Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Gospel According to Charles Dickens

My husband is reading a book about Christmas traditions, and he told me that our modern concept of Christmas celebrations date back to around the time of Charles Dickens and his Christmas Carol. It seems like every year someone is putting it on as a play or a new movie version is coming out. But my all-time favorite Christmas movie has to be The Muppet Christmas Carol. It's just classic. It follows the book fairly accurately and the dialogue is just great. But as we were watching it this Christmas (the first time in a while since I've seen it), I was struck by how deeply Christian A Christmas Carol actually is. Let me show you (and so I get to take on the role of Omniscient Narrator!).

I think that A Christmas Carol is actually a modern retelling of the story of Zacchaeus of "wee little man" fame from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 19. According to the song, poor vertically challenged Zacchaeus wants to see Jesus and solves his problem by climbing a tree. Jesus surprises him by inviting himself over to Z's house. What the song doesn't tell you is that our friend Z here is a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated at that time because not only did they collect taxes from the oppressed people of Israel to go in the coffers of the oppressing Romans, but tax collectors made their living by collecting extra. They got rich from charging their own people an exorbitant "handler's fee." That's why "tax collectors and sinners" usually went together in the mind of people at the time.

Luke tells us that Z was RICH. (Hmmmm, sound a little familiar?) What the song also doesn't say is what happened next:

All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:7-10)

Remember for a moment Pre-Ghost Scrouge and his attitude toward the poor and needy in a nutshell: 

“If they would rather die, . . . they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” 

Now note his actions toward the needy Cratchet family Post-Ghost: 

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.

In the Muppet version, Scrooge (a rich and powerful man in London) is seen giving a generous donation to a fund for the homeless, giving gifts at a nursing home, and giving his long-suffering assistant a generous raise while providing his family (and it looks like the entire community) a sumptuous Christmas feast. Hmmm, sound familiar? 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. 
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors, 
to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)

Scrooge clearly experienced a salvific conversion event, (like Zacchaeus) and he will never be the same. He is using the wealth that he had greedily squeezed out of everyone he could take advantage of, and using it to repay the damage it had done. He was a person in power but began to use that power to help people. Salvation came to the house of Scrooge that day, and in the process he gained the family that he might have had but lost. The message that I take away from this tale is that no one is beyond redemption. And that is the power of a good story. 

So the next time you roll your eyes at yet another adaptation or a corny reference to this Christmas classic (it's so tempting I know!) think on this wise but oft overlooked Christmas sermon by Tiny Tim, as retold by Mr. Cratchet:

"[Tiny Tim] told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.” 

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