Stories shape civilizations. We live our lives in the present style because of the way we understand the stories we have inherited. Mankind has gathered a wealth of stories from those who lived in the past around the globe, though told in diverse languages. How we understand those stories often serves as the basis of the lives we build for ourselves. If we understand those stories differently, our lives will also change radically.
Born and brought up in the Christian religious tradition, I have heard many stories of the Bible from my childhood, and most of them have become part of my subconscious mind. I also received an understanding of those stories from older people as I grew up, and this understanding shaped my life. Later I realized that it is possible to have a better and nontraditional interpretation of each of those stories, since they helped me in laying a stronger foundation for my life.
A better understanding of these stories can transform the lives of human communities as well. Take for example, the story of Adam and Eve. The life of almost half of all the people on Earth is built upon this one story, for it is basic to the belief systems of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. A slight change in the way this story is understood can make tremendous changes in the life of half of humanity.
I shall explain briefly how I used to understand some of the Bible stories, and how my understanding has changed over time.
Let me begin with the story of how God created the world, which appears in the first chapter of Genesis, the first book in the Bible. As a child, I understood it as a historical event that marked the beginning of the world. As a teenager, I learned that this story needs to be understood metaphorically, but I had to wait several years before I stumbled on a satisfactory metaphor that explains it. Now I understand that it is a psalm in literary form, and it was sung by the Jewish people on Sabbath. Its central theme is the importance of Sabbath. God is a farmer and the world is a farm in this psalm. God is presented as working on His farm for six days and resting on the Sabbath. This psalm beautifully presents the world-view of the people among whom this psalm originated. I wouldn’t look for the science of the 21st century in this psalm, but I will look for the science of the time of its composition.
The story of Adam and Eve, found in the second and third chapters of Genesis, was also a historical event to me as a child. As a teenager, I learned that it needs to be understood metaphorically. Rather than seeing it as an incident that sealed the fate of all the succeeding generations of the human race, I began to look at it as a parable that interprets the life of every human being. I related it to the parable of the stewards told by Jesus. Two people were given a responsibility, but they acted in an irresponsible way. The situation was further made worse by their unwillingness to take the responsibility of their mistake. Rather than taking the blame on themselves and apologizing for their mistake, they pointed fingers at others. We see in this story how the unwillingness to take the responsibility of misdeeds breaks relationships, and disintegrates their world.
I knew the story of Esau and Jacob only in parts as it was taught in the Sunday school classes, and it didn’t make much sense to me then. Recently I happened to read the entire story, and I marveled at its beauty. It is the story of how a young man, Jacob, cheated Esau, his brother, and how Esau wanted to kill him, and how years later Jacob apologized to Esau, and Esau forgave him. Here we see how a relationship is broken, and how it is mended. It took twenty years and a lot of bitter experiences for them to grow and attain enough maturity to do so.
Similarly, I developed a better understanding of the story of David and Bathsheba over time. David, the most responsible person in his nation, forgets his responsibility to God and to his own people, and succumbs to his carnal feelings. This leads him to a bigger crime – that of murdering his faithful servant. This leads him to an even bigger crime –he covers up his crimes, and remains unwilling to take responsibility of his crimes. Instead of admitting that he was wrong, he tries to place the blame on others– even on his innocent servant whose faithfulness proved fatal to himself. It takes the tactful intervention of a daring prophet to bring David back to his senses.
I understood the central theme of the story of Jonah as disobedience, but later I learned that it is a story of how God teaches Jonah a lesson. Jonah thought that God loved only the Jewish people, but he had to learn that God loves and cares for all humanity. This story challenges all narrow-minded racialism and religious bigotry.
Coming to the New Testament, I found the mythology associated with Jesus’ birth very interesting. The prince of heaven arrives on the earth as a child, but people fail to recognize him because of their blindness. The prince arrived here to save us from the blindness so that the earth would become a part of heaven.
