I preached this morning, something I don't get to do as much any more. I was in the mood to write a short story. The scriptures pointed me to the ideal of grace. Here it is for your reading.
I have always enjoyed novels and stories. They are a way to listen, share, and learn. They can sneak in the back door with truth. Jesus told stories, but we call them "parables." They share truth even through stories of things that never happened. For many years I wrote a story every Christmas for the candlelight service. As I prepared for today a theme came up on the Internet on one of those idea seeds and I said- yep! The theme was a historical story in a woodworking shop with a scale.
As I started to write I saw this woodworking area that was part of the courtyard of an ancient house. It would be wrong to call it a “shop” as it was just a wide area on the side of the house. It was well arranged and, like the house, it had a good roof, as much for a place to sleep outside in summer as to keep out the sun and the winter rains.
Various tools of the time were scattered. We might recognize some of them- and wonder how anyone could do such fine work with such primitive tools. But have no fear, years of training, apprenticeship, and then hard work do work miracles. There was no workbench. That came much later in history. The Craftsman, and his sons, worked on the ground, bending, kneeling or sitting. Different projects at different stages of progress stood against the wall of the house or leaned against one of the poles that held up the roof. For one, the plow from their neighbor Avram had hit a stone too big to pass by. He would be repairing its gash. Door frames for the new doors for the synagogue were curing in the sun.
But what caught everyone’s attention when they stopped by was the smell of the fine cedar wood The Craftsman was using for his most important task in months. He was to build a new box for the synagogue. It was to be the place where the Torah scrolls were housed between the Sabbaths. In a couple hundred years these boxes would be known as “Arks” after the Holy of Holies at the Temple. In those days, though, the great Temple in Jerusalem was still the center of religious life and no one would even consider using that name for a mere local synagogue. Synagogues were not for worship as we know it- and as Jerusalem described it. The regular pilgrimages to the Temple provided the central rituals of sacrificial worship. Jerusalem was for true worship. Synagogues were more like schools. They were places to hear the Torah read and explained. At that time in history they were not much more than large rooms, maybe 30 feet by 30 feet. Benches sat along the walls with the local copy of the Torah- the five books of Moses- kept safely in a wooden box- brought out on the Sabbath when the community came together to hear and learn.
It wasn’t a large town. It sat on a hillside about 12 miles from the nearby Sea and surrounded by farming land. The 400 or so inhabitants were more like an extended family than a modern village. Humble, poor- and proud of their heritage, the new box for the scroll was a noteworthy addition after the old one had finally fallen apart. They had raised enough support to import this fine cedar wood from Lebanon. The Craftsman, the local woodworker, was chosen to make it instead of going to a nearby city where the care and respect wouldn’t have the same value attached to it.
The Craftsman’s two boys were most interested in that Torah chest. The expensive cedar showed that it was important- and holy. It was connected with the one God. The Shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”, was the first creed of their faith; and those mighty words were on that scroll.
“Abba,” said the older son as he ran his fingers along the fine piece of cedar wood. “I know the Torah is from Moses; and Adonai, the Lord God, blessed be His Name, gave Moses the Aseret ha-D’varim.” (That’s the phrase the Torah uses to refer to what we call the Ten Commandments.)
“Yes, my son,” the father smiled. He enjoyed it when his sons showed interest in the Torah. They would grow into fine men of the faith. “As we heard from the Psalm last Sabbath, the words of ‘Adonai are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb…’ ”
“Why, then, Abba, are they called simply the ten d’varim and not the ten mitzvoth?” (In English d’vrim is translated “sayings” or “words”. Mitzvoth are “commandments.”)
“Are these ten, then, NOT mitzvoth, ten requirements like all the other 600 mitzvoth?”
The Craftsman paused a moment and walked over to the piece of wood his son was admiring and touched it gently. “You are wise, my son, to have figured that out. It is an important piece of wisdom.”
The boy beamed- as any child would when given such praise by their father.
“Does that mean they are not mitzvoth and we don’t have to obey them?” the younger boy asked. “Obeying them makes us righteous, doesn’t it, father?”
The Craftsman glanced beyond the courtyard to the hills outside the city. He was remembering one of his neighbors when he and their son were young.
