I read a story the other day that is so good it demands to be repeated. I hope you enjoy it too. The story grows out of an ancient Jewish legend, according to Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso from a congregation in Indianapolis. She, too, is re-telling the story that she recently read. According to the legend, the world is sustained by thirty-six righteous people, but no one knows who they are. Their acts of kindness and justice are the foundation of the earth, it is said. If one of them dies, and is not replaced, the world could not exist. A town is plagued by a lack of rain, Rabbi Sasso writes. "Everyone prays from the prominent lawyer to the beloved baker but nothing happens. No rain. Not a trickle. Then the poor shoemaker offers to pray. People laugh, for the shoemaker is not only poor, he is foolish. He is a kind man, always there to help, but not very wise. The people call him 'the stupid shoemaker.' But when he prays, the rain falls. The townspeople realize that the poor shoemaker is one of the thirty-six righteous. Then he disappears. When another cobbler comes to town, the people have changed. No one calls the new cobbler 'stupid.' Everyone is kind to him. He could be one of the thirty-six righteous. Because after all, you never know." A little later in her sermon, Rabbi Sasso reflects on the story: "What if we acted differently? What if we believed that every deed we performed, every word we spoke were the acts and words which either sustained or destroyed the world. After all, you never know."
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Our Christian tradition includes an account of what will happen at the end of time, when Jesus will welcome those for whom the kingdom has been prepared. As I re-read this account, even as I have read and heard it so often, I was jolted by a word I had skipped over before. We've become familiar with the part (in Matthew 25) where Jesus says, "for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me." And then we skip again to the part, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." The part I have always neglected is the Gospel identification of these people, the ones who feed the hungry and so on, as "the righteous." I don't want to mix up traditions, but I can't help but ask, "What if we believed that Jesus was the recipient of every deed we performed, and of every word that we spoke."
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Who are "the righteous" people of today? How are "the righteous" portrayed in film and drama and news accounts? Who are the people who are considered to be poor, stupid and foolish? Take the time to examine the way your town treats the poor, the stupid and the foolish. And if you find that actions are done and words are spoken that would not meet with the acceptance of Jesus, do something to change your town. Or your congregation. Or your set of friends. You might even change the way nations treat nations. After all, you might ask, could that homeless man be Jesus? Or that widow living alone? Or that Iraqi child? You never know. Rabbi Sasso's story is published in a collection, Keeping the Faith: Best Indiana Sermons, published by Guild Press Emmis Books in Indianapolis, www.guildpress.com or (317) 733-4175.
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