Monday, April 09, 2018

The Case of the Stolen Stiff

The following was my attempt to preach a sermon on the reliability of the accounts of resurrection of Jesus into a sort of hardboiled detective story. Blame it on St Matthew. He's the one who tells us about the coverup, conspiracy, and general corruption among the powerful. It just begged to be done.
There are no leggy blondes or suggestive salacious dialogue here. I was gonna use it with my Sunday morning crowd. Maybe a later version will have a bit more of that sort of thing. The odd twist at the end was my attempt at reflecting what you so often see in those old detective stories.
   The name is Spadestein. Sh'muel Spadestein, Private Investigator.
It was crunch time in the big city. It was Passover, and everywhere you went, you could hear folks munching on matzoh. It sounded like Egypt the day after the locust plague started.
   The big story on the lips of every newsboy in town was about this fellow, Jesus of Nazareth. Seems the carpenter-turned-rabbi was selling himself to the masses as the latest in the long line of Messiah wannabes. There were rumors, most difficult to verify, about him being some sort of magician, with powers to cure the incurable. Blind beggars seeing, deaf hearing, lepers cleansed, you name it. Plenty of witnesses to a supposed resurrection over in Bethany a few months back--a known associate of Jesus who went by the handle “Lazarus.” He’d made himself scarce of late, though, claiming he was getting death threats from some very powerful and influential figures.
   Then, just a week ago, the Nazarene rode here into J-town like a king! Had the crowds coming in for the big holiday throwing him a parade, calling him Son of David, the works. Naturally, the authorities had nabbed him, charged him with treason, and fitted him with a cross on Skull Hill. Justice served; end of story.
   Except… Man, did I hate “except”! Nothing worse than loose ends! Life is full of ‘em, though. Tug that one thread, and pretty soon you’re gonna need a new shirt—or knitting lessons. Like that old saying about nothing being sure but death and taxes. A recently-vacated tomb had a lot of people thinking that statement oughta be revised. Seems a certain dead Messiah wasn’t satisfied with his accommodations, and left without paying the tab.
   Who knows? Could be he was holed up with his buddy Lazarus some place. An exclusive club for the recently revivified, perhaps.
   A couple days later, a very well-dressed cockroach skittered into the office of Shmuel Spadestein Investigations, seeking shelter from the light. The nervous little man was an errand boy for Caiaphas, the high priest.
   “We—that is, the chief priests—want to secure your services, Mr Spadestein. We want you to find out what happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”
   “I thought that was all sowed up,” I said. “Papers said some of his gang stole the body. End of story.”
   “Well, not quite. You see, some of those same followers are now claiming he rose from the dead, and that they have seen him, alive.”
   “Desperate people sometimes tell desperate stories.”

   The little man’s eyes got big, and he began to stammer, “Where did you hear--? Ahem. We want YOU to find out just who stole the Nazarene, and where they’ve stashed him. I’m sure we’ll all feel better once these religious nuts are silenced.”
   “I get 20 shekels a day, plus expenses, with a two-day retainer fee paid up-front.”
   Let’s get one thing clear: The carpenter was dead. No one could take the beating he did, followed by a crucifixion, and still be alive. I’ll say one thing for the Romans: They’re very good at execution. Scourging by the cat o’nine tails is no bar fight. Plenty of guys died just from the beating, because when they stood up straight, there was no flesh left to hold the insides inside. And then top it off with crucifixion? Even if Jesus had been the toughest palooka this side of the Jordan, the cross woulda’ finished him off. Witnesses say a guard on duty ran a spear up under the guy’s ribs, and blood AND water came out. Probably ruptured the sack around the heart. You don’t just go for a stroll after that.
   But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say he only looked dead. A couple of his followers wrap him up tight in linen, pour 75 lbs of aromatic spices into the folds of cloth, then dumped him in a cool cave with very little air. If he’d survived the treatment by his enemies, he’d died at the hands of his friends.

