The Pope and the rabbi
The folly of trying to interpret spiritual realities with the
carnal mind is illustrated by a story that is told about a debate between the
Pope and a rabbi. According to the story, in the Middle Ages, the Pope decided
that all the Jews had to leave the city of Rome. Naturally, there was a big
uproar from the Jewish community. So the Pope made a deal. He would have a
theological debate with any person selected by the Jewish community. If their
representative won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would have to
leave Rome forever.
The Jews realized they had no choice. They looked around for a
learned champion who could defend their faith, but no one was willing to
volunteer. No one felt that he could equal the Pope's vast knowledge and
overwhelming eloquence. Finally they picked a man to represent them -- an old
rabbi named Moshe who was well past his prime and now spent his time sweeping
the synagogue. Being old and slightly addled, he thought he had less to lose,
and so he agreed. He asked only for one condition for the debate. Not being an
eloquent man like the Pope, and not being proficient in Latin, he asked that
neither side be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.
The day of the great debate came. Moshe and the Pope sat
opposite each other for a full minute without making a move. Then the Pope
raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moshe looked back at him sadly, shook
his head, and raised one finger. The Pope waved his arms in a circle around his
head. Moshe pointed to the ground where he sat. Then the Pope pulled out a wafer
and a glass of wine. Moshe brought out an apple.
The Pope stood up and said, "I give up. This man is too good.
The Jews can stay." An hour later, the cardinals gathered around the Pope to
find out what happened. The Pope said, "I've never met a man with such keen
spiritual and theological insight. No matter what I said, he had an answer that
reminded me of how little I really know. First I held up three fingers to assert
that God was to be found through the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He responded
by holding up one finger to remind me that, even though He has manifested
Himself in many ways, there is still only one God, and we both know His name.
Then I waved my arms around me to show him that the greatness of God is written
in the heavens. He responded by pointing to the ground, reminding me that God is
in the midst of us through the presence of His Spirit. I pulled out the
sacramental wine and wafer to show him that God's Son absolves us from our sins.
But he pulled out an apple to remind me that God has been dealing with sin as
far back as the garden of Eden. He had an answer for everything! I cannot ask
people with such deeply spiritual leadership to leave Rome. They can
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moshe,
amazed that this old, almost feeble-minded man had done what all their young,
eloquent scholars had insisted was impossible! "What happened?" they asked.
"Well," said Moshe, "first he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out
of town. 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?" asked a woman. "I don't know," said Moshe. "He took out his
lunch and I took out mine, and it was all over."