Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Parable about Transubstantiation

When Mr. Anderson who is the director of religious education at St. Mary’s in Metamora teaches catechism he has a saying which he repeats so much that the school children can finish the sentence for him. He says, “English…” and they say, “..is a terrible language for theology”. One of his examples is the word substance. He says that its Greek origin stands for, “that which lies under the appearance of”. He says its use in English (mainly in physics) totally obscures what the word really means. So, transubstantiation means changing that which lies under the appearance of bread and wine.
That, together with an episode of “The Suite Life on Deck” and the live size (human size) statues of angels by the altar at St. Mary’s, gave me an idea for a parable on transubstantiation. In the episode of Suite Life, Zack and Cody pretended to be statues of some ancient Roman figures. They dressed up in togas and then sprayed themselves completely with a white dust. I Put all this together and came up with this parable.
I was walking around the art museum the other day with Jesus. We were talking about transubstantiation and the meaning of the word ‘substance’. We passed by a statue of an angel and he asked me, “What is this?” I said, “I am not sure what you mean Jesus. Are you asking what it represents? It’s supposed to represent an angel.”  He said, “OK, so it has the appearance of an angel?” I said, “Yes just the appearance and really only from a distance”. He smiled and said, “That is fine. But, what is its substance?” I said, “Stone”. He said, “Exactly. What lies under the appearance of an angel is stone. How do you know that?” “Well you can feel it.” I said, “It’s hard as a stone.” 
He then walked up to another statue and asked, “Who is this.”  I said, “This represents Julius Caesar. But what lies under the appearance of Julius Caesar is stone.”  He said, “Well this time you are wrong. This is someone pretending to be a statue. So under the appearance of Julius Caesar is a statue but under the appearance of the statue is a human being.”  ‘Wow, he’s doing such a good job standing so still” I said, “and holding his breath. I couldn’t tell.”  Jesus said “squeeze his arm”. I said, “No, Lord I believe you. I don’t need proof”. He said, “I want you to feel his arm”. I squeezed his arm and it was obvious that it was a human arm.
Next, came a statue of King David. Jesus asked, “How about this one?” I said, “I don’t know. It has the appearance of King David, and under that, has the appearance of a statue. But, what is under that?  I can’t tell.  Is it another person pretending to be a statue?”  He said, “Yes. Feel his arm.”  I said, “Jesus I believe you and I trust you. I have faith in you. I don’t need to test what you tell me.” He said, “Good. I need you to have that faith. You will need it here pretty soon. Now, feel his arm.”
I started to squeeze the statue’s arm but it was solid as a rock. I said, “Jesus I can’t squeeze his arm. Why is that?”  He said, ‘It’s because this man has put on such a thick layer of stone that you can’t squeeze through it.  Are you having doubt now?” 
I said, “No, I will never doubt what you say. You said there is a live person underneath. And that is that.  I am sure that a stronger person can squeeze hard enough to crush the stone layer and feel the person underneath. “
Jesus: “No, there is no human being strong enough to do that.”
“How about we just watch or listen for him breathing, or do some kind of x ray or ultrasound or a biological activity scan or something of that sort?”,  I asked.
Jesus: “Actually, there is no human sense or device that could see through that stone and feel the live person underneath.”
“So, Jesus, no human will be able on his own to sense or prove that there is a live person underneath?”
Jesus:  “No, quite the opposite. All your human senses, tests and devices will “prove” that there is nothing but stone.”
“So how would anyone find out?”
Jesus: “They don’t find out. They know.”
“How do they know?”
“I tell them and they believe me. There is no other way. Do you remember what I told you before I asked you to feel that statue’s arm?”
 “That I will need faith?”
Do you still have it?
 I said, “Yes, Lord.”

