Friday, May 20, 2016

"The sky is red, dumb ass," or -- humor in Matthew (we found some!)


If you are reading it for the first time in twenty or thirty years, it may strike you as something out of a Seth Rogen movie. Just one small paragraph, seven verses. In fact, let's pretend it is a movie script, and we are millennial hipsters writing it.

***

(Working title: The Sky is Red, Dumb Ass)

Scene: ancient Israel, during the Roman Empire, about the year 30 A.D. The frenzy of Jesus of Nazareth's career is at the height of its -- well, frenzy. He travels about a smallish quadrant of a very small land, mostly staying near the sea of Galilee, preaching, telling the Jews their religious authorities are corrupt (a la James Kirk -- "your Bible is a lie!" though of course, not that exactly), and especially healing people. People being what they are, they mostly come out for that. In droves, in crowds, in throngs. Over and over again we are told "the crowds were so great," "great crowds followed him," "they brought him many" to be cured. Once they are cured they tend to go away. Or he sends them away, perhaps knowing what they are. We don't often hear "and the paralytic stayed and listened to what else he had to say." 

There have also been huge miracles and bizarre sights. He has calmed storms at sea,
 he has caused a few loaves of bread and fish to be enough to feed thousands, he has walked on water from shore to his disciples on a boat, pitching about in a storm on the sea of Galilee. 

Frequently, after some course of miracles and healings and teachings, the presumably exhausted Jesus goes away by himself somewhere. Usually when he comes back they all climb into a boat and cross "the sea," and the cycle of working the crowds begins again.

As this scene opens, not only is that new cycle beginning, but food and bickering about food is on everyone's mind. (Incidentally we're talking about a world in which hungry men eat grains of wheat off the stalk in a field, or pluck figs off a tree by the road. Memo to casting director, everybody is skinny.) In his most recent fracas with the religious authorities, Jesus has had to answer questions about why his followers don't wash their hands (ritually?) before eating, plus he has had to deal with the Canaanite woman who rebukes him about 'dogs eating the scraps from the table.' Then he feeds another several thousand with a few loaves and fishes.    

***

Dawn on the sea of Galilee. A few minutes of gray coolness, even mist, are left before the heat begins. The boat glides in to the bank, and the disciples splash wearily one by one into the water, to pull it all the way in. (Memo to set director, were there wharves and piers? Did guys just run boats up on to the sand? Is the shore of Kinneret sandy or rocky? Find out.) Jesus also gets out and helps pull. Well, he would. He is the farthest ahead of all of them.  

The last couple guys picking up their stuff from inside the boat, before they get out too, notice that nobody has brought any food. In all the everlasting hubbub that their lives have become, "they had forgotten to bring bread." Or, maybe they had been saving those last few loaves that he just used to feed the crowd
. Present are: Simon called Peter, and Andrew (brothers); James and John (also brothers); Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew the tax collector; James "the son of Alphaeus;" Thaddeus; Simon "the Cananean;" Judas Iscariot. Jesus.

THADDEUS. (Still in the boat. Rummaging in a bag.) Ohhh ... (Did the disciples ever use oaths? They were, after all, ordinary guys before.)

JAMES SON OF ALPHAEUS. What?

THADDEUS. You're not going to believe this.

SIMON THE CANANEAN. What?

PHILIP. What's the matter?

THADDEUS. Let's just say it's a long walk back around to that bake-shop woman.

SIMON. Are you kidding? We don't have bread?

BARTHOLOMEW (breathless, working in the water). I'd go. She was cute.

JUDAS. (Furious.) Fuck. (Yes, he would say it.)

MATTHEW THE TAX COLLECTOR. (Looking up, knee deep in the water, a rope over his shoulder.) Don't. What is it?