   The tomb was in a private cemetery. It belonged to a prominent member of the City Council, Joseph from Arimathea. Turns out, he was a follower of Jesus, had claimed the body, and buried it in his own tomb. It was still unused at that point, intended for him and his family, but was close enough to Skull Hill to not break the Sabbath.
   The doorway was still wide open, the big flat stone having been rolled out of the v-shaped indentation in front of the entrance. I ducked my head in to look around. It was empty alright. No body was home. The caretaker confirmed what I’d just seen. Said he thought maybe Jesus’ mom had taken the graveclothes.
   “Excuse me?”
   “Yes sir. The body was not found, but the linen shroud and the handkerchief around his head were folded up, still there.”
   “So, if Jesus walked out of here, like Joseph & the rest believe, he did it—in the nude? Good thing it was dark!”
   “I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir. Perhaps one of the guards saw something.”
   Guards? For a tomb? As it turns out, the Nazarene had claimed on several occasions that he would rise from the dead, so chief priests convinced Pilate to post soldiers in front of the tomb to keep his disciples from stealing the body & claiming he’d pulled off the stunt.
   I contacted the local garrison and managed to talk with one of the four who’d been on guard that night. Tertius was young and—very enthusiastic about serving the Empire!
   “Yes sir! Myself, Cassius, Brutus and Valerius went on guard duty for the 4th watch, Sir—3 to 6 a.m. to civilians.”
   “And what did you see?”
   “We saw… We saw nothing. We fell asleep and Jesus’ disciples stole the body, sir.”
   “You fell asleep? On duty? All four of you?”
   “Yes sir.”
   “But you’re sure it was the disciples who stole the body out of tomb?”
   “Who else would have, Sir?”
   “One last question, Soldier. Aren’t there very severe penalties for falling asleep on duty—like, execution?”
   “That’s up to the governor’s discretion, Sir.”
   His story smelled, or maybe it was his cheap aftershave. A bunch of fishermen sneak past trained, armed soldiers who have ALL fallen asleep, at the same time--and manage not to wake them with the racket of stone grinding on stone as they try to get in the door?
   Okay, maybe they were really good, but sneaking off into the night with an unwrapped, three-day-old corpse over their shoulders? Just seemed like a naked lie to me.
   The tale folded, like a recently-used shroud. That was another thing that didn't add up. Stripping a stiff before carrying it away--that's messed up enough, but it takes a special kind of weirdo to carefully fold up all that linen before tiptoeing back out past sleeping guards! Who were these guys? Fishermen or decorators from Better Tombs and Gardens? It was all just a little too neat."
   Desperate people sometimes tell desperate stories. This one had the jingle of silver changing hands under the table. 
   My client had engaged my services to find who habeased the corpus, as the Romans like to say. I asked around, and located his mother and several of the members of the Nazarene Mob, as I’d come to think of them. To a man, or woman, I guess, they all seemed to believe that Jesus really was alive again!
   Simon “Rocky” Johnson said that Jesus had met personally with him the afternoon of the day the tomb was found unoccupied. He said that they had talked about good spots to go fishing, though the smile on his face made me wonder if he wasn’t joking. John, “Thunder” Zebedee had recently moved the Carpenter’s mother into his own home, as one does for an aging parent. He said seeing the empty shroud was enough for him to believe Jesus had risen. Thomas, a.k.a. “The Twin” told me that he had seen Jesus, up close and personal. He was sure it was really him because his hands and side still bore the wounds from being crucified. There was no doubt in his mind that Jesus was alive, he said.
   Another Mary, this one Magdalene, said she’d seen him in the garden around the tomb, and she hadn’t even recognized him til he called her by name. She’d mistaken him for the caretaker. Maybe he was wearing some sort of disguise, because another Jesus-follower, Cleopas, said he and his travelling companion had taken a long walk with Jesus and sat down to dinner with him before they realized who it was.
   Quite a few agreed that he’d shown up to dinner, even with all the doors and windows locked tight. He’d eaten a piece of fish, to prove to them he wasn’t a ghost.
   All of these witness accounts had a few things in common. Sure, they had all been followers of the Nazarene, but none of them seemed to be wild-eyed, dangerous zealots—well, except for Simon the Zealot, but even he said Jesus was teaching him to reign in his anger and learn to love the Romans. None of these folks seemed dangerous, or even crazy, except for their agreement that a dead man wasn’t a dead man anymore.
   The thing that really got me was that not a single one of them had expected to see Jesus alive again! Women in the group were heading to the cemetery to visit his grave. Their report that their rabbi was alive was met with derision by the rest—until they saw him for themselves! That made me wonder, would you hallucinate seeing someone alive that you never expected to see alive? Would it happen to large groups, where they all agreed on what they saw, and heard, and touched, and when it had happened?
