 because there were believed to be 72 nations in the world at that time. Or he may have chosen 72 because Moses chose 72 elders from among the people. Numbers always mean something in the bible. Two was considered the number of adequate witness. It required two witnesses in court before a person could be convicted of a crime. The numbers in the gospel accounts could have been chosen simply for their symbolic significance. But there is a factual reason why he sent them out under the circumstances reported in the gospel.
At that time in Palestine, there were other groups of itinerate teachers besides the Jesus’ buddies. They were the Cynics. Now people often accuse me of being cynical, but the original Cynics were REALLY cynical. They followed the teachings of the ancient Greek, Antisthenes. Antisthenes was a contemporary of Socrates. He was so enamored of Socrates’ teachings that he founded his own school in Cynosarges. He had no use for pomp or pride of the world. Antisthenes wore a cloak and carried a staff and a bag as a sort of a uniform, a badge of his philosophy. This costume became uniform of his followers, but so ostentatiously as to draw from Socrates the rebuke, “I see your pride looking out through the rent of your cloak, O Antisthenes.” These itinerate Cynics also went about teaching the philosophy of Antisthenes (and so indirectly of Socrates).
By telling his disciples not to wear a cloak and not to take a bag, Jesus was making sure that nobody would confuse his followers for the followers of Antisthenes. He wanted people to know that his followers were teaching a message of love and faith in God. Antisthenes taught a love of wisdom and taught that people must perfect themselves through self-development. Jesus was teaching a message of connection to God and faith in the love of the creator, a very different message. He wanted no confusion. That is why he sent them off with no money and no food, to further contrast them by their poverty.
When he told them to stay at the first house to which they were invited, he wanted to do two things. First, he wanted to give them a stable base of operations from which they could go out and teach and then return. He also wanted to make sure that his followers didn’t go house hopping. Back in those days, there was a certain amount of prestige gained by having a teacher stay at your house. If people knew there was a teacher in town, they would have tripped over each other to offer an invitation. Jesus’ followers would have been sorely tempted to trade up to a nicer house, and this would have damaged the image of the teaching. He also wanted to make sure that people would know where the teachers could be found, if they were needed.
Many people see Jesus’ instructions to depart any village where the people will not listen and to shake the dust from their feet as a bit petulant and vengeful. However, shaking the dust from your feet was a ritual that indicated sorrow that you were not accepted. It was not meant to be a way of showing anger. Moreover, it was Jesus’ way of telling his students not to beat people over the head with the teaching. If they wanted to listen, fine. If they didn’t want to listen, that was okay, too. It’s a shame many of his followers today don’t take the same advice. I wish I had a dime for every Jehovah’s Witness who refused to leave me alone. (I must point out here that I have know many fine Jehovah’s Witnesses who wouldn’t dream of annoying anyone)
But what does this passage hold for us? Well, we are all being sent out on our own mission in our own way. And we are to bring peace to those around us. We are to work for our keep. We take only what we need and nothing more. We do not force ourselves on others, or force others to follow in our paths. We are given authority over evil. That means we have the power to do no evil. It is our choice. We are called upon to heal those who are weak. The Greek word translated as “heal” more accurately is translated as “comfort”.
In the days before Jesus, the prophet would pass his mantel on to his disciple. Elijah, for example, passed his job onto Elisha. Jesus is passing the mantel on to each one of us. We are the hands of God on earth. We have the power to heal one another. We have the power to heal the earth. We do this by loving one another, by being kind. It’s just that simple. In loving one another, we find our own peace. We are sent out as lambs among wolves, but the wolves have no power over us. In the story, Jesus reminds his followers not to rejoice that they had power over spirits. Rejoice, rather, that they had found the path to salvation, to enlightenment. The only way to understand the teachings of Jesus, was to live them.
Of course, you could dismiss this story out of hand. You could take an immediate glance at it and decide it never happened. You could decide that the entire gospel is nothing more than a myth. That doesn’t make it any the less true. The German theologian, Paul Tillich, once said that there is no need for an historical Jesus for Christianity to be true. I don’t think I’d go that far. I think it seems clear that there was a Jesus. But the truth in the teachings is there, one way or the other.
You cannot explain spiritual things in a material world. This is why Zen masters use the koan, the riddle, to explain the mysteries of Zen. What is the sound of one hand clapping? It is a sound that cannot be heard with the ear. It is a sound that can only be perceived by letting go of the body, by letting go of time, and the material world. Of course, a rationalist would dismiss the koans of the Zen master by simply saying they make no sense. There are many who have. And yet, those masters have a sense of peace that no rationalist has. They understand something the rational thinker does not.
It is a mistake to dismiss religion simply because many of those who believe in a higher power have done and continue to do horrible things, just as it is a mistake to believe that the principles upon which our country was conceived back in 1776 are false because our leaders have failed to live up to them. Our nation has done horrible things. That doesn’t render the Declaration of Independence false. The ideals are still true. It’s up to each one of us to live up to them.
In the end, all of life is a great puzzle. We can choose to try to solve it, or not. One of the things I had to learn about solving brain teasers was that the joy of the puzzle wasn’t in its solution. Looking up the answer in the back of the book gave me no satisfaction. Knowing the answer gave me no satisfaction. The joy of the puzzle is in the attempt to solve it. In living out the message of Christ, we don’t rejoice in defeating evil, we rejoice in living out the message. Oh, and the pennies, figure it out yourself. It’s more fun that way.