AN OLD STORY FOR A NEW WORLD:
an excerpt from The Gospel of Simon
To many people nowadays, religion is viewed as an outdated belief system that fosters prejudice, intolerance, inequality, injustice, divisiveness, and even violence. Instead of uniting humanity, religion creates a “We” versus “They” mentality that separates people, pitting us against one another. Because of this, one prominent religious scholar recently wrote that by its very nature religion fosters violence1. The excerpt below, from my new inspirational, interfaith novel, The Gospel of Simon, begins with a modern day character named Simon who lives in Jerusalem. Simon represents the way many people around the world today feel about religion. Although he grew up in the faith, he has abandoned it in adulthood. He wonders why, if there is a God, God allows so much hate and violence in the world. He is fed up with people using religion as an excuse to harm or to oppress others. He sees through the hypocrisy of using religion to justify greed. But through the course of the novel, Simon learns an amazing secret that has been passed down from generation to generation for two thousand years. What he learns speaks directly to his modern day concerns and sensibilities about religion. Hopefully, it will speak to you as well. W. P. Kinsella (Academy Award winner for the films Field of Dreams and Lieberman in Love) wrote that The Gospel of Simon “could change the world, if only the world will listen with its heart.”
IT HAD BEEN A HATEFUL DAY, full of spite and tension. From the arguments in the office and the lunatic on the street corner shouting how everyone was wicked and condemned to hell, to the news of yet another suicide bombing and massacre on the radio during the sweltering bumper-to-bumper ride home, where the jerk in the car behind him was blasting his horn the whole time, it seemed like a day when all kindness and tolerance in the world was put on hold.
Simon just wanted to be done with it. He wanted to go home, change out of his suit, and have something cold to drink before his date that evening. But just before he got there, his grandfather called, begging him to drop by.
“Please,” he had said. “I need to talk to you about something.”
Simon’s frustration showed when he finally walked through the door with his tie loosened around his neck and as he paced his grandfather’s small living room, while the old man went to fetch something from the bedroom.
Finally, his grandfather came out with a wooden box, only a little larger than a shoe box, which he gently placed on the small kitchen table. He pulled out a chair and gestured for him to sit down.
“I can’t stay long, Grandpa. I just dropped by for a few minutes because you asked me to. I need to go home and change. I’m meeting Rebekah at Café Hillel in an hour and then we’re going to the free concert at Jerusalem Theatre this evening.”
“Your generation is always busy, always in a hurry. It’s bad for your health. You need to learn to slow down. You should pray for patience.”
“You know I don’t go to church anymore, Grandpa. It always seemed so insincere and . . . pointless,” Simon said, thinking of the right word. “And I don’t pray, either. I see all the suffering and injustice and violence in the world, the genocide and mass shootings that are so commonplace we have become indifferent to them, and the never-ending wars, which almost always have religious hatred at the root. Why doesn’t God stop it?”
“It’s not that simple,” began the old man. “God gave us . . .”
But the grandson interrupted before he could finish.
“I’m sick and tired of the hypocrisy of people who use religion to oppress the rights of others and to inflict suffering, and of people screaming how we’re all condemned to hell if we believe differently. Religion’s all about hate. I don’t believe in any of it anymore.”
“But not everyone’s like that.”
“Yes they are! Every time I turn on the television there’s news of a brutal massacre in the name of religion or of some scandal or corruption. On the radio some bigoted political or religious fanatic is spouting fear and hatred. Violence and greed has become our religion. Nowadays, it’s every man for himself. Just take what you can and the hell with everyone else,” he said, thinking of the two-faced co-worker who was gunning for his job.
“What you say is true,” replied the old man. “There is a lot of that. But people have become lost. More than ever we need to . . .”
“Look!” interrupted the grandson again. “There is no God. There was no Jesus. No cross. There is no love . . . only hate. I got to go.”
The old man’s expression turned to sorrow for his grandson. He sighed before speaking.
“Sit down. Please. I’ve been waiting a long time to show you something.”
The younger man studied his grandfather’s face, saw the earnestness. He took a deep breath and bit his lower lip.
