Who in God’s Name…?

by Ed Hicks

First Account: Circa 31AD

So, I am sitting in the synagogue on the Sabbath in Nazareth. It’s hot and the flies are attracted to my robe, which should have been washed after I mucked out the stables yesterday. I’m trying to ignore them, and maybe surreptitiously kill a few to entertain myself, and I can’t keep the girl at the bakery out of my head. What I am fantasizing isn’t very holy. I find the prayers tiresome and wish I could get out of here. Coming to the synagogue on the Sabbath is something I do because there is a lot of peer pressure to do so. The usual group is here, the truly pious and those of us who want to look like we are. This middle-aged carpenter that I grew up with gets up to read from the Torah.

This guy is rumored to have performed some miracles around Capernaum, but he hasn’t done any of that right around here, where we all know him. We never thought he was anything special, a bit of a mama’s boy, really. Growing up, he was studious, pious to the point of tedium, quiet, and was forever talking to himself. He didn’t get asked to go when we snuck off to see if we could get a glimpse of the girls bathing in the river. He turned out to be a fair carpenter, but the chair he made for me squeaks a little in the winter. I think his father was a better carpenter.

A rabbi hands him a dusty, somewhat tattered-edged scroll and sits down. The carpenter selects his reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he reads the part about being anointed and bringing good news to the poor and releasing captives, restoring sight to the blind and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor and all of that. No big deal.

He rolls the scroll back up, hands it back to the rabbi, sits down and then quietly declares that, as of this morning, that prophecy is fulfilled in our presence, just as if he was telling us that his mother was ill, or that he was buying a plot of ground.

It’s funny; everybody accepts easily enough that he is fulfilling the prophecy. I guess that isn’t too threatening. The hometown boy is anointed to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, bring good news to the poor and sight to the blind, and release captives, whatever that means. We all like the idea of a miracle worker having been brought up in our midst, as if we had something to do with it. We can lay claim to some of his success by association, if not to being formative to his spiritual development. We all congratulate him on his successful “miracle tour,” or whatever it is that everyone is talking about. But then he goes on to tell us that, although he could, and has in other places, he won’t be performing any miracles here. Although nobody had actually asked him to, he knows exactly what is expected of him here, and that all of the praise is just polishing his apple. As justification for not performing any miracles here, he points out Elijah and Elisha didn’t do miracles in their hometowns either, as if that has some relevance to him. Comparing himself to major prophets, that takes some stones!

The real sandspur, though, is implying that we, his people, don’t merit any miracles. You can say that the Spirit of the Lord is with you, and that you are anointed by the Lord to perform miracles, like Elijah and Elisha, but you better not say “but not here…not for you.” Shucks, most of us sort of feel like maybe we are prophets, or could be. He steps over the line when he refuses to turn some water to wine or restore sight to a few blind people for our entertainment and conviction. Who are we…Samaritans? Who does he think he is, the Messiah? All hell breaks loose.

Blasphemy is the general theme in the din that follows, with righteous indignation enjoyed close upon its heels. “Enjoyed,” because this poor fool is committing such an egregious sin that we can all look good by comparison. Almost immediately, calls for stoning follow, but sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks. After all, we are in the synagogue and most of the rocks big enough to stub your toe on around here have been removed from the vicinity of the synagogue long ago, at least the physical ones. And it’s hard to pebble someone to death.

The women in the women’s room nearly push the latticework down trying to see and hear what is going on. Hearing all of the men yelling at someone and escorting him, and I am being polite here, out of the synagogue, they all know this is big doings. When the men leave the synagogue, the women spill out into street and follow us from a distance, trying to puzzle out who had done what, who is going to do what to whomever it is, and why.

Some of the more creative “leaders” in the crowd that day suggest we just carry him to the edge of the nearby cliff and fling him over the edge. That should provide an immediate, appropriate, and effectively instructive punishment. So we set about doing just that. Some of us grab an arm, some a leg, and others just a piece of his cloak so we can claim to have taken part in it and we transport him to the edge of the precipice. I grab a piece of his cloak, kind of near the bottom. As we get close to the edge, however, people start dropping off, having done their part. The old, “I signed up for the transportation committee, not to take part in the program,” routine. We are all willing to participate in hauling his sanctimonious butt up there, but the crowd wanes when we get to the point where we are going to take hold of him, lift him over our shoulders, and throw him over the edge.

