St. Paul, in his wisdom, once said, “The foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of humans.
The writer Isaac Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature with his short stories about Jewish life in Eastern Europe. One of his most famous stories is called “Gimpel the Fool.” Gimpel is a hardworking baker in a small East European Jewish village. He is an orphan, somewhat simple-minded and utterly innocent about the capacity of people to be cruel to each other. The townspeople are constantly playing tricks on him, telling him fantastic stories and pretending to be offended when he is sceptical. “Are you calling me a liar?”
Sometimes, they would rush into his bakery and tell him that the Messiah has come and revived his deceased parents from their graves. They would tell him that they are waiting for him at home, then they would laugh at him when he hurried home to look for his parents. Gimpel goes to see the town rabbi who tells him, “Better to be a fool all your days than be an evil person for one hour. You are not a fool. They are the fools.” Gimpel is comforted by these words. But even as he leaves the rabbi’s house, the rabbi’s daughter plays a trick on him.
The town elders persuade Gimpel to marry a notoriously mean-spirited and promiscuous woman who otherwise would have no prospects for marriage. Four months later she gives birth to a son and convinces Gimpel that he has no reason to doubt that he is the father. Over the course of the marriage, she betrays him repeatedly. When caught, she takes advantage of his gullible nature. At one point, Gimpel muses, “Another man in my place would have left, but I’m the type who bears it all. God gives us burdens and God gives us shoulders.” (There’s a wisdom to tuck into your hearts.) God gives us burdens and God gives us shoulders.
Years later, his wife grows ill and is dying. On her deathbed she confesses everything. Forced to confront the reality of how he has been treated, Gimpel is stunned. He begins to wonder if following the rabbi’s guidance was wrong. Gimpel plans revenge. Realizing that he is the only bakery in town and all the people who mistreat him but nonetheless buy his bread, Gimpel decides to add dirt and human waste to his dough and poison these people. But that night, as he dreams, his wife comes to him. She tells him, “ Because I was false, does that make everything else false?” Her face blackened as if by fire, she continues, “I never deceived anyone but myself and now I am paying for it.”
Gimpel wakes and is embarrassed by what he is planning to do. Realizing he does not want to be that kind of person, he buries the contaminated dough, locks his bakery and spends the rest of his days wandering. As he gets old and senses that death is near, he thinks to himself, “Whatever may be on the other side, it will be real, without ridicule, without deception. There, thank God, even Gimpel can not be fooled.”
Gimpel is a man with very little in his life, no wealth, no intellectual gifts, no friends, not even a normal family life, but he has a certain naïve integrity and that alone makes him blessed, richer than his neighbours. He will not lie, though they lie. He will not hurt another person though others do not hesitate to hurt him. In the end we are left with the conclusion that the rabbi was right.
Singer would suggest that there is something holy about Gimpel’s foolishness. Gimpel is a simple man not because of his foolishness but because he is not complex. He is not a man of many parts like others: sometimes honest, sometimes devious, sometimes trusting, sometimes sceptical. His simplicity is that he is the same person all the time. The Bible calls this ‘shalem’ wholeness; a person united within themselves, not divided with internal conflicts. Gimpel is a person of holy integrity.
We’ve domesticated the picture of Christ’s birth beyond nearly all recollection. Our pictures of the holy family are softened, the leading edges are rounded over and our depiction is all lovely and fair: Mary in her blue robe gazing lovingly at her glowing newborn, Joseph attentive to both of their needs, shepherds gazing on in wonder, their charges puffy white balls of cotton in the background, and rays of angels’ glory streaming in through the windows of the well-swept stable with strains of “Joy to the World” playing in the background.
I know you have all heard the ‘real’ version of the story. If you’ve worked on a farm, you can probably imagine the stench that accompanied Jesus’ birth. And, speaking of the birth, if you’ve been anywhere near a labour room, you know it’s not all meek and mild. Mary was probably a frightened teenager and Joseph is in way over his head. But, you know, I don’t really blame anyone for wanting a photoshopped version of this story.
We put a lot of time and energy into managing things, controlling as many of the variables of our twenty-first century lives as possible, and frankly we’re nearly worn out by the effort. Day to day, we struggle to keep pretty turbulent lives intact, to stem the tide of chaos that too often threatens to overwhelm us at home or work or in the world at large. We’ve had enough ‘realism’ in the news, thank you very much.
Little wonder we come to church wanting not just a respite from the frenzied pace of everyday life, but something more, something comforting and comfortable, something preferably warm, cozy, and inspiring. And so we devour Luke’s nativity scene like it’s a kind of chicken soup for the beleaguered soul. Are we being foolish?
Nazareth is but an hour walk from a major urban centre called Sepphoris. Nazareth, during its good times, boasts maybe 104 people. Sepphoris, 30,000. Nazareth was a town of farmers, shepherds, labourers. Sepphoris boasts markets and cultural centres, and homes embossed with marble. The people of Nazareth carved their homes out of the soft limestone so, as their families grew, they could just dig a little deeper into their caves. The only reason Nazareth existed was because it was home to a natural spring.
That was Mary’s home. The 13 year old was uneducated and probably was a handmaiden in one of the mansions in Sepphoris. Why would God choose this backwater town and such an unassuming teenager to birth salvation into the world? And how could Mary possibly see her situation as ‘blessed’? Is Mary just another ‘Gimpel the Fool’? I think that by playing out this redemptive story, not in Sepphoris but in Nazareth, not with a royal princess but with Mary, playing out this redemptive story on the fringe of things, just where you’d least expect God to be. God may be telling us that the way things usually are just isn’t good enough.
It’s almost like God is whispering to us something that deep down we know already but are afraid to admit, even to ourselves: these lives we’ve so carefully created, this world we work so hard to manage, are beautiful, precious, and wonderful … but also vulnerable, fragile, and ultimately insufficient. God comes not at the center of the world to straighten things out a bit, but on the fringe to call the orders and structures of our day into question and herald a new beginning, not just making things better but a whole new transformation.
Ultimately, Luke’s story – if we’re willing to listen – witnesses to the simple yet scary fact that God didn’t come in Jesus to make things a little better for us, a little more bearable. God came to turn over the tables, to create a whole new system, to resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us. (Another wisdom to tuck into your hearts) To resurrect and redeem us rather than merely rehabilitate us. And maybe, just maybe, this is something the foolish, the simple, the people who are whole, the people who don’t live divided lives get. Maybe that is why their foolishness is holy in God’s sight, blessed, shalem.
Mary is able to say ‘Yes’ despite knowing that women who are legally engaged, who are found to be pregnant, are to be stoned to death. To say ‘Yes’ despite knowing that women often died in child birth. To say ‘Yes’ despite knowing it would end the dreams she had of getting out from under and to have a real home of her own with Joseph. To say ‘Yes’ despite knowing her dream wedding is now just that, a dream. To say ‘Yes’ despite knowing that she might spend the rest of her life as an unwed mother and child.
Maybe Mary was simple, but not because she is naïve and foolish. Simple, because she was not complex. she was not a woman of many parts. Her simplicity was that she was the same person all the time. She can be described as ‘shalem’, ‘whole’ united with herself which is a good thing because the redemption of humanity hung on Mary being able to say yes. And as a result, the world still calls her blessed.