“The Rabbi’s Gift”
In his book, The Different Drum, M. Scott Peck shares a story called ‘The Rabbi’s Gift.’ It is a legend of sorts about a monastic community and its encounter with a local rabbi. I am indebted to Jay Bowes, who shared it as a part of our recent Deacons’ Retreat.
An ancient and venerable monastery has fallen on hard times. Once a great order, the monastery’s community has suffered great loss, both in membership and vitality over the course of centuries. Now, all its branch houses have closed; and its community comprises just five monks living together in the decaying mother house. The abbot and the other monks are well past 70.
In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a small hut, which served a local rabbi as a retreat and hermitage. Over the years, the monks had come to sense when the rabbi was in his hut: ‘the rabbi is in the woods,’ they
would whisper. It was during such a time that the abbot, despairing over the future and knowing the rabbi was in his hut, decided to pay a visit. Perhaps the rabbi might have some wisdom, some advice that would save his beloved monastery.
The rabbi welcomed the abbot. But when asked, he could only commiserate with his neighbor: ‘I know how it is,’ he said. ‘The spirit has gone out of the people. Almost no one comes to synagogue anymore.’
The abbot rose to leave. ‘It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet, finally, after all these years,’ the abbot said, ‘but I have failed in my purpose.’ ‘No, I am sorry,’ the rabbi replied. ‘I have no advice to give; all that I can tell you is that the messiah is one of you.’
When the abbot returned, the old monks surrounded him and asked, ‘what did the rabbi say?’ ‘Nothing, really,’ the abbot replied; ‘only something cryptic: the messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.’
As days followed days, the old monks pondered the mystery of the rabbi’s words, turning them over and over again in their minds to see what they could possibly mean.
The messiah is one of us. Could he possibly have meant one of the monks here at the monastery? How could that be? But if so, which one? Surely, the rabbi meant the abbot. He has been our leader for a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas; who is a holy man, a man of light.
He could not have meant Brother Eldred. Eldred gets a little testy at times. Still, even though he can be a thorn in our sides, Eldred is almost always right. He could not have meant Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, sort of a nobody. Still, Phillip has a rare gift: he is always there when he is most needed. He seems to magically appear just when you need him. Maybe Phillip is the messiah.
Each of the monks thought to themselves: the rabbi could not possibly have meant me! I am not the messiah. I am just an ordinary person. Still, what if he did mean me? What if I am the messiah? O God, not me! I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?
For those of us who sometimes despair over our limited ability to envision what the future of the church will look like, this story is a blessing. Because it reminds us that the future of the church does not need to be invented. It was born 2000 or so years ago, small and fragile, and yet possessed of boundless hope.
Advent and Christmas are the seasons when God summons the Church to consider its role in making that boundless hope manifest in the world. Because while it is appropriate to reflect on the meaning of the Christ is this season, it might be worthwhile to consider this: before the Messiah was a person, the messiah was an idea; before there was Jesus, there was a hope, a word of promise from God that assured Israel that sorrow and grief, captivity and exile were never the final word.
We call that hope Christ; the incarnation of God’s resolve for goodness, blessing and peace for the whole of God’s creation. And like any hope worthy of the name, it needs to be exercised by the people who take it seriously, to hold it as an article of faith.
The Church is the bearer of God’s messianic hope; only through us does the promise of peace and redemption born in a stable 2000 years ago shine a new light into our world today. The messiah is among us, perhaps even one of us. Which is as good as the news gets!
Here how the monks’ story ends.
As each of the monks reflected on this, they began to treat each other with an extraordinary generosity and respect, on the off chance that one of them was indeed the messiah. And on the off, off chance that they might be the messiah themselves, they began to treat themselves with respect.
Because the forest around the crumbling monastery was a place of famous beauty, people still came to visit, to picnic on its lawn, to wander its paths, and even now and again to wander into its chapel to sit quietly and meditate. And as they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sense that aura of extraordinary respect that now surrounded the five old monks; and seemed to radiate out from them and fill the place with a great spirit.
There was something strangely attractive, even compelling about the place. Hardly knowing why, the guests began to come back more often, to picnic, play and pray. They began to bring their friends, to show this treasure they had found. And their friends brought friends.
Then it happened that some of the younger people started to talk more and more to the old monks. After a while, one or two asked if they could join them. Then more and more; and once again, the monastery became a thriving order.
May the blessings of God shine forth into your lives this Advent season, and the Peace of Christ fill you with joy this Christmas.