Goha's Talking Donkey

Goha heard that the Prince is looking for someone who could teach the Prince’s donkey to talk. The Prince had summoned all the teachers and wise men and anyone interested to see who can do the job. When Goha heard of this he headed to the Royal Palace and entered into the Prince’s Court. The Prince said that he noticed how intelligent his own donkey was and that he believes that with good teaching the donkey could be taught to talk. “Who among you can teach my donkey to talk?” No one responded. “It cannot be done”, replied the wise men. Goha got up and walked toward the donkey. He looked at the donkey, examined its ears and mouth, and talked to it for a while. “This is truly a very intelligent and exceptional donkey that you have here your Majesty. I am sure “he” can be taught to talk.” The Price rose up, “You can do it?”
 “Yes your majesty. But, this is going to be a very long and difficult job.”
“How long will it take?”
 “I will need 10 years.”
“Fine,” said the Prince “I’ll see you in ten years.”
“Your majesty I will have to do this job full time, day and night. I will need a salary.”
“How much?” 
“More than all these professors and wise men that could not do the job”
I will need to take the donkey home with me so I can teach him day and night.”
The donkey will need food. Not just regular donkey food but food good enough for a talking donkey, human food. I will also need money to build him a nice room to study, and another one to sleep. And supplies, school supplies, house supplies. And some extra money in case I need some other provisions.”
The Prince’s men loaded up the donkey with all the food and supplies. The donkey could barely walk with the load on its back. Walking out the guard said, “You know what will happen if 10 years from now the donkey is not talking?”
“I know. I’ll be beheaded”, he said without hesitation
Goha arrived home with the donkey loaded with all sorts of goodies and supplies and gold coins. Goha’s wife could not believe her eyes. “How did you get all this?” He told his wife the whole story. She was terrified.
Goha: “Woman we will be rich. Why are you so mad?”
Wife: How are you going to teach this donkey to talk?
Goha: I know it’s a very tough job. But I have 10 years. Ten years is a very long time. Just stop worrying and enjoy our riches.
Wife: So what happens 10 years from now if the donkey is not talking?
Goha: 10 years from now either I will be dead or the Prince will be dead, or the donkey will be dead.

Goha's Nail

Goha is believed to have lived in Mesopotamia (currently Iraq). He could well be a fictional character. His stories combine wisdom with humor. His stories are well known in Egypt folklore and some might have been added locally. Some stories are so well known that you might hear someone say “I am afraid this issue is going to become Goha’s nail.” Here is the story of Goha’s Nail
Goha had to rent out his house for some reason. Maybe it was court ordered, or perhaps he owed money to some mean people. He didn’t want to rent out his house but he agreed to rent the house and all the furnishings with one condition. There was one nail on the wall inside the house that is not to be part of the deal. He told the tenants, “You may use anything in this house any way you like except for this nail. It is mine. You can’t hang anything on it or do anything to it. You can’t move it.” The tenants agreed thinking, “Fine, no big deal”. The rent is to be paid up front. No refunds. If they decide to move out early they lose the rent. Goha had to live with some of his relatives. Next day Goha knocked on the door of his house.
What do you want?
I am here to check on my nail.
Nail is fine.
I just need to take a quick look at it to make sure everything is OK.
Fine, come on in.
Next day, the same thing; and the next day, and the next day.
They got tired of this and went to the judge. Goha told the judge, “This nail is mine. It is not rented to these tenants. I need to check on it.” The judge said Goha has a right to check on his property.
 After that Goha started coming twice a day, and then three times a day. He started knocking on the door in the middle of the night. The tenants had no choice. They moved out. And Goha moved back home and lived happily ever after.
(Contrary to the story as quoted in some sources, Goha  did not tell the tenants that he will be coming to check on the nail.)

The Parable of The Ten Virgins: What Is The Oil?

The 3 questions people have when they read this parable are:
1. What does the oil stand for?
2. Why wouldn’t the wise virgins share their oil with the foolish virgins?
3.  What is the difference between the wise and foolish virgins?

What is the parable supposed to teach us? It must be something like: If we manage certain things in our lives wisely we would make it heaven just like the wise virgins managed the lamps and made it to the wedding. We should emulate the wise ones and avoid acting like the foolish ones. So, it becomes obvious that finding out the difference between the wise virgins and the foolish ones is the most important question, which always leads to the question of what does the oil stand for?  After all, it is the amount of oil you take with you that makes the difference?  Right?

