Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One learns the most amazing things in Sunday School

I teach Sunday school to the 10-12 year old set at my church. Our curriculum right now is Old Testament, and you know how it is there -- you can't shake a stick without hitting a prostitute. So, this past Sunday, after a couple of chapters in which my charges read the word "prostitute" at least a dozen times, I thought to ask them if they knew what a prostitute was. (It was kind of crucial to understanding the story.) They took a couple guesses.

"It's a prosty who toots," was the first answer.

"I know, I know," said another, waving her hand vigorously above her head. I called on her, and she became remarkably less confident. "I think I know. I think it's a kind of ... lawyer?" (Some in my position would have told her, "Close," but I am sometimes an aspiring lawyer, so it did not occur to me to do so. Anyhow, I think she was thinking of "Pharisee.")

After that, no one was willing to venture a guess. I explained to them that it was someone who had sex in exchange for money, and they all looked slightly horrified. They are, after all, at an age when the thought of having sex with another person, though titillating, remains horrifying. "They what?" said the originator of "prosty who toots."

"They have sex with people in exchange for money. Usually, people become prostitutes because they don't have a whole lot of other options for making money, and this is the only way they can feed themselves or their families. Back then, if you were a woman there weren't a whole lot of job options, and women who weren't married or didn't have a father or brother who could support them would often have to do this in order to survive."

Although there were eight kids in the class, all were stunned into silence except Mr. "Prosty Who Toots": "So, let me get this straight, they ... they do *what*?"

"So Rahab--" the particular prostitute in question "-- men would pay her to have sex with them."

A lightbulb goes on. "Oh!" said Mr. Prosty Who Toots. "You mean a HOOKER! Why didn't you say that?"

Perhaps this is the whole reason that, while every single one of them could tell me the story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho without opening their Bibles, but none of them remembered ever hearing of Rahab. It's fun to tell kids, who like loudness and chaos, about some people who blew horns and shouted so loud that, with the intervention of God, a city's walls fell down. They can reenact it and have a ball. If you just tell them that part, you can avoid the fact that life is complex and, often, quite ugly.

(An aside about avoiding reality in Sunday School: My curriculum, which progressively included mention of Rahab, cuts off the story of the battle at Jericho right as the walls fall down, at Joshua 6:20. Which makes the story look very pacifistic: "Hey, look, the Israelites won the city of Jericho without raising a weapon!" Alas, if you are like my Sunday schoolers, you don't stop reading where the curriculum suggests, and you get to 6:21, in which the Israelites slay almost every single man, woman, child and animal in the city. Oops.)

But back to Rahab. We talked about how God often works through people we have been taught to despise. And I suppose that's a standard, curriculum-approved lesson to get out of this tale. If you can turn every lesson into the tale of the Good Samaritan, then you're doing pretty good as a Sunday School teacher.

But if I'd been totally honest with the kids, and if I'd thought they were at a point in their lives where they could understand, I would have told them this: When it comes down to it, we're all prostitutes. We're all selling off bits of ourselves in exchange for money, security, status. Perhaps our dignity, perhaps our idealism, perhaps our ethics, perhaps our souls. When God chooses to work through a prostitute, it's no more remarkable than when God works through anyone else. Or, to put it another way, when God works through a devout churchgoer, it's just as amazing and unexpected -- perhaps more so -- as when God works through a lowly hooker.

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