Even superheroes have their weaknesses. If it were not so, the stories about them would be over very quickly and would not be quite so interesting. This is perhaps a reflection of our human condition. No individual is complete within himself or herself. We need one another to do things we cannot do for ourselves and to watch out for dangers hidden in our blind spots. Together we survive and thrive, but separately we grow weak and perish.
Hopefully we learn this lesson in childhood. Good children’s literature certainly upholds this principle, whether it is The Cat in the Hat helping bored children amuse themselves and then clean up the mess, or The Ugly Duckling finding unexpected help to teach him who he is. So it is with The Five Chinese Brothers, a classic modern retelling of an ancient Chinese story. In her 1938 version of the tale, Claire Huchet Bishop tells of five remarkable brothers who live with their mother near the sea. Although they are identical, each brother has a unique ability. One can swallow the sea, and thus is a highly successful fisherman. The second brother has a neck as hard as iron, the third can stretch his legs to any length, the fourth is immune to fire, and the fifth can hold his breath as long as he desires.
One day the First Brother goes fishing in the company of a lad who had begged to go with him. When the brother swallows the sea, the boy runs out to collect the treasures exposed on the now dry ground. Before long the Brother grows tired and signals to the lad to return, but he ignores the signals and continues wandering along the seabed. When the Brother must release the sea from his mouth, the waters cover the wayward boy. In sadness the Brother returns home, where he is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by beheading.
Happily for the family, the execution never succeeds. The First Brother has opportunity to go home and say farewell to his mother, but it is the Second Brother who returns. His neck of iron turns the executioner’s blade, leading to a revised sentence of death by drowning. The sequence repeats, with each Brother coming in to overcome successive sentences – the Third Brother’s long legs prevent drowning in the sea; the Fourth Brother’s resistance to fire defeats the flames of the execution stake; and the Fifth Brother survives an airless night in a sealed oven. Having failed to execute the offender, and not realizing that his Brothers have taken his place each time, the judge proclaims him innocent.
How simple and how profound is the lesson from this children’s tale. Brothers need one another, each contributing of his abilities to do his essential part in bringing peace and long life to the family and to the nation. That is just as King David said:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever. (Psalm 133:1-3 NASB)
It is understandable why Peter Jackson had to take considerable license with The Lord of the Rings when he brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth work to the screen, and yet his choices inevitably brought disappointment to Tolkien aficionados. Why, for example, did Jackson choose to minimize the presence of Farmer Maggot? Tolkienists take issue with the fact that his role in The Fellowship of the Ring was diminished to the point of insignificance. In the book, Farmer Maggot saved Frodo and his companions as they fled the Shire, giving them provision and helping them elude Sauron’s dreaded Black Riders. It was unexpected help, for Frodo had considered Farmer Maggot an enemy. As a child Frodo had taken a liking to Maggot’s mushrooms, and on more than one occasion absconded with portions of the good farmer’s crop. Such youthful mischief roused Maggot’s anger, compelling him to chase Frodo from his land and threaten him with his very large dogs should he ever return. And so it was that Frodo grew up fearing Farmer Maggot, never knowing that beneath his fierce anger lay a loyal, generous, and hospitable heart. Thanks to the mediation of his companion Pippin, and to the dire need of the moment, Frodo at last gained opportunity to get to know the real Farmer Maggot. He explained as much as they prepared to leave Maggot’s home:
Thank you very much indeed for your kindness! I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend.
Frodo’s words present us with an all-too-familiar and all-too-tragic reality. How often have individuals, families, and nations remained at odds over ancient offenses, the causes of which are long forgotten? How much suffering has multiplied on the earth because natural allies regard each other as enemies, or at least minimize their contact with each other out of mistrust and misbegotten fear? And how much greater is that tragedy if the people who regard each other in this way are the two parts of YHVH’s people? In truth, Moses and Yeshua have no contradictions or arguments, but their followers think they do, and for that reason Jews and Christians have separated themselves from one another for twenty centuries.
One of the great depictions of American historical events is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The scene captures the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five men who drafted the Declaration present their work to the Continental Congress. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 42 appear in Trumbull’s work, the others having died before he could obtain their images. The painting also depicts five men who did not sign, including Robert Livingston of New York. Livingston was one of the men who drafted the Declaration, but New York recalled him from the Congress before he could sign his work. In Trumbull’s painting Livingston appears in the center of the drafting committee, with Roger Sherman of Connecticut on his right and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on his left. Americans may not remember the distinguished men from Connecticut and New York, but they do remember Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, two future presidents. Jefferson and Adams embraced different visions of how to govern the infant American Republic, and even though they became political rivals, they remained friends until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826.
There is a legend that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint his foot on top of Adams’, but it is only a legend. The two men’s feet are close together in the picture, and as time and dirt wore away at the painting it came to appear that Jefferson’s foot was resting on Adams’. That is not the only oddity in Trumbull’s work. Like many works of art it is not entirely accurate, but is effective in capturing the spirit of the moment and of the age. So also is 1776, a musical play which humorously explores the events during that fateful summer of American independence. Howard DaSilva dominates the film version with his portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. If we are to believe the movie, independence was Adams’ idea, and the declaration was expressed in Jefferson’s words, but it was Franklin who brought it into being with his wisdom, wit, and ability to achieve consensus. 1776 embellishes the story with fictional dialogue, but it captures a number of famous quotes by the Founding Fathers, including Franklin’s immortal words: “If we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately!”
Dr. Franklin spoke a warning to a people facing the threat of political extinction before they could become a nation. Long before Franklin uttered his warning, Yeshua of Nazareth spoke the same truth to the people He had come to redeem from the threat of extinction by the enemy of their souls:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)