In the Gospel parables, teaching is hidden inside a story. In the Letter of St James (my favourite book of the Bible), there are stories hidden inside the teaching. I found this little story nested in chapter 2, and I thought I’d share it with you.
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It is time for prayers to begin. The small synagogue is almost full. Sophron methodically runs his eye over the rows of worshippers. He knows nearly all of them, even though many have only joined since the breakaway. Despite the scandal of their withdrawal from the mainstream synagogues of Judaea, people continue to be drawn in by their message about Yeshua Mashiach, the Lord of Glory. With an inner prayer, Sophron moves to ascend the bema, but at that moment two people appear through the doors at the back of the room. He doesn’t recognize either of them. One man is smartly dressed in expensive robes, with gold rings that can be seen across the room and a richly embroidered prayer shawl. ‘Worth more than the rest of us put together’, thinks Sophron. ‘I wonder what’s brought him here?’ The other guy has shabby old clothes on, not unlike some of the other brothers and sisters, possibly a bit grubbier. Sophron hurries across to greet the man with the rings. ‘Delighted to see you, sir,’ he says. ‘Do take this seat. Make yourself comfortable.’ It’s the last empty chair and not too rickety, thank goodness. Sophron turns to the shabby man. ‘Brother, you can sit here on the floor near my stool… Now, if we’re all ready, let us begin. Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. You shall love the Lord with all your heart…’
Half an hour later, prayers are over; the congregants are milling around and chatting. Sophron begins to push through the crowd towards the well-dressed newcomer. He must find out why a man like that has attended the prayers. Just as he is about to catch the man’s eye, he feels a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turns round with a familiar sinking feeling. It’s Yakob the Elder, with something on his mind.
‘Blessed be the Lord of Glory, brother Sophron,’ says Yakob. He’s got that look in his eye.
‘Blessed be he forever,’ replies Sophron correctly, wondering what’s coming next.
‘Brother, you know how the Torah forbids discrimination between people.’
‘Yes, Brother, I know.’
‘And hasn’t God chosen people who are poor in this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?’
‘Yes, of course he has.’
‘But you despised that poor man over there.’
‘I was only—,’ splutters Sophron, but Yakob is in full flight.
‘You were discriminating. You made yourself a judge, with evil thoughts.’
‘I was just trying to welcome our distinguished visitor…’
‘Yes, and as for rich people: aren’t they the ones who oppress us, drag us into court, and slander the Name of the One after whom we are called?’
‘Well, yes, Brother Yakob, but—’
‘What is the Law of the Kingdom?’
‘I do know that, Brother: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, we’ve just recited it, but—’
‘So, if you keep that Law, you do well. But if you discriminate between people, you’re committing a sin; the Torah convicts you as a transgressor. You know what it says about breaking even one law, I expect?’
‘Yes, yes, Brother: “whoever keeps the whole Torah, but offends in one point, is guilty of all.”’
‘Very good, Brother Sophron. So mind you speak and act as one who is going to be judged by the Law of Liberty.’
Oh dear, half the people in the room are staring, and Sophron can feel his cheeks burning. Before he can think of any reply, Yakob delivers his parting shot.
‘Remember—judgement is without mercy to anyone who has not shown mercy. But, cheer up, Brother: Mercy triumphs over Judgement. Goodnight!’
He strides towards the doors; Sophron hurries away to do some tidying up, on his own...
Next month, a second Sophron story: ‘Words and Deeds’.
If you enjoy (or can stomach) my unorthodox orthodox thoughts, you can find other faith-related ones in my blog Ecclos.