Deliverance from captivity, freedom and new life are the themes of the first set of texts this week. The imagery is keen in the Exodus story. Though you may remember this scene from The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt try to envision and re-create it in your imagination. The cloud by day and pillar of fire by night evoke vivid visuals. The wall of water and the muddy sea bottom clogging the wheels of the chariots brings smells of salt, seaweed and floundering sea creatures. We can hear the screech of the chariots wheels and the cries of the horsemen. Do you feel the wind pick up as the sea rolls back into place? The cries of people hurrying to freedom and of those fleeing the waves of the deep come to our ears. And then there are the songs and shouts of praise from Psalm 114 and Exodus 15.
If you choose this story this week, you choose the central Hebrew scripture story of God keeping God’s promises, the central story of trust in God’s promises that as Christians we hear continued in the story of Jesus who also came to “set the captives free.” Tell it with great gusto and spare no details. As the tradition of Passover has made manifest it is a story worth telling again and again.
Our second set of lectionary texts are related in their theme of forgiveness. (And of course, we know that trusting God keeps God’s promises, one of these promises in forgiveness.) The imagery is vivid here as well. Brothers embrace, confess and weep. People are invited to share meals together even in the midst of difference. Imagine a potluck supper with people who have just been part of a contentious church committee meeting. Can you hear them beginning to break the awkward silence complimenting each other’s casseroles and desserts? Finally Jesus tells a story with two distinct and contrasting (and exaggerated) characters that experience forgiveness in very different ways – a challenging parable of how and how not to forgive. How might it be retold in a contemporary setting? Douglas Hare gives a folkloric rendition of the parable in the Interpretation Series: Matthew published by Westminster John Knox in 2009.
In Nina Jaffe’s collection of Jewish holiday tales, The Uninvited Guest, there is Moroccan folktale entitled, “The Two Brothers” that contains imagery and plot motifs connecting the Exodus story of deliverance with theme of forgiveness in the Genesis, Romans and Matthew texts. You can find it at the Lectionary Story tab, Year A, Pentecost, Proper 19.
Below is my re-telling of the story, “The Two Brothers”. I first read the story in the children’s book,The Uninvited Guest And Other Jewish Holiday Tales by Nina Jaffe (Scholastic, Inc., 1993). Her source for the tale is the story, “Where is the Place of Azazel?” in Moroccan Jewish Folktales collected and edited by Professor Dov Noy, Director of the Israel Folktale Archives in Jerusalem.
This may seem at first glance to be a long tale for a children’s time. If you tell only the barest bones of the story it can still have power and effect. Keep the pace lively. Tell the main action of the story with little elaboration of details. But still tell the story….don’t tell about the story. Maybe invite the children into the refrain of “Do not worry! If God is good to me, …” to keep it participatory. One question to consider….how does this story resonate with Jesus’ parable in Matthew? Could its plot and treatment of forgiveness help you re-develop the parable in any way? Where do you find images of deliverance that echo the Exodus story?
Once there were two brothers. The oldest made a fortune and lived in want of nothing. He lived alone except for his servants as he had never married and had a family.
The younger brother was quite happily married with several children. He had always struggled to make a living. Still there always seemed to be bread on the table and a warm fire and enough to go around. Until one winter when hard times came upon the family in a ways they had never experienced. The younger brother was a proud and independent man. He had never asked his older wealthy brother for anything. But finally as winter drew to the end and spring approached his wife encouraged – in fact, implored – him to ask his older brother for help. Passover was coming and they had little enough to live day by day, much less to prepare for that great festival of God’s deliverance.
So one day the younger brother went to his older brother’s house. He knocked on the door. When his brother answered the younger brother poured out his troubles asking for help for the Passover. The older brother frowned and was silent for a time. Then he told his younger brother to return the next day.
The next day the younger brother returned but when he knocked repeatedly on his older brother’s door there was no answer. The younger brother began to call out hoping his brother or one of the servants would hear. He even tossed a few small – very small – pebbles at the upper windows to see if anyone could be roused. At long last a window opened and the older brother looked down at his younger brother who stood with his hat in his hands. “Go away!” shouted the elder one. “But, Brother,” shouted the younger, “Please I need your help! I have never asked before. Could you not be gracious this one time?” “Go away! Do not bother me again. Take your troubles and your self and go to Azazel!” Azazel! The place of wilderness where demons dwell. That older brother had told his younger brother to go to the devil! And then he slammed shut the window and locked it tight.