   Say what you like, but these folks did not move the body. All of them loved Jesus. Absolutely adored him and hung on his every word. Why would they deny him the most honored burial a Jewish man could receive? This is a city of people that love to keep up the old cemeteries. King David and a lot of other great old men and women have well-cared-for graves here. Why would you so dishonor someone you thought was dead by moving them? It just didn’t add up. But like Tertius had said, “Who else would do it?”
   Tug on a loose thread…
   But these were the “true believers.” Not everybody liked the man. He had plenty of enemies. Enemies in high places, with lots of influence. And when Jesus showed up on their turf, calling them out for hypocrisy and corruption, they lost a lot of their power. They’d been out for his blood for a long time, but the masses loved him, and they couldn’t touch him without starting a riot and bringing Rome down on their heads. When they finally managed to lay a finger on it, it had been an inside job.
   Maybe I could talk to the guy who turned him in. Plainly he was no friend to the rest of them, so maybe he could give me some insight into the dynamics of the Nazarene Mob. Maybe he had some idea who’d robbed the tomb. I asked the chief priests if they knew where I could find Judas Iscariot. They told me they knew exactly where he was hanging out. I guess they thought they were pretty clever. Suffice it to say, Iscariot had reached the end of his rope, and he wasn't talking to anybody--ever again.
   I had been around the city better than a dozen times the last few days. Talking to witnesses, checking on alibis, double checking stories, rephrasing questions to see if somebody would slip up. I was beginning to identify with the donkey turning the grindstone—around, around, around—except the only thing being ground down was me. I couldn’t make heads or tails of any of it, and if I were any closer to an answer, I sure couldn’t see it.
   I remembered, just about then, that the office bottle might still have a few sips left in it, and that I very much wanted to be sure.
   Caiaphas’ representative was waiting in my office when I arrived, just about closing time. I dimmed the lights in deference to his nature.
   “I suppose you want a report on my progress with the stolen body case.”
   “Mr Caiaphas is very anxious to hear what you’ve found out, yes.”
   “Well, Mr—um, I’m sorry, I can’t recall your name.”
   “I’ve been told I have that effect on people.”
   “Ah, I see. So, um, what was your name again?”
   “We are very interested in your findings, Mr Spadestein.”
   “Oh, alright. Here’s the thing… The truth is… I don’t actually have anyone pinned down right now as your grave robber.”
   “Well, surely you have some suspicions; some idea who might have done it! Some leads you haven’t followed up on yet?”
   I had some suspicions, alright. But where my leads were leading, I wasn’t to sure I wanted to follow.
   “I have spoken to anyone and everyone I can who is connected in any way with this case. Here is what I have so far. Jesus is dead, but he’s not in his tomb, and everyone of his followers seems to genuinely believe that he rose from the dead. Their belief in this stands strong, even though I know your bosses have been leaning on them pretty hard. They’re losing friends, social status, work, freedoms. None of these people have anything to gain by maintaining such a ridiculous story, so I don’t think any of them are responsible.
   “The guards’ story—which I don’t believe, by the way—is that they were asleep when the tomb was vacated. That means they can’t be absolutely certain who was there.”
   “Who else would have done it?”
   “That’s just what they said. Now, I know that none of your playmates has the body, or they’d have produced it by now. That really only leaves us with one possibility. No one stole the body. But you knew that, too, didn’t you?”
   “Of course we knew! But you wouldn’t believe the story the guards reported to the chief priests! There was an earthquake as a figure dressed in white, glowing bright like the noonday sun came down out of the sky and rolled back the stone from the entrance, all by himself! Terrifying, apparently. They all fainted at the sight of him, so the part about being asleep isn’t quite a lie. When they woke up, the tomb was empty. Naturally, we couldn’t have them blabbing that to everyone, so we bought their silence and gave them a much more feasible explanation. People do love a good conspiracy story, after all.
   “Our livelihoods were at stake, Mr Spadestein. If people started believing that Jesus actually rose from the dead, as he promised he would, we could all kiss our jobs and our pensions goodbye.”
   “So Jesus really did rise from the dead, and you knew it… Why did you hire me then? You knew I wouldn’t find anything.”
   “To create further suspicions. To come up with more plausible alternatives. A tiny seed of doubt can grow into a great crop of unbelief.”
   “Yeah, or it can be the thing that drives a man to seek the truth. Here, take care of the office bottle for me. I think you’ll need it more than I do.
   “See ya later, Mr Whatever-it-was. I’m off to meet the man who’ll put you out of a job!”
mp3 here.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Gospel of Melvin: The Parable of The Wedding Feast

