Friday, 24 November 2017

Hidden Stories 4—Desire and Slander

I’ve been digging buried stories out of the Letter of James, but I have to admit that this is not really a hidden story. I have invented it as an imaginary background to the teaching of  chapters 3 and 4. I hope that you will enjoy it as part of the continuing saga of Sophron the follower of Mashiach Yeshua. If you missed it, the last episode was here.

Part 1

Next door to Sophron’s expanding business in the Jerusalem market there’s a tiny shop, not much bigger than a cupboard. It belongs to Hannah the widow of Talmai, who also worships at the synagogue of Mashiach Yeshua where Sophron is an assistant pastor. Hannah scrapes a living making and selling baskets, and she’s not well off at all.
‘It’s hard on Widow Hannah,’ thinks Sophron, ‘because I also sell baskets, which, to be honest, are better than Hannah’s, since I don’t make them myself—I wouldn’t have the time or the skill—but purchase them from specialists. So we are in competition, definitely to her disadvantage. Wouldn’t it make sense for Widow Hannah to come into a business partnership with me? She could manage the supply of baskets (which she obviously knows a bit about) and I could devote more time to developing the rest of my business. Which I need to do, now that the deal with the Yehuda brothers has fallen through—smashed to pieces by Elder Yakob. And I could make good use of that little bit of extra space next door.’
Although she’s old enough to be enrolled among the synagogue’s widows, Hannah doesn’t seem old, and she’s remarkably good-looking. ‘If she felt like marrying again, I could bring her security and, well, a decent dinner every day. One day she’ll be too old to make baskets and then she’ll be totally dependent on the daily distribution. There’s a slight obstacle: among the enrolled widows, at least the older ones, there’s a convention that you don’t get married again. They see themselves as a kind of order of celibate Levites. That’s splendid, and they do fantastic work, washing the feet of the saints (as the saying goes!), tending the sick, and teaching the faith to the younger women and children. But it’s not as if it were a commandment. We aren’t under Torah but under Grace, after all!’
So Sophron makes a point of having a few words each day with Widow Hannah when they’re opening their shops, or shutting up in the evening. It’s remarkable how much mileage there is in the subject of baskets, when one is chatting with an attractive widow.
By a remarkable coincidence, on the other side of Hannah’s basket business is another business owned by a follower of the Way of Mashiach Yeshua: the shop of Shimon the lamp dealer. Shimon is also Sophron’s fellow assistant pastor. He’s quite friendly with Widow Hannah too. Like her he’s widowed, but he has a kind of slightly sneering look and talks with irritating mannerisms acquired from his education in the scribal schools. His lamps sell well, but oddly enough the shop’s dark and forbidding (much like its proprietor really, thinks Sophron). It’s hard to believe that there’s much to attract Widow Hannah on that side of the wall! But one should never count one’s chickens. Sophron decides to devote himself to prayer—and even a day’s fasting—to seek the Lord’s mind on this important prospect.
A week later, he’s delighted when Widow Hannah approaches him deferentially: ‘Brother Sophron, I always think of you as—well, my pastor in particular, and, like the rest of us, I greatly value your wisdom. May I have the benefit of that wisdom—in complete confidence.’
‘My dear Widow Hannah, of course. How can I help?’
‘It’s a matter of our faith, Brother Sophron. Now, our neighbour, your colleague Brother Shimon, seems to have rather strict views. In his last word of instruction, he said “Let everyone remain in the state in which he or she was called”. Do you agree with him?’
Sophron is even more delighted. Hannah is evidently not wedded to widowhood! He replies carefully.
‘As a well-trained pastor, Widow Hannah, Shimon has good grounds for his position. I think he would like us all to be free from worldly concerns. But many of us—you and I, and he too—are inevitably entrusted with such concerns, our businesses for example. So I do think his position a little over-strict. After all, we are not under the Torah, but under Grace! You know, he was a very zealous Pharisee before the Lord called him. I do not think he has entirely shaken that off. He’s inclined to be a little superior, a bit forbidding, don’t you feel? And those mannerisms of the scribes, all those ‘seven things are found in the wise man’ and ‘four things are something else’, well, I find them rather vain and repetitious. But as Elder Yakob reminds me, a person who makes no mistakes in what he says is a perfect being!’
‘Thank you, Brother Sophron, that is very helpful. I feel clearer in my heart about what I am to do.’ And there is a bright flash from her very attractive eyes as she turns away to open up her shop. Sophron feels that his prayers are being answered.
So it’s a shock when a few moments later, Pastor Shimon strides out of his shop and marches up to him. ‘So, Master Sophron, I am an unreconstructed Pharisee! Well, better that than a complete Epicurean*. I at least do not spend my time in idle chat with women! Am I not right that you have certain designs…?’
‘You are after her yourself. I’ve seen your looks. Well, I can assure you she’s more inclined to my way of thinking!’
Some hard words are exchanged, but they are cut short by Hannah popping back out of her doorway. ‘Pastor Shimon! Pastor Sophron! I am astonished at you. If what you’re arguing about is what I suspect, you are certainly not going to get it!’
‘Shimon, I could murder you!’
‘Just you try! I’ll give you vain repetition!’
*Epicurean: a person who rejects Jewish teaching; an unbeliever.