Let’s examine the characteristics of the oil. Perhaps that would allow us to ID it. The oil has such strange characteristics:
1. The wise virgins have more of it. But,
2.  It is easy to come by. Anyone can go buy as much as they want of it.
3. It is not too expensive. The foolish virgins seem to have enough money to buy as much oil as they want.
4. Everybody probably has enough of it at home.
5. It does not require a lifetime of commitment.
6. It is not a characteristic of the person. It can be simply handed from one person to another
Confused yet?

Growing up in Egypt we used to play a game similar to “20 questions” called ‘My Bride”. One of the kids leaves the room and then we choose an object. When he returns he would go around the room asking each kid, “My Bride?” Each person would tell him one feature of his “bride”. For example, “Is in this room”. Next, “has four legs”, “made of wood” and so on until he can figure out what his bride is. Once in a while one prankster kid would suggest that we play a trick on the guesser and choose nothing. The more innocent kids would ask, “What does that mean”. “It means you can say whatever you want. It is nothing or it’s everything”. So each person would say anything they want as a feature of the bride. For example: lives in the sea, is made of plastic, is baked in the oven,… You get the point. The kids would giggle and the guesser would think they are giggling because they chose a very difficult one. Eventually the guesser would figure out that when you add up all the characteristics it cannot be anything. Sounds familiar?

Why did the wise virgins refuse to share their oil? It seems that there should be enough. Each wise virgin still has a whole flask full of oil and there is no more waiting. You just need to put some in the lamp and take off with the groom. The parable tells us that they didn’t think they had enough oil, and for the purpose of the parable that is the undisputed truth. Some people might say even if they thought it was not enough they should share and take their chances. That would be an act of charity and self sacrifice. Here it is very important to remember that the parable is about wise virgins make it to the wedding not about nice virgins showing us how to behave or charitable virgins making it heaven. Just like the parable of the prodigal son is about how a father can keep his kids at home or make sure whoever has a rebellious phase comes back home. It is not about how a father shows justice or makes sure his kids make it to heaven. OK, so they don’t have to be charitable, but how could they be so dumb to truly believe it would not be enough. Which brings us to the final question of what is the difference between the wise and the foolish? The parable deliberately points out the similarities between the wise and the foolish. There is really no difference whatsoever except with regard to the oil, which so far seems to stand for nothing. The reason the wise virgins didn’t share is in the parable itself.  It is not that each virgin did not have enough oil for two. Perhaps they did. But, what we know for sure is that they didn’t THINK they had enough. It is as simple as that. Whatever the oil is, they didn’t think they had enough of it. If they shared their oil with the foolish virgins, that would defeat the whole purpose of the parable. Not because all ten virgins would make it to the wedding. No, far more important is that if they would share then there would be no difference between the wise and the foolish. What DEFINES the wise virgins is that they really truly don’t think they have enough of anything or everything. And, that is what the oil is. It is everything- grace, virtue, holiness, charity, faith, prayer, sacraments, etc. Whatever it is, the wise don’t think they have enough of it. They are always trying to have more and conserve what they have. It (the oil, or all the above) is so precious to them because it will get them to meet the Groom.

The virtue of always thinking that you don’t have enough and the fault of thinking that you do will help you understand why the Lord is so upset with the angel of the church of the Laodiceans in Revelation 3:
14] And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God;
[15] I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
[16] So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.
[17] Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked

It will also help you understand why Jesus gives credit to the losing king in Luke 14:
[31] Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?
[32] Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

What Was Abraham Thinking: Lost in Translation

What was Abraham thinking when he pulled out the knife and proceeded to slaughter his son Isaac? Was he really going to go through with it? How did he reconcile God’s order with God’s promise that Isaac will produce the promised offspring? I am sure many students of the Bible have commented on that over the centuries. Obviously, the most authoritative view on what Abraham was thinking (at least for Christians) is St. Paul (assuming that he is the author of the letter to the Hebrews.)  Hebrews 11:17-19 King James Version reads:
[17] By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered up Isaac: and he that had received the promises offered up his only begotten son,
[18] Of whom it was said, That in Isaac shall thy seed be called:
[19] Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whence also he received him in a figure.

