A Still Small Voice - November 11, 2012

This past Thursday I gave a talk in Reno, NV, to a group of Catholic business people, who several times a year invite someone over to speak on a topic they wish that might be of interest to the life of coping with our common needs. The speakers are given wide latitude. I could not talk the young man who formed the group and invited me that I was the wrong one to speak there since I live the life of a hermit, sitting in front of a computer for 14 hours a day, six days a week, and would likely bore everyone unmercifully.

But he said that he particularly liked something he heard from an interview I had on the program The Journey Home, that when I started St. Augustine’s Press, I realized from my own failures in the past that I should not try to “figure out the market” but rather publish books I wanted to read and hope that there are others out there like me.

I decided to start my talk with a joke. I am told that many speakers begin talks with a joke, but I have a feeling my situation was different, since it was not a joke told to highlight a talk but a talk made to highlight the joke.

I was born and raised Jewish, and one thing practically all Jews share in common is that they are surrounded with people who tell jokes. I have heard thousands of Jewish jokes in my life. This one is my favorite; it is filled with the bathos and pathos so necessary for a perfect Jewish joke, with the usual misunderstandings. It was told to me by a Mormon.

There was an elderly man who was not feeling well, so he went to his doctor to find out what was wrong. The doctor examined him, and told him to get dressed and come into his office. There he said, “Max, I have something very serious to tell you. You have herpes.”

Well, Max didn’t flinch or scream or cry when he heard these words. Of course, he might well have done so if he knew what herpes was. But he could not admit that. So he went to the font of knowledge in his life, his wife, Sadie, and asked her.

“So, Sadie, the doctor tells me I have herpes. So tell me, is it bad?”

“Max,” she said, “To tell you the truth, I never heard of herpes, but I’ll look it up in the dictionary, and I’ll find out.”

So she takes out the dictionary, finds the word, and a wry smile crosses her lips:

“Max, Max, you got nothing to worry about. Says right here in the book, herpes is a disease of the gentiles.”

The gentiles appear in both the Old and the New Testament, and though there are big differences in how they are treated, in all cases they were seen as the other. They are the people from the other side of the hill who have their own gods. The Hebrews in the Old Testament were “The Chosen People,” chosen by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one the Hebrews insisted was not just another god from another valley but rather the only true God. On the other hand, there was no mechanism for them to incorporate the gentiles into their society, since the Hebrews had no right to choose. They followed a universal God, but only in a parochial way. Their relationship with the gentiles was largely either to ignore them or to fight them.

Initially, the gentiles were just as foreign to the followers of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.  But the distinction between the way the Hebrews reacted to the gentiles and the way the followers of Christ ended up acting led the way to immense changes. In Acts we learn about the dispute between St. Paul and St. Peter and others, with Peter speaking for following the words of Jesus, who said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (Matthew 15:24; cf. Mark 7:27). Paul, on the other hand, spoke up for following Jesus’ acts, including the way he treated the woman he addressed above, when he approved of her faith when she begged him to save her daughter despite not being from the House of Israel, saying that even the dogs “eat the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.”

In so doing, Paul, who was to be called the light of the gentiles, transformed our understanding of the gentiles from being wholly “other” into a people who could become “us.” The universal God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob became the center of the world’s only universal religion.

So getting back to the original understanding of gentiles, what could be the disease of the gentiles? It is the attraction to false gods. This could be fought with conversion and evangelism, but in the world we live in now, the attraction is always with us, and very strong, in my opinion. Please note that I am not talking about the decline of Christian orthodoxy or even the decline in general religious orthodoxy. Rather, it is the action of attributing god-like characteristics to the works or perhaps even just to the “charisma” of ordinary men and women. The twentieth century, which my mentor Gerhart Niemeyer called the Terrible Century, was replete in deifying one monstrous totalitarian after another; nowadays we may do so for rock stars, athletes, and other persons of, at best, un-god-like accomplishments.

Those of us who view this rather cult-like behavior may well feel quite alone. Just think of the Prophet Elijah, having bested and then slaughtered the priests of Baal and then threatened with death by Jezebel, he escaped to roam aimlessly, planted himself under a broom tree and prayed to God to take his life. God instead sent an angel to feed and encourage him and tell him to go where he was directed, which was Mt. Horeb, where Moses had received the Law. There God spoke with him, and Elijah complained that the people had forsaken God’s covenant, thrown down His altars, and slain his prophets and “I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.”

God then said, “Stand upon the mount before the Lord.”  The rest of the passage goes like this: And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.

Elijah thus learned that even in the humble areas of our lives, God exists. The still small voice of grace, not just the trumpets and the angelic choruses, tell us we are not alone. Sort of like publishing books that I want to read in the hope that I am not alone and then realizing that this is true. The realization that we are not alone may well be the antidote to the Disease of the Gentiles.