In his 2010 book, Where the Hell is God?, Jesuit priest Fr. Richard Leonard offers believers, agnostics, and atheists alike an alternative way of looking at God and understanding God’s presence. With one of his more humorous illustrations, Fr. Leonard serves up an “apocryphal story” to underscore that “it all depends on how we read the signs.”
There was a “time, many centuries ago, when the pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome. Rightly, there was uproar from the Jewish community. So the pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay. If the pope won, the Jews had to leave. The Jews realized that they had no choice. The problem was that no one wanted to debate the pope. The only volunteer was a poor, simple old man named Moishe who opened the door to the synagogue each Friday night. Not being used to words, Moishe asked for only one addition to the debate – that neither side would be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.”
“The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the pope sat opposite each other. The pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The pope waved his hand in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple.”
“The pope stood up and said, ‘I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.’”
“Later, the pope explained what happened: ‘I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that we believe in the same one God. Then I waved my hand around my head to show that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground, showing that God was present right here. I pulled out the bread and wine to show that God has given us the Eucharist. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?’”
“Meanwhile, Moishe explained to the Jewish scholars how he won the unwinnable debate. ‘Well,’ said Moishe, ‘First he said that the Jews had three days to get out of Rome. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.’ ‘And then what clinched the debate?’ asked the rabbi. ‘I don’t know,’ said Moishe. ‘This was the strangest thing of all: he took out his lunch, and I took out mine!’”
In 1988, Fr. Leonard’s sister, a nurse at an Australian health center for Aboriginal people, was rendered a quadriplegic in a motor vehicle accident while filling in for another nurse in a local outback town. Fr. Leonard wrote his book as a response to his sister’s profoundly life-changing accident. It became a personal testament to the forever present problem of evil: reconciling a perfectly good, omniscient, and almighty creator god with the existence of evil and suffering. Fr. Leonard summarizes with one simple yet profound thought: “Thus have we made the world…thus have I made it.”
Best wishes to all as we continue to make our worlds in 2012 and beyond. Cheers!