Monday, December 10, 2012

Meeting the Messiah

Rabbi Yoshua ben Levi asked Elijah the prophet, "When will Messiah come?"

Elijah replied, "Go and ask him yourself."

"Where is he?"

"Sitting at the gates of the city."

"How shall I know him?"

"He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, 'Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must be always be ready so as not to delay for a moment." (1)

I like stories. They serve two functions, one is to entertain, the other to educate.  Somehow it's easier to remember lessons when they are couched in a story that is easily remembered, perhaps not the itty-bitty details but rather the general gist. Stories like Jesus' parables are like that, and so are many in the book from which this story is taken, the Talmud.

The story focuses on one particular question: when will the Messiah come?  Christians and Jews have been asking that for thousands of years. For Christians, the messiah came in approximately the year 4 BCE and left approximately 33 years later, but who is expected to return again at some point in time. For Jews, they're still waiting -- but then, as Elijah told the rabbi, the messiah was already here. Uh, yeah.  Where?  Didn't see any royal parades with horses and chariots, trumpets blaring fanfares and adoring crowds lining the street, shoving and elbowing each other for even the briefest glimpse of the one for whom they had waited for millennia, the heir to the throne of David and the ruler of the earth.  No wonder Rabbi Yoshua had to ask how he was to find the messiah. Sitting at the gates of the city? That didn't sound very messiah-like. Lots of people sat at the gates of the city for all kinds of reasons, so how was the rabbi to know which one was the right person?  Simple, Elijah assured him. Look at the lepers and see who is acting differently than all the rest.  And the point of acting differently?  To be almost immediately ready to answer a call?  A call to do what?

There's the question. What's a messiah and who needs him anyway?  Christians see the messiah a savior -- an innocent being, divine in origin, who sacrifices himself to redeem sinners. Jews, however, look for a mashiach, an anointed human being who will be a great military leader, a king, and a judge. He will restore Israel, its temple and temple practices, and its legal system to include not just Jews but gentiles as well. Tradition says he will come at one of two times: when the world needs him the most or when the world has achieved restoration and equality for all. It would be entirely possible for the mashiach to be found among the lepers -- or among the Pharisees. What matters is that he is God's appointed, not his social or political standing.

The crux of the story is that the mashiach is one of the people yet different from them. As a leper, instead of unwrapping all his sores at once, he unwraps them one at a time, lest someone need him and he would have to tarry to rewrap the ravaged flesh before answering the call. It's sort of like Jesus' parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). The foolish ones used up their oil early on, while the wise ones saved theirs until the proper moment for action. Each story, though, seems to wait for the right moment, the call, to do what is required or necessary or most beneficial. It's a sense of intention -- doing things deliberately rather than hastily - and in so doing, aren't so caught up in the action that the call can't be heard or felt.

So how does the story end? 
So he went to him and greeted him, saying, 'Peace be upon thee, Master and Teacher.' 'Peace be upon thee, O son of Levi,' he replied. 'When will thou come, Master?' asked he. 'Today' was his answer." When the Messiah failed to appear that day, a deeply disappointed Joshua returned to Elijah with the complaint: "He spoke falsely to me, stating that he would come today, but has not!" Elijah then enlightened him that the Messiah had really quoted Scripture (Ps. 95:7): "Today, if ye hearken to His voice." (2)

So it looks like I have a job to do not just today but every day, really a two-fold job: to look and to listen, not just to the pundits but to the normally voiceless ones.  Hmmm. Maybe I should also change my mental bandages one at a time instead of trying to do them all at once. Now comes the trick --actually doing it.

(1) Quoted in Nouwen, Henri with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. (2006) New York: HarperCollinsPublishers (128).

(2) Found at Sacred Texts

Originally published at  Daily Episcopalian  on Episcopal Café Saturday, December 8, 2012.


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