Although there were no real leaders with authority in our small synagogue, the ones who are most sure of the law, having done the heavy theological lifting, do not think they should carry out the sentence. The rest of the group, and by that I include me, are uncomfortable because the scholarly types haven’t really addressed the certainty of absolution from the law for killing a blasphemer, and we aren’t sure that it’s blasphemy to insult the residents of your old neighborhood. Probably should be, but that assertion had yet to be litigated.

Anyway, the rank and file notice that the leaders of this band are stepping away from the actual act of destruction. I drop my hold on the cloak as soon as I see the first sign of hesitation by one of the hotheads from the synagogue. It doesn’t feel right, doing what we decided to do. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the fellow they notice isn’t as upset as he should be, and isn’t doing his part. I don’t want them clamoring for me to join the miracle worker on his short trip down the mountainside because I look soft on blasphemy…if that is what it is.

I feel like a chicken on a spit between two fires, one of holy indignation and the other, out-of-control barbarism; each fed with the artificial fuels of pride and peer pressure. It reminds me a lot of the kind of show fights that we used to get into when we were kids, that escalated way out of proportion to some perceived offense, and wouldn’t stop until a rabbi or some parent stepped in. The problem is, there just aren’t any adults to intervene here, and the rabbis are among the participants.

In the end, we take him to the brink, but for various reasons or excuses, moral uncertainty being one of the strongest, followed closely by actually knowing the perpetrator, nobody picks him up and tosses him over the edge. He dusts himself off and walks unruffled, back through the crowd. I can’t look him in the eye when he passes, and although I know he does, I hope that maybe he doesn’t notice me. Somehow, not throwing him off the cliff delegitimized the whole thing, maybe because, if we did, we wouldn’t have to look him in the eye afterward. You don’t want to be on the wrong side about that sort of thing. It’s one thing to have and advance an opinion about putting someone to death, but you can’t “un-throw” someone off a cliff.

I’m not sure what will happen if he makes a habit of this. He has the advantage of being only one of a handful of guys in a couple of thousand years to stand up in a temple or synagogue and claim to be a prophet from God. And the other guys demonstrably were prophets, although, as I remember reading, they had some pretty harsh words for their contemporaries at the time, and some of them had to hide out for a while. You would have thought that the Lord would have made better provisions for those he chose to advance his cause to the detriment of the political leadership. Maybe this is just a bid for attention, or maybe he’s the Messiah. This carpenter, or rabbi, or whatever he is, doesn’t look like a messiah to me, though. Of course, I’ve never seen one.

Second Account: Circa 2019

So I am sitting in a pew about a third of the way down the aisle, as is my usual habit, scanning the bulletin and paying just enough attention to know when to stand up and read aloud with the congregation, and what hymns to sing, and when. The small of my back is already starting to ache from the shape of the pew and I am wishing I had remembered to bring some reading glasses so I could see the words of the hymns, since I know no more than the first verse of most of them. The man in front of me has a mole on the back of his neck and I wonder if it’s a melanoma, and if maybe I had one where I wouldn’t notice it. The first liturgist, a high school senior, walks to the lectern and reads something from Exodus. I reason that my wife would surely tell me, but then think of what a crummy husband I have been and wonder what is in her secret heart. A few seconds later I glance up and the second liturgist is at the lectern to read from the New Testament. He looks homeless, wearing a tattered flannel shirt, collar buttoned down, some cargo pants and well-worn leather sandals. His hair and beard need some work, but he doesn’t have that defeated look that is so common in the homeless. In fact, he looks completely at ease and absolutely confident, like he has spoken in public a lot. A member stands up and starts for the lectern, stops abruptly when he sees it occupied, then hurriedly sits back in confusion. I scan the bulletin quickly for any notice of a guest speaker or a theatrical reading, but there is none. The pastor and associate pastor are looking at each other with a combination of bewilderment and concern, clearly expecting someone else. The liturgist begins to read from Revelation.

I always hated Revelation. Nothing good happens until everyone has gone through a lot of pain and suffering and there are relatively few people who come out unscathed on the other side. There are lots of dragons, fire, and seals being opened and other incomprehensible bad-dream material. I always suspected that John had gotten ahold of a few mushrooms in one of those pastures where shepherds were keeping their watch. He reads the part about John seeing heaven open, revealing a man called “The Word of God” riding a white horse and with a robe inscribed “King of Kings, Lord of Lords,” in case someone didn’t associate the name. Then, to our amazement and concern, the liturgist announces that he is, in fact, the entity to which the passage refers. Now, Revelation may be unfathomable in many regards, but subtle it is not! In spite of all the mystery about Revelation in general, everyone knows who was on the white horse. It wasn’t the Lone Ranger, and it certainly wasn’t this liturgist. Based on his assertion, the liturgist clearly doesn’t think the white horse is critical to the actual second coming, nor the robe, although the robe wouldn’t be that hard to come by.

