The Fable-ous Aesop
Somewhere in our youth most of us were exposed to Aesop’s fables, those wonderful tales that always had a moral. Aesop was an ancient Greek storyteller who lived somewhere around 620-564 BCE. His actual existence is uncertain—that is, his life itself may be a fable. While none of his writings survive, his tales live on.
Years ago I discovered a charming musical by Joseph Robinette and Thomas Tierney called The Fabulous Fable Factory. It’s written for adults to perform for children. In it, a curious young boy sneaks in to an abandoned factory and discovers an out-of-commission machine (made of human actors), and the factory owner, Mr. Aloysius A. Aesop.
The machine tells stories—but it’s broken. A part is missing. The missing part? The “moral maker.” Lo and behold, the boy turns out to be a perfect moral maker. Mr. Aesop invites him to become part of the machine so the factory can go back to work. The boy declines because—well, he’s a boy, and realizes he has some growing up to do before he settles into his life’s work.
I haven’t had a chance to produce the play, but I continue to hold out hope. I think it would be fun, and a good morality tale in itself. After all, everyone needs to learn how to make intelligent, informed decisions about life.
Stories with morals are important teaching devices. Jesus knew it; that’s why he used parables, a form of story theology just as Aesop’s tales are a form of story morality. We remember certain fables that helped us learn and remember moral truths just as we remember certain parables that help us learn and remember spiritual truths.
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” This is the moral of Aesop’s story about the lion and the mouse. The lion spares the mouse’s life. Later, the mouse gnaws through the ropes with which men have secured the captured lion and sets him free.
“No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted” might also be the summation of today’s Scripture reading. This is a passage to which I return often in my own spiritual journey. I believe it encapsulates what Jesus was trying to teach about how his followers should live.
Matthew 25:31-46 is often referred to as “The Last Judgment.” We find Jesus Christ, the Righteous Judge, seated on his throne with the whole of humanity gathered before him. With waves of his hand he separates the sheep (to his right hand) from the goats (to his left). He welcomes the sheep because they have performed acts of kindness to him—no matter how small—and dismisses the goats because they have failed to be kind. When each groups professes ignorance of having served him, he utters the famous line, “Inasmuch as you have been kind (or unkind) to the least of my brothers and sisters in my name, you have been kind (or unkind) to me” (my paraphrase).
When we stand before the Great Judge at the end of time, to which group will we be assigned? The decision will not be made on the basis of our standing in the community, nor the number of degrees we have after our names, nor the size of our bank accounts. It won’t matter what we know, or who we know, or where we live. All Jesus will want to know is have we been kind—and have we done so in his name. In other words, have we loved God and loved our neighbor in God’s name—the two commandments Jesus declared to be the greatest.
At that time we will understand fully the meaning of Aesop’s moral: no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.