The carpenter was on a roll. He launched into another one of his nutty stories.

   “A king’s son was getting married, so he sent out invitations.” (At least it wasn’t one of those “Furnish Your Own Firkin” kind of things. Wine, meat, music--all provided! Yup! With the rich, it’s first class all the way. AND they always include plenty of fresh fruit! I remember this one time, a Sadducee was throwing a party, and he ordered my entire week’s stock of honeydew! It was glorious! Of course, I didn’t get an invitation to the feast, but it was still a memorable occasion for me.)
   “On the day of the wedding party, when the food was nearly ready, he sent his servants to tell the guests that dinner was ready and it was time to come to the party. But everyone began to make excuses not to come to THE gala event of the year! “
   “Sorry,” said one of them, “I’ve just started a business in secondhand formal attire: Gedaliah’s Garments (wedding clothes a specialty), and I’m too busy.”
   Another said, “I’d come, but I’ve just joined up with the Zealots, and so I’m politically opposed to fraternization with the wealthy and powerful.”
   A third said, “I’ve just bought a crate of watermelons, and need to go examine them.” This last he said, looking toward the fruit stand of a certain upstanding merchant, and adding, “Because you never know what you’re really getting!”
   “Ultimately, everyone who was invited turned down the invitation! Enraged, the king sent his soldiers to kill those who refused his invitation and burn their villages. ‘And start with those jokers who gave the bride and groom potholders at their shower!’ ”
   Then the king told his servants, ‘Go out into the streets and the alleys, and invite the poor, the blind, and the lame. They’re used to begging, and so they won’t care if their roast is cold or their wine is warm.’
   This they did, and, after a long while (since it takes a long time to lead the blind to a place, and help the crippled into seats, and convince the beggars that it really is worth their while to follow you,) it was discovered that there were still empty chairs at banquet!
   Again, the king sent forth his servants, “Go out to the highways and the hedges! Bring in the highwaymen and the hedgehogs, the good and the bad, and even the melon merchants! The rent on these tables & chairs is ridiculous, and I’m gonna get my money’s worth!”
   This they also did, and the tables were full of riffraff, who were soon full of lukewarm roast and tepid wine. Even so, it was a great party. However, there was one guy in the place not dressed in wedding clothes.
   “Hey!” the king demanded. (That’s the way with kings! They never just ask. Always demanding and commanding and bellowing!) “How did they let you in without wedding clothes?”
   The man replied, “I had wedding clothes, but I lent them to my neighbor Gedaliah, and never saw them again, until I saw them in his shop window, and for thirty shekels no less! I hope his store burns to the ground!”
   The king was more even more enraged. “The proper attire was being handed out at the door! You’ve no excuse!”
   “It’s true. I just didn’t like the color and style. I’ve got to be me, you know? I’d hoped not to be noticed, but I guess that’s what you get for sitting this close to the head table. Next time I’ll sit in the back.”
   “There won’t be a next time!” bellowed the king. “Guards! Throw this worm out into the darkness, and make sure he lands in the thorn bushes, so that there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth!”
   And so they cast him out toward the valley of Hinnom, where the worm does not die, but the fire and smoke goes up forever. For if you fail to do good deeds before those who can reward you, then shall your Heavenly Father reward you?*

* In the absence of actual punctuation in the text, as it typical of the Greek & Hebrew of the time, it is possible that this last may intended to be a statement, rather than a question. In fact, the true sense of Melvin’s text may be that God will reward you for dishonoring those on earth who may be capable of giving you such transitory rewards as food, drink, money and honor. However, in light of the eschatological punishment meted out to the offender, it seems likely that we ought to view his action as morally offensive. Thus, we ought to read the final statement as a question, with the lesson being, as St Heresias put it, “Take advantage of every opportunity for gain; for it is sinful not to do so.”