Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mistaken Identity

She wondered if he noticed she was trembling, but then, if he did, he would have no idea why. There were so many reasons that a bride might tremble on her wedding day: shyness, eagerness, the stress of the occasion; in fact it was probably almost normal. The fact that she was afraid of being found out would not even enter the bridegroom’s mind. Why should it? That, after all, was the whole point of the deception.

She couldn’t remember when the idea had first been raised – it certainly felt like it had been looming over her forever! She, and her sister, had certainly been aware of it for a year or two; how much longer her father had been plotting and turning the idea over in his mind was something she could only guess. But then her father was always a schemer and his daughters, even his beloved Rachel, were only pawns in his game, his perpetual game of self-enlargement. And this time he really felt he was pulling off a master-stroke – the fact that he could well be ruining both his daughters’ lives meant nothing compared to that!

She also knew that her sister would never forgive her for getting Jacob first, for having that wedding night of blissful consummation before he learned the horrible truth. And who knew how he would react then, or if, in his fury at being tricked he would then spurn Rachel and leave them forever? Anything was possible. Rachel needed someone to be angry with, and it was much easier to be angry with the plain sister nobody cared for than to express her anger at her father and arouse his wrath. She couldn’t see, as Leah saw so clearly, that it was their Father who was betraying them both.  In her eyes Leah was the traitor who was stealing her Jacob, who had fixed his heart on Rachel at first meeting, seven years ago, and never wavered since. Who knew what years of misery would come from this one night’s deed?

And yet, even while Leah felt helplessly trapped between two strong men, she blamed herself as well, because she had a secret which her father had never thought of, but which her sister suspected with all the heightened suspicion of her jealous heart. For she too loved Jacob – fine, strong, clever, handsome, God-fearing Jacob – the man who never looked her way and barely knew she existed. With all the fervour of an unwanted, unloved woman, she yearned for him. And she knew, with the harsh self-knowledge of the rejected, that no one would ever want her for her own sake. To her father she was a useless bargaining chip (at least until he came up with this scheme in which she could be used to double her sister’s value), to her sister she was either to be despised or suspected. Motherhood was her only chance to gain any value in the world. A woman who bore strong sons was worth something. And her only hope of motherhood lay in going through this ceremony of deception and pray that, in his eagerness, Jacob would continue to mistake her for her sister for just a few more hours. Was it any wonder she trembled?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Hero?

It was time to go to the Temple if he wanted an unhurried walk through the streets of Jerusalem before arriving at the time of sacrifice. Of course there was a shorter route, but this way he could stroll through the main thoroughfare and see and be seen by as many people as possible. And though his own secret pride in his superior holiness was a great source of pleasure to him, the public acknowledgements of others were even sweeter. And, after all, he was offering a public service. Might not a glimpse of his shining righteousness inspire others and condemn sinners?

It was a good and honourable thing to be a Pharisee. The pedigree of their movement dated back to the return from the Babylonian exile, when a group of Jewish leaders, determined that Israel should never be forced out of the Promised Land again, decided that they would live such holy lives that God would never be displeased with them again. So they studied the Law and decided that since Israel was called to be a nation of priests and a holy nation, then that was the way that should live, following all the commandments that were given especially to the priesthood, and urging others to do the same. It was an unfortunate fact of life that only the wealthy (or those who, like the priests, were supported by other means) could possibly live by these rules, since those who must labour to survive had neither the means nor the leisure to follow every prescription of the priestly laws. This meant, by his calculation, that the Pharisees were the true saviours of Israel!

As he strolled through the streets of Jerusalem, he felt so thankful to be who he was. These others – the hated Roman soldiers, the self-important merchants,  the craftsmen with their wares, the beggars in their filth and poverty – should be so thankful that men like him existed to please God on their behalf. He was worth so much more than they were!

He wandered into the temple and found himself an appropriate place to stand, where the light reflected on him in a very pleasing way. In order to edify people and show his superiority, it was necessary that he should be as noticeable as possible. He commenced his prayer, as loudly as possible, so that the maximum number could hear him amidst the general hubbub:

“Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men! Look at this riff raff: thieves, adulterers, probably murderers some of them, they certainly look the part! And then Lord, look at me: I’m exemplary. I fast twice a week and I give you back a tithe of absolutely everything. See, look at that tax collector over there – the worst kind of Israelite there is! Thank you that I am so much better than he is!”

The tax collector meanwhile had slipped into the temple as unobtrusively as possible, wrapping his guilt and misery around him like a shielding cloak. The burden of who he was and who he had failed to be was intolerable. The shame was all engulfing. But the more he grew aware of the holiness of the God whom he had come to seek, the more it weighed him down, almost to the point of obliteration. So, while the Pharisee prayed his self-congratulations, he cowered in the corner and cried out aloud his despair, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!”

And Jesus said that it was this man, and not the other, who went home justified before God!

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Least of These

They were the nobodies, the shadow-people, the ones that everybody overlooked, and nobody cared for. People turned aside with loathing from the marks and sores upon their skin, the loss of their fingers and noses and toes; few were willing to admit in these sophisticated days that the greater cause of terror was their empty eyes. To be a leper was to be already dead while you still walked in the living world: dead to all those who had loved you, dead to your property and the skills by which you had earned it, and, worst of all, dead to the worship of God and the spiritual life of your people. Many believed, in the face of such incomprehensible misfortune, that they must be dead to God as well. They were the least in Israel, and in a time of siege and famine, nobody gave them a thought.