The younger brother returned home broken-hearted. The house was cold. His children and wife were hungry. With few words he packed a bag including his prayer shawls and a bit of food. He kissed his wife and children and said, “Do not worry! If God is good to me, I will be home for the Seder meal.” And he left his house to look for Azazel.
He walked through the night and all the next day until he came stopping only to eat a crust of bread and to say his evening and morning prayers. As evening came that next day he found a small house. He knocked on the door and entered when he was invited. There he found three women spinning. One was spinning wool and another silver and another gold. They were quite busy, but looked very sad. Still they offered him a place to sleep for the night and fed him well. As he took his leave the next morning he asked them why they were so sad. Between their tears they replied that is was because they had been waiting so long for their fiancés who never came. The man replied, “Do not worry! If God is good to me I will discover why your fiancés do not come.” They thanked him and he went on his way.
Around noon he came to a tree laden with fruit. It looked delicious but when he picked some to eat he discovered it was the most bitter thing he had ever tasted! He spat it out, “Ugh! Why is this so bitter?” The tree replied sadly, “I do not know. Each time someone tastes my fruit I receive a curse instead of a blessing. I wish I knew how to make it different.” The man said, “Do not worry! If God is good to me I will discover why your fruit is so bitter.” The tree thanked him and the man continued on his journey to Azazel.
As evening came he approached a river and there was a ferryman who took him across in his boat. He too was very sad. The man asked why he was so sad. The ferryman replied, “Because I can never leave this boat no mater how many other people I take back and forth.” “Do not worry!” said the man “If God is good to me I will find a way to help you.” And when they reached the other side of the river the ferryman thanked him and the man continued on.
But he did not have to go far. There was a house with smoke curling from a chimney and the delicious smell of food welcoming a stranger at the door. The man did not know but he had come to the house of the wisest woman in the world. She welcomed him in, fed him and offered him a place to stay the night.
After dinner as they sat near the fire she said, “ Is there anything I can help you with?” The man replied, “ I came to the house of three fine women who spin beautifully. Yet they are very sad because their fiancés never come. Do you know why?” “Yes,” the woman replied, “because they do not sweep the leaves from their door.”
“I discovered a tree with the most bitter fruit imaginable. Why is it so bitter?” “Because there is treasure buried underneath the tree.”
“I was helped by a ferryman who helps many people each day to cross the river and return, yet he cannot leave his boat. Why?” “He must find someone to take his place and then he will be free.”
“Why has my older brother hardened his heart against me?” “he has never known for himself what it is to be hungry.”
“Can a poor many ever find happiness?” “When he finds what he has given up for lost.”
“Can you tell me, where a Jew can find matzah, who has none?” “Let him take from one and give to the other.”
Then they were silent. And after the fired burned down the man went to sleep. The next morning he thanks the wise woman – for now he knew who she was – and set off for home with his answers. Joyfully he told the ferryman how he was to set himself free from his endless task of taking people back and forth across the river. The ferryman showered him with gifts to take home to his family. Delightedly he told the tree that its fruit was so bitter because there was treasure buried beneath it. Suddenly the ground opened up at the foot of the tree and there the man found piles of gold and diamonds that filled all his pockets and his pack. When he reached the home of the spinners he gladly told them to sweep the leaves from their door and their fiancés would soon come. They smiled, then laughed then set to work. And they each gave the man a ball of yarn, woolen, silver and gold, to take with him.
So it was with all these gifts that the man arrived home in time to prepare the most sumptuous and delicious Seder meal for Passover that his family had ever enjoyed. He invited many friends and even his older brother. (And because of the treasure he knew his family would never want for anything. He was indeed blessed by God who was good to him!)
When the older brother saw the wealth of the Passover meal he knew something had changed for his younger brother. He asked him how and where he had acquired such wealth. Beaming, the younger brother said, “Why I went to Azazel and I returned with these blessings!” The older brother set out the very next day for Azazel. When he reached the banks of the river he was greeted warmly by the ferryman. As they neared the opposite shore the ferryman said to the older brother, “It would be advantageous for you to row us to shore.” The older brother agreed, eager to do whatever was necessary to receive the blessings of Azazel, and he took the oars readily. But when they did reach the far bank of the river the ferryman quickly jumped ashore and with a great shout of joy headed down the road to the wise woman’s home.
And the older brother, who had never cared for the welfare of anyone else, now spent his days rowing people back and forth across the river. He had sent his brother to Azazel, but ended up there himself.
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2014, to be reprinted with permission only.