Entertaining, Unaware

I read the Bible.  This seems to irritate everyone.

My atheist friends don’t get it; many of them fail to appreciate the book at any level.  That’s a pity, because even if the Bible is just a collection of stories, its echoes are heard throughout western culture.  (Is that hegemonic?  Yep, but that’s the culture I grew up in.  There’s wisdom in any number of books – holy or unholy – and while I can appreciate them, I don’t have cultural context for the Popul Vuh or the Egyptian Book of the Dead.)  Only Mr. Shakespeare is as tightly woven in our literary fabric.  The drop in the bucket, the salt of the Earth, the writing on the wall and the fat of the land and dozens of others are all from the Bible.

My family’s Catholic and Catholics tend to own Bibles but not read them, waiting instead for a priest to tell us what we’re supposed to know (and think).  It must be the greatest bottlenecking of information in history.

Protestants are avid Bible readers.  “Sola scriptura” – by scripture alone – was one of Martin Luther’s first tenets.  Protestants have their own versions, several of them, spend too much time in the Old Testament (I think) and get nervous when they see Catholics mucking about on their turf.  (I suppose they have a point there.  Imagine Baptists trying to sing in Latin with candles and incense.  It just doesn’t work.)

Jews think I’ve really got the wrong edition and Muslims think I have the wrong book altogether.

I’ve found stories that, somehow, were passed over at St. Margaret Mary’s church and school back in the day.  There’s the story in the first book of Samuel of the golden hemorrhoids.  (Why did Indiana Jones never seek them out?)  Or Jeremiah, chapter 13, in which God compares the nation of Israel to Jeremiah’s underwear, which God has forbidden Jeremiah to wash.  That probably didn’t get much airtime over at Temple Beth David, either.

It’s not all earthy humor.  Entertaining angels, another Bible phrase now in the vernacular is from a letter to the early Hebrew church (authorship unclear) exhorting the faithful to be hospitable to strangers because, you never know, they might be angels.

This gets to one of my fundamental issues with the Bible, and Christianity more generally.  The actual verse (Chap. 13, verse 2, King James) is: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

To my eye, and perhaps I’m cynical, this advice is: “Be nice to everyone, because you never know, they might put in a good word for you with God.”  Maybe that’s true.  Maybe they are angels and maybe your hospitable investment will pay off handsomely in the afterlife.  But it is not enough to be kind to strangers?  Is virtue not its own reward?  Do we not have the power to create – or at least approach – a paradise on Earth, just by being kind?  (Big talk from someone who so often falls short in the kindness department.)

Like I said, I read the Bible.  It gets into my head.  It pops up when I read stories in the paper about the ongoing immigration debate.  The Republican Party is shifting its position on immigration, not because they have become enlightened, but because they had their asses handed to them in November.  I don’t mean Balaam’s ass, either.  (That’s another angel story in the Bible.  Find it yourself.)

So what if?  What if some of those Bible-studying, God-bothering Republican congressional reps – including those who can’t recite the 10 commandments – suddenly realized that perhaps some of those Mexicans they’ve disparaged so long are actually angels – messengers of God?  Would they see reasons for compassion beyond short-term political gain?  Is compassion not enough?  Or is that too much to ask?

© Mark Floegel, 2013

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