They huddled at the entrance to the city gate of Samaria, and considered their options. Within the gate there was severe famine in the city of Samaria; outside the gate was the besieging army of the Arameans. If they stayed where they were, neither in nor out, they would surely die; if they entered the city there was only death by starvation; perhaps the enemy army was their only hope. So, they decided, they would go and surrender to the Arameans. They might well be put to the sword, but death was a certainty anyway, and at least there was a chance this way that their lives might be spared.

So, in the grey light of dusk the grey men crept through the confusion of shadows to the enemy camp, quietly as the flight of owls, for they expected that their lives could be forfeit at any moment. But their caution was needless – there was no one there! The lepers had no idea that the prophet Elisha had prophesied the lifting of the siege, or that the hand of Almighty God Himself had caused the Arameans to imagine they heard the sound of war chariots, so that they fled in terror, for they were the outcasts, the least of men, and knew nothing of these things. All they knew was that only the horses and donkeys remained, the men had fled, and the deserted tents were full of their riches and an abundance of food. 

So they took for themselves all that they wanted and more, and only when they were sated did they remember the great need of their countrymen. They looked sheepishly at each other. “This isn’t right,” they said, “the whole starving city should be told about this good news! We would be culpable if we waited till daylight. Let’s go to the palace and tell them now!”

So they went back towards the city, no longer shrinking into the shadows of fear, but shouting out this miracle of sudden abundance. The gatekeepers took up the message, and soon the whole city knew. It was from the mouths of the disregarded and shunned, the least of them all, that that the truth of their deliverance came. And the city rejoiced.

Monday, October 07, 2013

More than the watchman waits for the morning ..

Till the morning comes we will wait,
Stiff in cold darkness,
Wary of old betrayals, but believing,
Still, against every sense, that morning comes.

We remember daylight
As children remember a dream where grass was greener,
Through the foggy lens of memory
Focusing on hope.

Have the stars grown paler?
Is that a breath of wind in the stoic silence?
Has something moved and changed, do the birds sleep lighter?
Is the east a smudge less dark?

Breathe in, breathe out.

You must understand, we do not speak our questions,
Lest the silence snaps and the earth retreats from turning;
Lest the flowers clench more shut, and the air grows harder,
Lest we betray our faith’s fragility.

Still we wait for the morning.
Our limbs grow heavy-stiff, and we wait for morning.
Our throats are tension-dry, and we wait for morning.
Our clocks crawl slow as ice, and we wait for morning.

We do not own the stars.

Softer than a whisper
Comes song of distant bird – did we really hear it?
Do the small things of night turn at last to slumber?
Can gritted eyes see true? Is the wan moon sinking?

Wake angel hosts, awake!

See the sun in promise
Send its outriders forth to push back the night
Now the horizon smiles in pearly greyness
At last, it surely comes! The Light! The Light!

Saturday, October 05, 2013


It was a terrible disappointment, after all my hard work. I had tried so hard to be accepted in this new town. I had spent hours listening to the “in” people to learn the local slang (not that they would ever demean themselves by calling it slang, it was just the way the insiders talked around here, and if you didn’t talk like that then you were not one of them). I had bought tickets to all the concerts and dressed in my best clothes, carefully observing what was the acceptable ‘look’ around here. Sure, I made a few minor blunders while I was learning the ropes, but I learned quickly. It’s one of the things I’m good at.  I know how to spend my money to the best effect, not rubbing it in people’s faces with vulgar ostentation, but using it to position myself as one who has already ‘arrived’, not (may heaven defend me!) revealing myself as that most pitiful of creatures, a social climber.  I knew how to talk wine and food, hinted at my “family property” way up north, and played my part sublimely well.

Apparently I didn’t do as well as I thought I had. The time came to throw my big Christmas party, an “intimate” dinner party for about 100 people. I consulted the best caterers money could buy, lined up a special chef to be flown in for the occasion, and sent out ‘save the date’ cards well in advance. Everyone knows how quickly the social calendar fills up at certain times of year! And the response seemed very positive. So I did it all (with a lot of paid help, of course – my social secretary has her finger on every detail) – the flowers, the table linens, even antique silverware was purchased through discreet channels so it would look like family heirlooms. And, knowing that chamber music was the fashion among these people (though, to be honest, I prefer something livelier myself), I even booked a string quartet from the Conservatorium of Music. I was rather impressed with myself, actually.

Well, I’ve heard it said that pride comes before a fall, and yes, I didn’t actually pull it off at all. When my secretary sent out the formal invitations just beforehand (that was the way they did things round here) the excuses started trickling back. One man had suddenly got married (for the fourth time, I believe) and they would be spending some ‘alone’ time; another had just bought a new property out of town and needed to go and check it out before the sale was finalised; another wanted to buy a racehorse (just before Christmas?) and so it went on, an absolute deluge of excuses.

I was devastated. What was I going to do? It was too late to cancel anything; all the machinery for a big event was in motion, a juggernaut which I didn’t know how to stop. It was then that I had my brilliant idea. There were people who would certainly accept an invitation, whose social calendars were so empty that they didn’t even exist, and I knew exactly where to find them: the homeless shelter, the women’s refuge, the orphanage, the old people’s home. My secretary rang around, and, to our mutual amazement, exactly 100 people were able to come!

So we went ahead. We put out the best china, the antique silver, and the exquisite linens and briefed the waiters on what we wanted. And then they arrived, not looking bored and blank like the ‘in’ people always do (at least when they look at me) but with faces shining with wonder, and more than a few tears. Their joy sang in the air, floating above the candles like a breath of the perfume of Paradise, and even the professionals I had hired forgot to be distant and formal and became real human beings with huge hearts and huge smiles.

It was the best party I have ever been to, and I wonder why I had ever bothered with the other kind.