There is a children’s story that dates to the early middle ages; it’s about a wolf, a goat and a cabbage. A man was returning home from a journey; he was bringing home a wolf, a goat and a cabbage. He came to a river, and found that he could borrow a boat that was large enough only to carry himself and one other object at a time. This posed a problem. If left together unsupervised, the goat would eat the cabbage, and the wolf would eat the goat. How could he get all three items across the river, and home, safely?
A clever person can resolve this logic problem with relative ease. This story was used to teach children how to reason. It demonstrates that a clever person can always find a means to unravel life’s challenges. On a deeper level, the story demonstrates the value of persistence. More than one trip across the river is necessary in order to accomplish the goal. Oftentimes, persistence obtains what might otherwise seem impossible, even to the clever.
However, before getting to the wisdom taught by this story, one must be willing to suspend disbelief. No sensible person would actually want to take a wolf home. Personally, I’d leave all three items on the river bank, and take the easy route. Cabbage doesn’t appeal to me, and I’d rather not have animal hair on my clothes. This story is a hypothetical example, not a description of the real world. If read literally, it seems silly. If read as a logic exercise, it is entertaining. If read as a moral lesson about persistence, it is transformative.
Today’s second reading, from the Book of Revelation, is the sort of literature that has to be read as one would read the story of the wolf, the goat and the cabbage. The Book of Revelation is another example of biblical apocalyptic; in that regard, it is similar to last Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Daniel. Biblical apocalyptic uses fantastical images as metaphors for the struggle faced by those who suffer persecution for their faith. The Book of Daniel was written to offer consolation to second century B.C. residents of Judea who were being persecuted by the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes. It presents Daniel and his companions as ideal believers who suffer for their faith, but are finally vindicated. It was intended to encourage the persecuted to remain steadfast in their faith.
The Book of Revelation was also intended to offer consolation to suffering believers. The Book of Revelation was written during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Nero. It is filled with veiled references to Nero, the city of Rome and the Roman Empire. If read literally, it looks like a Harry Potter story, replete with dragons, wraiths and mystical fires. If read as esoterica, it becomes easily the substance of a dystopian vision of global destruction. If read as apocalyptic, its meaning is explained fully in the first few lines.
Today’s selection from the Book of Revelation is taken from the Introduction to the book. The book opens with a formal greeting, and an explanation of the central topic of the book, “Behold, he is coming amid the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him.” (Rev 1:7) Then the visionary who narrates the book relates a proclamation he heard from the Lord God, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty.” (Rev 1:8)
The entire contents of the book are summed up in these two statements: that the Risen Jesus will return, and that his return is guaranteed by Almighty God. The remainder of the book is elaboration of these two truths. There is a subtle lesson to be learned here, similar to the lesson about persistence in the story of the wolf, the goat and the cabbage. The visionary of Revelation begins at the end of the story, and he begins with an affirmation that God is the beginning and end of all. He did so in order to assure those suffering persecution that, despite the depth of evil visited on them by Nero, God’s goodness will conquer all.
This is the moral lesson that the Book of Revelation intends to teach us. It is exactly what we pray for when we recite the Lord’s Prayer: we pray that God’s “will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The visionary of Revelation wanted to assure persecuted Christians that God’s will would overcome any and all opposition.
In addition to the moral lesson there is wisdom for our daily lives. The visionary begins his story at the end in order to strengthen and reassure believers who might be tempted to abandon their faith. This is how we ought to begin everything: our day, our activities, our hopes and dreams, our prayers, our entire lives. We ought to begin everything at the end, that is, with the assurance that no evil in this world can ever threaten to overcome God’s goodness; rather, God’s will always accomplishes its good intentions perfectly and fully.
You and I are unlikely to face the sort of persecution that believers faced during the reign of Nero. Instead, we are likely to face a slightly more insidious challenge to our faith. We live in a society that is very sentimental, but quite faithless. Our culture values religion on an occasional basis, and only as a consumer commodity that exists to serve one’s personal needs. These temptations are so strong that they have lured millions of people away from the practice of religion; every believer faces that same possibility of falling into complacency, self-deception and self-righteousness.
The visionary’s words offer wise advice about how to avoid the worst forms of temptation: begin at the end, that is, begin everything with the acknowledgment of God’s goodness and God’s power. We are much more likely, and better equipped, to persevere until the end (Rev 7:14), when we have a clear picture of the end destined for Jesus’ faithful disciples.
Early in the Church’s history, it was customary to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times daily. This might be one of those ancient practices that has gained renewed relevance. It might worth our while to remind ourselves on a regular basis exactly how life will end for those who persevere in faith. In fact, it might be not only the smart thing to do, but the most faithful thing to do: to keep our hearts and minds focused on that day when every tear will be wiped away. (Rev 7:17) Give it a try; beginning at the end is the sure way to persevere in faith and remain in God’s presence.