There is a scattered uncomfortable chuckle from those members of the congregation who savor the absurdity of the situation, but most people are indignant and stupefied. I assume I didn’t hear it right. Having a bit of a hearing loss, I often find that what I think is said is infinitely more interesting than what is actually said. I try to monitor my verbal and visible reactions to what I hear accordingly. There’s a lot of looking around as people search for cues from other people in the pews as to how to react, but no real leadership is forthcoming there. The head usher, having dispensed with his duties until time for the offering, sits down with his wife to listen to the service. He instantly reads the situation, and assuming that the liturgist’s chain has slipped off its gears, stands back up, and recruits another able-bodied gentleman in his pew with the intention of escorting the liturgist out.

The pastor, thinking pretty quickly, stands up and, rather like a baseball pitcher, subtly shakes off the head usher. No doubt keenly aware of the live feed of the service, he thanks the liturgist as if nothing unusual had been said and then reads the intended New Testament gospel verses himself. He then launches into his sermon, assuming, correctly I am sure, that 90 percent of the people watching on the live feed don’t really pay much attention until he starts to preach. The liturgist leaves, walking down the center aisle, looking pleasantly at the members of the congregation as they stare like guppies. A few have the presence of mind to scowl, while others thoughtlessly smile back. At the conclusion of the sermon, the pastor pauses, then makes an earnest plea for tolerance and prayers for those among us suffering from various types of illnesses and addictions. The remainder of the service concludes in the normal way.

After the service, almost everyone stays for the social gathering in the fellowship hall. There is a lot of conversation about the mystery man. No one really remembers seeing him come in before the service. As a matter of fact, no one really could say for sure how he got to the lectern without being intercepted. Some suggest he came from the vicinity of the choir, but the choir members are sure they would have noticed him. It’s not that big of a choir—and he had no choir robe on. Most surmise that he came from the back entrance that would have allowed him to pass behind the pastors until he was nearly at the lectern. There is a great deal of speculation about his condition. It generally centers on drugs, alcohol, or mental illness. If there were some way to implicate sex, the whole experience would make a great object lesson for the high school Sunday school class.

It is interesting, though. I don’t even entertain the thought that just maybe, he really is Jesus, come again. I mean, this isn’t how it is supposed to look! But we don’t ride horses much now, and certainly not to church. Of course, if Jesus did, we would all remember from whence he entered the sanctuary, him being the only one on a horse, and all. I can’t see him showing up in a white Lamborghini, double parking out front, and grabbing a bulletin on the way in, either. I don’t know where else but in a church or synagogue he would choose to reveal himself, certainly not at the drum circle. He wouldn’t even stand out there…probably just get a polite round of applause, a few hugs and a “welcome back.” Come to think of it, that actually might be a better reception than he could expect at church. I guess our expectations are so high.

It would be discouraging to be Jesus, knowing that when you came back, no one would recognize you unless you were wearing a label. Even if you acted like…well...Jesus, you would be drummed out of whatever venue you chose for your return as some kind of nut case. On the other hand, it is hard to be a believer. So far, to the best of our knowledge, Jesus hasn’t come back, although a lot of people have claimed that mantle. The labels on the imposters have all looked homemade and the character thing is hard to replicate. But if he shows up at our church, that would settle that denomination thing once and for all, if we don’t blow it and toss him out. Talk about embarrassing! That would be like going to a big dinner party where you didn’t know the host and calling the police because you found him rooting around in his own kitchen.

It’s been 2000 years. I hope he realizes how hard it is to stay focused for that long. I just hope it won’t be up to me to recognize him and respond appropriately. Honestly, I have trouble recognizing and remembering people I met at the church retreat last year. I don’t know much about the second coming, but I like to think I’ll know it when I see it. A white horse would be a good hint, but without something irrefutable, I suspect that I, and a lot of other folks, would get it wrong—again.

Ed Hicks is a retired forester who spent too much time in the woods alone, asking himself questions, musing on life, and drafting stories in his head. He has walked a lot of paths, physically and mentally, and is now sifting through the accumulated artifacts of his mental wanderings for anything worth dusting off and preserving.

About Who in God’s Name—Two perspectives explore the questions around how anyone would know for sure that they are witnessing a pivotal moment in history, rather than simply an aberration in the routine of life.