Three blind men, having never seen an elephant are given the opportunity. An elephant trainer comes to town and allows each to touch the elephant, so that each will know (by feeling it) what an elephant looks like. John Godfrey Saxe expressed the legend through poetry in 1878.
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.
The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
Typically, this poem by John Godfrey Saxe is used to help temper theological arrogance, and help us all remain humble when it comes to what we think and say when we think and speak about God. But as I re-read it recently, I couldn’t help but think of how applicable it is to our current study on Forgiveness.
This image of six blind men groping about an elephant none of them have seen, is very much what the experience of forgiveness is like. Forgiveness can FEEL so different, to so many, depending on which side of the elephant we stand.
In those moments when we, ourselves, are in the wrong; when we have failed;
when we have fallen; when we have really blown it…
Forgiveness can FEEL like a breath of fresh air.
Smooth, comforting, reassuring.
Like the cool side of the pillow.
When we have been hurt; when someone we love has been treated unfairly; when the injury is still fresh and we’re not quite ready…
Forgiveness, can FEEL exasperating, exhausting, like breath taken away.
Rough, uncomfortable, course,
Like a burlap pillow case.
There are textures to forgiveness. Forgiveness can feel so different to so many, depending on which side of the elephant we stand.
No passage of scripture illustrates this reality better than Luke 15:11-32.
It is the parable that could have many titles:
“The Loving Father.” “The Prodigal Son.” “The Bitter Brother.”
Call it what you will, it is a beautiful (and revealing) story of how forgiveness is FELT from three unique perspectives: The one who seeks to receive it, the one who longs to grant it, and the one who struggles to watch it unfold.
Using as his inspiration, Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” Nouwen reflects on the story from each of the character’s unique positions. Using both, scripture and art, Nouwen points out that this passage is about all of us, and each of us, and the God who makes us whole. We each assume a different role in the parable at different points in our journey. Sometimes, we are the prodigal. Other times, the bitter brother. And occasionally, rare as it may be, we discover the grace to live as the loving father.
It is a revealing and life-giving book, and I recommend it to you for your own devotional reading, as we journey together in this current series.
Johns Creek Baptist Church