Zacchaeus remained in my mind as a crook. Only recently I realized that he was really not a dishonest man, but mistaken to be one. The story of Zacchaeus is really the story of the conversion of his city. The inhabitants of the city realized that they had been falsely accusing Zacchaeus as a crook. When Zacchaeus said, “If I have taken anything from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold,” he was challenging anyone to come forward and claim if he had cheated them. What a shame Zacchaeus gets falsely accused by many even today in the Christian world!
I used to think that the story of Jesus’ meeting the Samaritan woman was about how a woman who led an immoral life got converted. Only recently I realized that this story is really about how the water of life flows into anyone willing to receive it regardless of his/her race, caste, gender, class or color. The Kingdom of God as presented by Jesus had no boundaries. It is always open to anyone who is willing to enter and live there.
Similarly in the story of the woman whom Jesus saved from being stoned to death, I saw how Jesus was justifying the woman and condemning the people who came to kill her. All people are equally sinners before God. The difference is that some people like the woman are willing to admit that they are sinners, whereas many others are unwilling to admit so, but are eager to point fingers at others.
The story of Jesus healing a leper was to me a clear example of Jesus’ divinity; a mere touch could miraculously cure an incurable disease! Later I learned that it also showed Jesus’ willingness to touch a leper as being more powerful a lesson to humanity than the healing power that he unleashed to cleanse the suffering leper. Later I also realized that Jesus’ act of touching the leper was a blow to the age-old senseless practice of treating human beings in an inhumane way. Jesus lived in a world that kept the lepers away from them and even subjected them to stoning based on the false belief that sickness was the divine punishment for sin. Jesus’ touch meant to the leper that he was not an outcast in the eyes of God.
Similarly, the central theme of the story of the Good Samaritan to me was the importance of being kind to someone in need. However, later I realized that this story was Jesus’ answer to a Pharisee’s question “Who is my neighbor?” The Samaritan was willing to see a Jew as his neighbor although Jews in general despised the Samaritans and looked down upon them. The Jewish priest and the Levite could not see the wounded Jew as a neighbor even though he belonged to the same religious community and race. Probably their religious rules prevented them from saving a fellow being. Does a religion that prevents us from seeing a neighbor as a fellow being have any right to exist? This is the question, I think, that Jesus was raising through this story.
Two thieves were crucified with Jesus. The one on the right side believed in Christ, and Christ offered him the paradise– that is how I used to understand that story. Recently I developed a better understanding. The thief on the left side justified himself and blamed Jesus, but the one on the right blamed himself and admitted that Jesus was innocent. Someone like Jesus appeared as a criminal to the thief on Jesus’ left because he lacked the ability to discriminate between good and evil. Often good appears evil, and evil appears as good to such people. Even light appears darkness to such people. The story concludes with the implication that although both thieves had gone to the other world, or the paradise, the thief on the left might have experienced it only as hell. Even heaven would appear as hell to such people.
The major underlying theme of the Passion Week celebration is the annihilation of death. God, the emperor of heaven and earth, descends to the earth disguised as a human being to save the humanity from the monster of death. The Jesus event was understood by the early Christianity in the light of this ancient story of the war of gods.
I wrote the story of the two shepherds to exemplify what Jesus said about a good shepherd. A good shepherd differs from a wolf disguised as a shepherd. A real shepherd is responsible and is willing to lay his life for the protection of the sheep. But a wolf disguised as a shepherd cares only for him/herself, and always looks for opportunities to devour the sheep. A shepherd is anyone in a leadership role– political, religious, or cultural. This story should help us to identify the real shepherds from the wolf-shepherds.
I wrote the story of Martha and Mary to make it relevant and meaningful according to that context. The story is further expanded to explain the behavior of Martha. Instead of blaming her, Jesus was consoling her and asking her to be stronger.
With this short introduction, I earnestly wish and pray that the stories in this book will help every reader see life in a new light, as they have done for me!