by Linda McMillan
In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a young girl is sent through the forest to Grandmother’s house. En route to Grandmother’s house she met a wolf, a big wolf, it was a very bad hombre of a wolf, and Little Red Riding Hood told the wolf about her frail grandmother. Seizing the opportunity, the wolf tricked Little Red Riding Hood into picking some flowers and while she did that, he sped away to Grandmother’s house and he ate Grandmother. Meanwhile, having gathered her flowers, Little Red Riding Hood continued on to Grandmother’s house where she was surprised to see Grandmother looking remarkably like – gasp – a wolf!
I think you know the rest of the story. The Big Bad Wolf had dressed up like Grandmother and he managed to fool Little Red Riding Hood who also got eaten! That is how it is with wolves.
In our readings for today, Jesus sent his followers out as sheep among wolves. Sheep – vulnerable and innocent like Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother — among big, bad, growling, howling, threatening wolves. As we read this passage, of course, we imagine that we are the sheep. We follow Jesus, after all, and we have our pure white vestments… er, I mean wool. It’s simple, right? We are the good guys. The others, those who are not us, they are the wolves. That’s just clearly a literary device meant to refer to The Devil. Right. It’s all so clear.
But, wait… there’s more.
Just previous to this, Jesus had seen the crowds and was moved with compassion because they were like sheep. Now, he compares his followers to sheep and sends them out among wolves. That is certainly not very compassionate!
One would think that the sheep – the disciples – would fear the wolves. But, a few verses later Jesus tells them that it’s not the wolves who will give them up to the authorities, it’s their brothers, their fathers, their children. In fact, he says, “Everybody will hate you…” Sheep, wolves, everybody!
So, does Jesus have compassion for the sheep or not? It’s hard to tell. It is complicated by the fact that we draw such a sharp distinction between the sheep and the wolves, the strangers and our own families. Like the big, bad wolf in our story it’s not so easy to tell just who is who.
It may be that we innocent sheep are also wolves — some of us bigger and badder than others, to be sure – but, wolves just the same. And, just as a wolf in the wild has no idea what destruction it causes to others, we “innocent” wolves might be more destructive than we think. We are desecrating the planet, after all. It is not real wolves or real sheep who are doing that, it’s us.
One time Jesus told a story about a man who had planted good seeds, expecting a good crop. Alas, when the seeds came up, there were weeds among them and the man’s slaves offered to go and pull up the weeds. The wise farmer told them not to disturb the weeds since it would uproot the wheat too. “Let them grow up together,” he said. The wise farmer sorted it all out later.
There is also the well-known story of the two caged wolves, sometimes told as two caged tigers:
A grandfather is talking with his grandson and he says there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other.
One of them is a good wolf which represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is a bad wolf, which represents things like greed, hatred and fear.
The grandson stops and thinks about it for a second then he looks up at his grandfather and says, “Grandfather, which one wins?”
The grandfather quietly replies, “The one you feed.”
The rabbis, too, have given us the Yetzr Ha-Tov and the Yetzr Ha-Ra… the good inclination and the bad inclination which reside in each of us.
Wheat and tares growing up together, the acknowledgement that there are two natures in each of us, the good inclination and the evil inclination… None of us is totally innocent, and none of us is completely bad. All of us are both sheep and all of us are wolves too.
It might seem like we should do all we can to uproot the weeds in our inner gardens, destroy the wolves within, and repress the Yetzr Ha-Ra, but the rabbis also tell us that it is the evil inclination which spurs us on to build houses, procreate, and achieve in this life. There is a story that one time some rabbis tried to catch the Yetzr Ha-Ra. They fasted and prayed and eventually the Yetzr Ha-Ra came out and surrendered to them. The text says that he came out of the Holy of Holies like a fiery lion! “What shall we do with it?” they wondered. For if they’d killed it the world would end. The rabbis held the Yetzr Ha-Ra captive for three days, after which there was not an egg to be found in all the land. They put out its eyes and let it go because without the Yetzr Ha-Ra there is no world.
Like Jesus in today’s reading, we can embrace the so-called good and the so-called bad in ourselves and in one another too. There are no wolves and sheep, there is only all of us doing the best we can to love God and love our neighbors. When you look in the mirror, give thanks for both your eyes of compassion and the inner growl of the wolf. Both are the real you, the authentic one known and loved by God.
Linda McMillan is currently enjoying the big blue skies of Brazoria County, Texas… and the companionship of a good dog.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Actually there are two famous versions of the story – and numerous lesser-known versions. In one version Little Red Riding Hood is warned not to talk to strangers, in the other she is also warned not to leave the path. There are other differences too. – This is an excellent, but also short, article about the story.
New Rule: Badder can be a real word if used in conjunction with other regular comparatives like bigger, faster, taller, etc.
Matthew 9:36… When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (NIV)
Matthew 10:21-22… Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (NIV)
Matthew 13:24-29… Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (NIV)
You can read more about the parable of the two wolves here, including information on its origin. Unknown, btw.
Here is a very short article about the Yetzr Ha-Tov and the Yetzr Ha-Ra. Literally that means, inclination the good and inclination the bad. Almost anything you could say about this would be an oversimplification, but it’s still good to know about it.