It is that last phrase: “from whence also he received him in a figure” that I want to focus on here.
Verse 19 in the New American Bible reads: “He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead, and he received Isaac back as a symbol.”
The footnote reads: As a symbol: Isaac's "return from death" is seen as a symbol of Christ's resurrection. Others understand the words en parabole to mean "in figure," i.e., the word dead is used figuratively of Isaac, since he did not really die. But in the one other place that parabole occurs in Hebrews, it means symbol.

Neither of these explanations seems satisfactory. They seem out of context. The natural progression of the verse and the logic is to tell us what made Abraham reason that God was able to raise from the dead. I first read this verse in Arabic many years ago. The Arabic reads something like: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from whom he received him also in an example”). It seems the words “en parabole” in Greek are very similar to the corresponding Arabic. They mean: in an example, or in a figure, or in a parable. I always thought that it should read something like: “from whom he has – in a sense - received him.” Arabic does not have an equivalent to “in a sense” I thought that if it did the meaning would be so obvious. Sadly the English did not use “in a sense” but the Greek is very consistent with it.  So if you replace verse 19 with:  “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead; from whom he has – in a sense - received him.” does the source of Abraham’s faith become obvious?
No, not yet. We have to overcome one more linguistic road block and we will get there.

Paul tells us that it should not be so difficult for Abraham to believe that God can bring Isaac (back to life) from the dead because Abraham has already received Isaac -in a sense- from the “dead”. In Arabic, the expression “raising from the dead” always uses the plural for dead meaning dead people. “The dead” in English can mean that too, but in the context of raising from the dead it is taken to mean raising someone out of the condition of being dead.  So now read: “Accounting that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead (plural); from whom he has – in a sense - received him.”  You can now understand St. Paul’s great parable.- the dead here being Abraham and Sarah, because they were old and barren. St Paul had just used the word “dead” a few verses before. Verse 12 talking about Abraham says, “Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.” He also uses the words dead and deadness to describe Abraham and Sara in Roman’s 4:19: “And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara's womb”. St. Paul says that Abraham believed that God could raise Isaac from the dead because Abraham has already – in a sense - received Isaac from the dead.