“All right,” he said reluctantly, reaching into his pocket for his cell phone. “I’ll tell Rebekah that I have to cancel our date. But it better be important.”
“It is,” replied the old man with a sudden hopeful smile.
While his grandson sent a text message to his girlfriend, the old man turned off the television and opened the window by the little kitchen table, the blue curtains billowing in the summer breeze. Through the window, he could see the little stone goat house at the edge of his fenced yard. He used to own more land, but he’d sold most of it to a developer fifteen years ago, keeping only a small lot that included the house and the goat house, which had been on the land for so many generations no one knew how old it was for certain.
What used to be his family’s farm was now surrounded by houses, each similar to the next and all of them painted white, clean and bright in the sunshine. Beyond the old goat house, he could see the beige drabness of sand and rock and the ancient rolling hills sparsely clad in scrubby, green trees with overcrowded housing and ugly power lines running toward Jerusalem in the distance.
“All right, Grandpa. Rebekah said she’ll take a raincheck. She said there’s a movie she wanted to see anyhow. So what is it you want to show me?”
The old man patted one of the two wooden chairs at the small table.
“Come sit,” he said.
When they were both seated, the young man across from his grandfather, the old man pulled the box closer.
“This is older than you can imagine,” he said, removing the lid and carefully setting it aside.
A musty smell arose from the opened box.
“What is it?”
“Your past. Your future.”
Simon looked puzzled.
The old man lifted out a bundle of paper tied crisscross with blue twine.
Simon stood up and leaned over to get a better glimpse. From where he stood, he could see what looked like a leather bound book still inside the box.
His grandfather laid a wrinkled hand atop the pages.
“This manuscript contains the story of our family, our place in history.”
The grandson struggled to understand what his grandfather was talking about. As far as he knew there was nothing special about their family, no claim to fame, let alone some extraordinary role in history.
“I’m getting old. I must tell you a secret while my mind is still clear.”
Simon wondered if the bundle of papers was his grandfather’s journal.
“Is it about when you were young, about something you did? The war, maybe?” he asked, sitting back down.
“Is it about my dad? Was he adopted?”
The old man chuckled, the wrinkles around his eyes like deep canyons etched by floodwater.
“Is it about Grandma, how you met her?”
The old man smiled softly. He missed his wife.
“No. It’s not about your grandmother. No more questions. The secret I must share with you happened long before I was born. It’s the story of what happened to the first Simon, for whom we are both named.”
The old man pushed the manuscript across the table to his grandson.
“Read this. There’s time enough.”
Simon thumbed randomly through a few pages. The manuscript looked as if it were typed on onion-skin paper on one of those old, manual typewriters.
“I’ll be in the goat house when you’re done.”
Simon untied the twine and set aside the blank first page. As he began to read, his grandfather shuffled across the creaking floor to the door, grabbing his cane and a worn, black fedora from a hook on the wall beside a small wooden crucifix. He glanced back just as Simon looked up from the manuscript as if startled, his mouth agape, his eyes questioning.
The old man tipped his hat at his grandson and smiled before stepping into the sunlight.
MY NAME IS SIMON. I WAS BORN IN CYRENE, a seaside city in the province of Cyrenaica not far from the Roman seaport of Apollonia on the southern Mediterranean coast. My family moved to Judaea when I was a boy. My mother died at sea on the journey. My father bought some land less than a half a day’s journey from Jerusalem on which he could raise goats and grow olives and a vineyard.
But this story is not about that.
It is about the day I helped a Nazarene named Jesus carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem up to Golgotha where he was crucified.
It has been forty years since that day, more or less. I was much stronger and taller than I am now. I asked my grandson to write down my recollections for me while I still remember clearly. Ezra learned to write in Aramaic. I promised him one of my goats for his labor, a pregnant nanny.
What you are about to read I have told few others.
You will doubt some of what I say. You may even think I am lying. That is understandable. You were not there. It is difficult for most people to believe things they have not seen with their own eyes.
For my own part, I forgive you your skepticism.
Click on The Charter for Compassion’s Marketplace to order The Gospel of Simon.
1 Sacks, Jonathon. Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. Schocken, 2017.