Jerome K Jerome was an English writer in the nineteenth century who immortalised Three Men in a Boat. More recently the three roles were re-enacted in a BBC Two series starring Dara ó Briain, Rory McGrath and Griff Rhys Jones in 2006.
Although not so famous, there were once two men in a boat. I don’t know their names nor can I recall where or when I heard the story but it is rather pertinent today. Anyhow, these two were merrily paddling their way down a mighty river in full flow.
The foremost boatman thought he heard a hacking sound. He thought it was someone splitting logs before it dawned on him the noise was coming from behind him. He was totally aghast to see his partner cutting a hole under his seat. “What are you doing? Are you mad, you idiot? You’ll sink the bloomin boat (or something to that effect!)”
Quite nonplussed his fellow boatman answered, “Don’t panic!!! The hole’s only under my seat!”
Sinking boats don’t lend themselves to discussions about human behaviour.
Ours is the age of the “selfie” and I’ve yet to hear a more pertinent yet succinct response than that written by Dr. Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi. He shared these penetrating insights with us at the time the demise of the founder of the Apple brand.
“The consumer society was laid down by the late Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad one and iPad two, and the result is that we now have a culture of iPod, iPhone, iTune, i, i, i. “When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about ‘i’, you don’t do terribly well.”
It’s hard not to hear the echo of a famous first century rabbi called Hillel. He said: “If I am not for me, then who will be for me? But if I am only for me, then what?” Surely one of the marks of what the Bible calls wisdom, the skill for right living under God, must be the ability to take responsibility for ourselves without being selfish.
I believe that another first century teacher would have been very critical of our ‘selfie’ / ‘selfish’ society. He never took a selfie yet there is a sense in which he is the ultimate selfie, the revelation of the true God himself. What is astounding is that this God chose to reveal himself as a servant. Few, if any titles are more honourable in the world of Hebrew thought than that of ‘servant’ and Jesus carried it to its ultimate, death.
Adopting the parable, a teaching tool very common among ancient rabbis, he challenged a latent selfishness by telling about a traveller left to die by two religious men while a total stranger actually stepped in to offer help. The story is recorded in Luke 10:25-37 and is well worth re-reading. The parable was a powerful tool communicating truths that were not merely to be carried away by the listener but carried out by him or her. These stories are not like whodunits providing the answer at the end. For instance, was the prodigal ever reconciled to his elder brother or did the discontented workers settle a wage with the owner of the vineyard? It is as if each parable ends with the personal challenge to the listener to go away and be the answer. There’s nothing in the Bible to say that the stranger actually did return to visit the man whom he had helped on the roadside but maybe you are that ‘good Samaritan’ in your street or neighbourhood.
That story is still being told in churches but it gets even more exciting when people begin to act it out.