Part 2
Three days later, Sophron gets a message. News of the fracas has reached Elder Yakob, and he’s to present himself at once. He enters the little vestry at the back of the synagogue. There’s Yakob, looking grim. And oh dear, there’s Pastor Shimon too. The two of them avoid each other’s eyes.
Yakob opens the dialogue quite unexpectedly.
‘Brothers, our sister Widow Hannah, your neighbour, is in great need of all our prayers.’
Sophron and Shimon gaze at him in puzzlement.
‘Thanks to your combined wisdom, brothers, she has made a momentous decision. She has deserted our widows’ roll and betrothed herself to a man who does not follow the Way.’
‘But… I thought…’
‘What was your fight about, my brothers? What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill.’
‘Brother Yakob, we did not kill each other!’
‘I say kill, because Sister Hannah is, effectively, dead to us, her brothers and sisters. She is not following the Way.’
‘Heaven forbid…’ Sophron and Shimon turn pale.
‘You both covet her—and her nice little business. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.’
Sophron grasps at a straw. ‘Brother Yakob, I prayed and fasted…’
‘Yes, and when you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you can spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people!’
‘Elder Yakob, to court Widow Hannah was not adultery!’
‘Adultery of the spirit, brothers! Don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.’
Shimon says, quite angrily, ‘I do not consider myself a friend of the world. My teaching is quite the opposite. It’s this man—this Epicurean—who teaches friendship with the world!’
‘How dare you! You just want to put the burden of Torah back on our shoulders!’ retorts Sophron.
Yakob looks at each of them in turn.
‘My brothers, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgement on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbour?’
Yakob’s tone, surprisingly, becomes gentle. ‘Sit down, my brothers. Together, on this bench.’
He sits on a stool in front of them. ‘Listen, brothers. Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.’
Yakob takes one of their hands in each of his hands. ‘I want you to consider what the wisdom that comes from heaven is like.  First of all, it is pure. What does that mean?’
‘Unmixed. Not double-minded, I guess, brother,’ says Sophron, feeling like a schoolchild.
‘Correct. Then what?’
There’s a short silence. They make suggestions in turn. ‘Peace-loving.’ ‘Considerate.’ ‘Submissive.’ ‘Full of mercy and good fruit.’ ‘Impartial.’ ‘Sincere.’
‘That’s right. And peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness. Be at peace among yourselves, brothers.’
Yakob joins the two men’s hands. Sophron can’t repress a shudder. ‘What does it say in Scripture about God’s jealousy, Brother Sophron?’
‘God jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us.’
‘Do you think Scripture says that without reason? But, my brothers, he gives us more grace. Brother Shimon, whom does Scripture say God opposes?
‘God opposes the proud. But he shows favor to the humble.’
‘Quite right. Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash these hands, you sinners, and purify those hearts, you double-minded men. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.’
That’s pretty much how Sophron now feels! But Elder Yakob smiles. ‘If you humble yourselves before the Lord, my brothers, in good time he will lift you up, I promise.’