The Pollster's apprentice

Nasser grew up in Egypt. He immigrated to the U.S. in his late 20s after studying political science in Egypt. He returned to school in the US and earned a master’s degree in political polling. He graduated at the top of his class and was quickly recruited by Peter Griffin one of the well known pollsters in the U.S. He soon became Griffin’s apprentice, and was put in charge of the polling for the presidential campaign of 2012. His first poll of 3000 likely voters showed the Republican candidate- Mitt Romney trailing the Democratic candidate- president Obama 40% to 60%. The expenses for the survey were about $30,000. These surveys typically cost about $12 per response, but Nasser managed to stay under $30,000.  Griffin wrote a check to Nasser for $35,000. He said with a smile “Keep the change. And, by the way, if you put those talents of yours into saving money on these surveys you can still keep the difference.”
Soon after that poll was published, the New York Times published an interview with one of the White House aides who said that Obama missed his oldest daughter’s 10th birthday because he was called in to deal with a terrorist threat. Griffin asked Nasser to do a follow up poll to see the impact of that story.
Nasser: You really think that this story would make some people decide that he should not be president?
Griffin: My dear apprentice you don’t know how fickle the American electorate is.  You will soon find out. Go ahead and do a new survey of another 3000 voters. Here’s your $35,000 check.
N: I’ll do even better.  I’ll find out precisely if any voters have changed their mind. I still have the list of the 3000 people we polled. I’ll call each one and find out if any of them changed their mind.
G: No, no, no. You can’t do that. You need a fresh sample of 3000 new people.
N: Why?
G: Because people who already talked to you might be shy or ashamed of admitting that they changed their mind.
N: So people might vote for a different president just because they feel silly about changing their vote after talking to me?! And, the result is that in order to find out if someone changed his mind it is essential that we don’t ask him again if he changed his mind?
G: Exactly!
The apprentice thought to himself “This is ridiculous.” Then he started thinking “If I can only find a sample of voters who are not shy about telling me what they are thinking at the moment.  Perhaps I will build a close personal relationship with each one that whenever they would change their mind they would be totally honest with me, then I would use that same sample indefinitely.  “But, how can I have a close personal relationship with 3000 people?”
It then occurred to him that if the sample was perfectly representative of the electorate, he would not need 3000 voters but perhaps only 100 voters.
So the apprentice started on the most daring polling project in US political history. He carefully selected, recruited, and interviewed voters. He eventually put together what he called a super sample of 100 voters. He believed that their poll results would be as accurate as any other pollster’s.
He used his super sample for the next poll and came ahead of every other pollster’s accuracy.  He then used the same sample over and over and always came out ahead in accuracy. This went on for months. Griffin would commission a poll. Nasser would pocket the $35,000 and use his super sample. Griffin was invited to every political TV and radio show. He was so pleased with Nasser and asked him what his secret was.
 Nasser decided to come clean and told Griffin the whole story. Griffin was amazed. He wanted to know more about the super sample.
G: So, you are telling me that you only had to make 100 phone calls and you were done?
N: Actually I didn’t even need to call the whole 100. There were 35 people who told me that they would always vote Republican and another 35 who would always vote Democrat no matter what. They had strong political views or religious beliefs like being Pro-Life or social justice (whatever that is). I grew to respect these people even the ones whose beliefs are opposite to my beliefs. But, I didn’t need to call them for surveys. There was another 5% who said they don’t always vote Republican but they will this year because of many reasons, and that nothing in the news between now and the election would change that. There was another similar 5% on the Democrat side. So, I was down to 20 people. I used to call them the independents or the undecided.
G: So you only called 20 people and came up with results as accurate as polling 3000 people?!
N: Not even 20! There were 5 people that told me that they are voting Republican and seemed to never change their mind. I asked them if there is anything that could happen between now and the election that would make them change their mind. They said “Yes, but it has to be something major like a war or treason or something like that.” I called them when that story about the Marine came out and I asked if that was major enough for any of them. They all said “No, when something serious enough happens that would make us change our mind you will be able to tell. Call us then”.  I haven’t had to call them all year. There were 5 similar people on the Democrat side.
G: That leaves only 10 people. Tell me about them.
N: Yes I only had 10 people to call every week. Four of them would vote for whoever had the better news headlines in that week.  There are 3 people who would vote for whichever name came up more in the news during that week. And then there were 3 people who voted for whoever was ahead in the previous poll! I shouldn’t really need to call those last 3, but, like the other 7, their vote depended on what part of which news they caught the previous week.
G: I know you have a good long term relationship with these 10 people that they confide in you. But these people don’t seem so smart! Are they at all concerned about how dumb they sound?
N: Not really. There are 2 reasons for that, the polls and the political media. First,  the most intelligent and powerful people in the country, perhaps the world  want to know which way they voters  are leaning, no matter how dumb or stupid they are. Second, these 10 people are frequently called to be on TV shows for interviews and live coverage of debates. They are very popular right now. At the end of each one of those shows they ask them are you now decided?  The say No! Duh! If they ever say yes they will not be invited next time.
G: This is depressing. You are telling me that the presidential election is a quest for the idiots’ votes?
N: It is depressing. I made some hints to them that perhaps they don’t need to vote, but they believe it’s their civic duty. What is more dangerous is that it is becoming more and more important for a party to have poll results in their favor. They would do anything to manipulate the results so they would get momentum with those last 3%. They would also use any poll in their favor to stifle debate. I was watching one of those debates at the time when Obama was ahead. Every time Romney would bring up a good point or a view that he has which is popular with a majority of people, Obama would respond “The American people have told us that they don’t care about these issues. What they really care about is…”
Next time Griffin was on TV, he was asked how do you explain these big drops in Obama’s numbers last week despite the improving economy which generally favors the incumbent? All the other pollsters and experts pontificated about the possible explanation. The host turned to Griffin, “You have been more accurate than all the other pollsters. What do you think is driving these numbers?”  Like every other time Griffin gave very detailed reasons for the changes. But, this time there was something different. There was a certain sparkle in his eye. Nasser, watching the TV, was probably the only person who could see that sparkle. He knew exactly what Griffin was thinking. He was sending him a telepathic message across the air waves. The message said “You are asking me why these people changed their minds? How the heck could anybody know? These people don’t follow reason. They are idiots”