March 9, 2006

Mohammed's Parables

 SUSPECT THAT FOR MANY, MOHAMMED is not a name that is normally in the frame with profound Christian teaching in the post-9/11 world. It proved otherwise for me. And, by the way, this is not an Arabian Nights tale. It’s a true story that happened near London, where, this past summer, suicide bombers used their knapsacks to blow up trains in the Underground and blow the top off a red double-decker bus--a story about the first time a Muslim boy encountered the stories of Jesus.
Although I’m an English teacher, last year I worked in a highly academic secondary school that needed someone to teach 13-year-olds a Religious Education lesson one period a week. So, there I was, Tuesday afternoons, facing 28 Brown, Black, Yellow, White, very bright kids--almost none of them Christian in any sense of the word. Most were Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh.
Deliberately Disengaged
Because of this rather thorough mix of religions, the course was expected to be as evenhanded as Allah is said to be just. We began with a unit on various aspects of Judaism, including festivals (there were no Jews in the class). Then we moved on to rituals for life’s milestones (birth, induction into the faith community, marriage, death) in various religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Sikhism). When we had finished these units, we were nearing the end of the school year, and I began a miniunit on Christ and Christianity.
The tallest boy in the class, Mohammed, was acknowledged throughout the school as one of the most difficult students. He wasn’t exactly notorious, but he was well known for his somewhat aggressive manner during lessons. For some reason he was as mild as a paschal lamb in Religious Education, but he was certainly not engaged. In the whole year he had not once raised his hand to answer a question, and, no matter what the work, he did as little of it as he could possibly get away with. Even in discussion groups he was distinctly silent; in skit making he was distantly uncooperative; in the drawing of this, that, or the other religious artifact or ceremonial item in poster making he merely doodled.
It was as if he had no tongue and needed someone to work a miracle and give him speech. I strongly suspected that all this was his passive way of objecting to being forced to study religions other than his own. But he was equally uncommitted when we dealt with Muslim material. Still, he certainly wasn’t disrupting the lessons with a classroom equivalent of Islamist bombs taken out of his satchel.
Practices and Principles
In the new unit we began by trying to recall, as a whole-class activity, as many of the Ten Commandments as we could in two minutes’ time, with me writing them on the white board. The kids managed about six “Thou shalt nots” and “Honor thy father and thy mother”--which was pretty good, I thought.
Then I went forward with, “Some people say that what Jesus did in His parables was to put a positive spin on one or another of the Ten Commandments. We’re going to read two of His parables, and I want you to say just how each one of them presents one of the commandments in a positive way--instead of a ‘Thou shalt not’ way.”
First, we read the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). “Who wants to say what commandment Jesus was turning into a positive story?” I asked.
Mohammed waved his hand and called out, “Sir! Sir?”

I leaped at my chance, barely controlling the surprise in my voice: “Yes, Mohammed.”
“He’s saying, ‘Forget about “Honor your father and your mother.”’ He’s saying you have to give honor to everyone. You have to show honor even to the younger son, who has gone against the father and the family and against everything good, even to those who deserve no honor, even those who have proved that they should not be given any honor. You have to treat everyone with loving respect. Honor.”
I was staggered. I almost stumbled forward to embrace him as the Father had embraced the prodigal. I just barely managed to keep from hugging Mohammed in my delight with him.
(By the way, this was the first time I had ever taught that parable to a group of teenagers without the first response being about how terribly unfair the father was toward the elder brother. In other words, Mohammed had leaped clean away from any concern about justice and had gone in a subtle but beautiful way to mercy.)
The next comment was from Jenny, a strawberry blond and the only professing Christian in the class. “I think it was terribly unfair of the father . . .”
Secrets Unlocked
Next we read the parable of the good Samaritan. This time I felt I had to explain a few terms, such as Samaritan and Levite. But otherwise I let the story speak for itself. When I called for positive spins, Mohammed’s hand signaled wildly again. I restrained myself and let one or two others speak; then I turned to him again.
“Never mind, ‘Thou shalt not steal’!” he burbled. “Just the opposite! Jesus is saying that we have to give away our property to the needy, generously, you know, like be the absolute opposite of greedy like a thief. We should be willing to give, immediately, whatever we have to someone in need, and not just money, everything: our time, our caring, our attention, even our hearts and love. Especially if they are someone we are ‘supposed’ to look down on.”
“Mohammed, that’s--” I began.
“No, wait! It’s like He is turning two of the negative commandments into something positive with just one parable, isn’t it?” asked Mohammed. “He’s turning ‘Thou shalt not covet’ on its head, too. Instead of coveting a man’s money and stuff and then robbing him for them, Jesus says we are to stop whatever we are doing and instead start giving to people who are in really desperate need.”
I smiled and said, “Mohammed--”

But he cut me off again. “This parable is much larger than even that, though,” he continued. “It’s saying that some people put their religion before God. They are so selfish that they make their religion more important than God. Like the priest who looked the other way. They’re making their religion into a false god and breaking the ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’ commandment. Isn’t that right?”
I smiled hugely. “Don’t you mean, Isn’t that wrong? Wrong that people care more about their religion than about God?”
“Or care more about their religion than about other people who happen to belong to another faith!” Mohammed responded immediately.
Touched by the Spirit
I felt a little like Moses must have felt when the Red Sea opened. I felt like the prophet Muhammad might have felt if the mountain had come to him. I nearly staggered backward and forward like the man who cried out, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24, KJV).
At the very least I felt like small miracles were happening in my classroom. Was it possible that Mohammed had a tongue of fire hovering over his head? And I, because of scales on my eyes, couldn’t see it? I most certainly felt it was good of Mohammed not to mention the Crusaders, particularly, when he talked about folks caring more about their religion than about other people.
At the end of the lesson I began to do what a teacher does--“Abdul, would you please start collecting the copies of the prodigal son parable? Jenny, could you collect the good Samaritan stories?”--that sort of thing. As I moved around the classroom I passed Mohammed.

    Questions for Reflection . . .

1. When have you had a serious discussion about faith with the believer of another world religion? What was the setting?

2. When talking to someone of another (non-Christian) faith tradition, what is the primary thing you want them to know about Christians and Christianity?

3. Why is it important to avoid stereotypes when discussing religion with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and others?

4. What are the essential characteristics of people who want to enter into a frank, open discussion of religious beliefs?

“Sir?” he said quietly, looking up at me, but not quite in the eye. (What was wrong?)
“You asked for the parables to be collected?”
And it hit me. He was feeling slightly ashamed to have to be begging, but he really did have a need.
“Well, if you’d like to keep your copies, you may,” I said. “Say that I said you could have them if that’s what you want. Just put them in your bag, Mohammed.” And he did.
Mohammed had never really come up against Jesus the great teacher, although Muslims revere Him as such, until that afternoon. And as soon as the boy ran into Jesus’ parables he wanted them to be Mohammed’s parables. He wanted to walk out of the classroom with those parables in his personal possession.
I said this was a true story. I should have said it is a truth story. And to tell the truth, before he tucked them into his red satchel, Mohammed had already made those parables his own.
Phillip Whidden teaches in an academically selective secondary school in southeast England and is working on a scholarly article about the parable of the prodigal son.