“You know Miriam who lives up the hill over there,” he pointed. She and Yosef, may his memory be blessed, had a son my age. Yeshua. We spent a lot of time together. There was this one Passover when we all traveled to Jerusalem. On the way home we couldn’t find Yeshua. It turned out that he had simply been sitting in the Temple listening to the elders.” The Craftsman smiles and shakes his head remembering. “No one wanted to rebuke him for something as holy as that. All saw Yeshua’s joy at having spent that time there.”
The Craftsman’s son nodded, no doubt thinking, "Yes, Abba. Get on with it." He had heard the story many times. It was part of the folklore of their town.
“Yeshua was quiet at first as we finally headed home,” the Craftsman continued.
“About a day from home we passed by Samaria. I made some kind of childish comment about the Samaritans not being righteous people because they have a different Torah, not the real one like we do.
“Yeshua stopped and pulled me aside. ‘Oh, Baruch,’ he said, shaking his head sadly. ‘We are all part of the same people in the heart of Adonai, blessed be his name. The Torah is words. They give us a way to know what Abba Adonai wants us to do. But righteousness is not following laws. It is living and being open to the ways of the Lord God- in spirit more even than in word.’
“I was upset at what Yeshua was saying. I looked around to make sure that none of the adults heard him. ‘But how will Adonai know we are his people if we don’t follow his mitzvoth?’ I asked. ‘How can the people of God stay together if we lie to each other, steal from each other, are envious of what others have?’ ”
“Just then a young boy came running at us from the village we were passing. He was a little older than us- and was obviously a Samaritan- our people didn’t live near there. We could hear him crying for help. One of his sheep had strayed and was caught in a thicket. ‘Help me,’ he kept yelling. ‘My family needs that lamb.’ Yeshua started toward the boy. I called to him, urging him to stay away. ‘He is unclean, Yeshua. Our parents will be angry. We can’t go near him.’
“Yeshua ignored me. I was afraid- I didn’t want to become unclean. I stood there and watched as Yeshua went with the boy toward a bunch of branches. Together they worked and got the lamb out of the thicket. It was a little ragged, but it survived its ordeal.
“All I did was stand there,” said the Craftsman. “I stood and was afraid of Adonai because Yeshua had just broken a command. How would he be punished?” Baruch stopped talking and rubbed his hand gently across the cedar wood. He turned to see both his sons looking puzzled. They had never heard this part of the story before.
“What happened, Abba? Did Yeshua get punished?”
Baruch smiled. “No, my sons. We never told anyone. As I watched him that day I knew Yeshua was right- the joy on the Samaritan boy’s face was enough to convince me. Yeshua never questioned what he should do. He just went and did it., I learned that day that to be righteous is not in words or reciting mitzvoth. To be a righteous one is to do what is right to help another.”
“But Abba, some say Yeshua is not a righteous one. They say he leads people away from the Torah with wrong teachings. Remember last year when people chased him from town?”
The Craftsman did remember that painful Sabbath. “I don’t know about those things, my son, though I, too have heard people say that. Many do not like to have their beliefs tested or challenged. Especially about things like the Torah. I learned much from Yeshua when we were growing up. He was a good friend and showed great compassion. I even learned to love the words of the Torah even more because of him. He showed me that they are alive.”
His sons gave another confused look.
“Someday you will understand what that means,” the Craftsman smiled. “These words are priceless. When we say them out loud how many shekels could you pay to get them?”
“You can’t weigh them," the one son responded. "They are just, well, words”
“Correct. They are air and my scale over there couldn’t ever weigh them. There’s nothing there. But they are alive and real when we as the people of Adonai live them. To make them into dead laws kills them. They are far more important than that. They won’t get us into heaven, only the Holy One, blessed be his name, can do that. But he gave Moses these words so we can find the way.”
The Craftsman rubbed his hand across the cedar and smiled then held it out to the boys. “Smell this, my sons. One day soon this will be the fine smell of our Torah, absorbed into it and always there to smell. Then, when you smell cedar it will remind you to breathe in the wonder of these holy words.”
“I smell fresh bread. When’s lunch, Abba,” the younger boy piped in. “I’m tired and hot.”
The Craftsman laughed as he put his arms around the boys. “That, too, is a holy smell from the house. Let’s eat!”
[Note: I recorded the sermon on audio. I may put it together as a You Tube presentation. Will post it if I do.]