JUDAS. It seems we've forgotten bread, because we're all so brilliant like that. (He jumps over the side, followed by Thaddeus, James son of Alphaeus, Philip, and Simon. The boat is empty. The men heave and push it to shore. One tosses the anchor up on the grass (the sand? The rocks? Find out.) They wring out the hems of their clothes. They would normally gather to sit and eat now. Judas stalks a little away, to get his bearings, to look for a road.)

BARTHOLOMEW (approaches Simon Peter.) We'll have to live on mutual admiration until the next town. We forgot the bread.

SIMON PETER (turning, then grins). At least there's no lack of water. 

ANDREW (the disciples have begun to gather in two knots; Andrew crosses from one to the other, drawing them together). I hear we have ...

JAMES. Yes, yes. Now what?  

JOHN (shrugs). Move on, find a town, buy bread. Or beg it. 

ANDREW. They'll love us.

JUDAS (returning). They might.

PHILIP. They often do by the time we go. 

JESUS (He has been standing a little away. Now he comes toward them, brushing the dirt from his hands). What is it? 

JOHN. Nothing too serious. Just annoying. We forgot bread.

JESUS. (Still slowly brushing his hands. His mind is always working at a different level. Food -- bread -- the Canaanite woman -- scraps for the dogs -- healing -- the sick, the sick, the sick -- why don't you wash your hands? why do you pick grain on the Sabbath? -- the crowds, the crowds -- the sea, the sea -- bread comes from grain, all you need otherwise is water -- but also leavening, yeast -- show us a sign.) Well. (He smiles, absently, a bit grimly.) Rather beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. (He walks a little way off, up the rise toward the road.)     

THADDEUS. I'm sorry, what? 

JAMES. What was that? 

SIMON THE CANANEAN. Do you think he's mad? 

JUDAS. I don't think so. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Who would forget bread?

THOMAS. We all forgot it, do you mind? 

SIMON PETER. It's those loaves he used the last time. The second time. That's what we packed for now. 

JOHN. Would you rather he not have fed hungry people? 

SIMON PETER. No. I'm just saying, we're not stupid, that was what we planned. 

JAMES SON OF ALPHEUS. Well then, we should have made adjustments in our plans. Look, what are we, a bunch of women here? Can we move on? 

THOMAS. I agree. I’m starving.

MATTHEW THE TAX COLLECTOR. I agree. Let's go. 

ANDREW. What about the boat -- 

JESUS (Suddenly he is just there, as if they had forgotten about him for years). What is it? 

JUDAS (After a pause). Nothing -- we're sorry we forgot --

JESUS. It's not the bread! You've seen bread. You've seen five thousand people fed with five loaves, you've seen four thousand people fed with seven. You've collected the leftovers yourselves. Have some faith. What I said was, 'Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.' You know, the powers that be? 

SIMON PETER (actually squinting). You mean ... the leaven...

JOHN. What transforms. A small amount changes everything.

PHILIP. All through the bread.  

JESUS. Yes! 

THOMAS. Makes it what it will be. You can’t unmake bread.

THADDEUS. Makes us what we will be. What we might be.

PHILIP. Their teachings are like leaven, in people.

BARTHOLOMEW. And, going forward ... because we'll meet them again. 

JESUS (Gestures a 'hello, dumb-ass' Yes, not to any one of them, but more to the day in general

(They all turn to go, Jesus first with Judas close behind, followed by the rest. As they walk, one disciple quietly explains to another, in snatches and whispers. "He didn't mean the bread. 'Leaven' is teachings, how they work in you like yeast works in dough ...." 

(The straggler is Andrew. Once or twice he looks back at the boat.) 

ANDREW. What about the boat? Should we just leave it? That's not our boat, right? 

They keep walking, and he runs to catch up. 


***


END OF THE SCENE BASED ON THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, CHAPTER 16: 5-12.

(Minor note: it’s amazing how often, if this were set in modern times, the characters would have said “Christ” or “Jesus” as a throwaway oath. Frequently had to stop myself from typing it in automatically.) 








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