How shall we tell the story of the people who build the tower with its peak in the heavens?
Today, I’d like to wonder with you about understanding this story as a folk tale or, if you prefer, as a parable. Folk tales have morals, sometimes they even end with the storyteller saying, And the moral of the story is…
And the moral of the story is… Don’t touch other people’s porridge or Don’t talk to strange wolves, no matter how charming they may be. And parables have questions, questions that, somehow, always prove to be just a little bigger than our answers. The folk tale or the parable about the tower built up into the heavens: it ends with a moral or with a question to which the encounter that we call Pentecost then responds.
The folk tale goes like this.
Once upon a time there was a city. And in it there was a rich man. The man figured out how to make money when he was young and across his life he used that money to create still more money. He needed nothing, he wanted nothing. When he would sit down for a meal he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would look at the food on his plate and say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
In his factories, the man’s many employees toiled away making iPhones and Instant Pots, and in his hotels, his many other employees toiled away, going the extra mile for truly excellent customer service. The man would look at everything that belonged to him, and everyone who belonged to him, and he would not say thanks to God or to the land or to any other human beings. He would hold his Instant Pot and he would say, I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
It was a really nice Instant Pot.
But something was troubling the man. Even though people kept bringing him meals and kept on making him stuff and kept on cleaning his hotels, he had the strangest idea that no one liked him very much.
How could that be possible?
The idea that he was less than immensely popular, that the smiles on his employees’ faces when they met him were forced and false, that the people whom he called his friends would remain at his parties exactly as long as his money lasted and no longer, was an idea that began to keep him awake at night.
And so the man read several books, he watched several TV shows, he retained several very expensive consultants. And he started to notice that a great many people who seemed to be happy and who seemed to have friends said something that went like this:
I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind. And I love my neighbour as myself.
Not all of the people used exactly those words. But the man had the sense that they meant the same thing.
Now, the rich man found the idea of God strange. Because in stories that he heard, it was God who had made everyone and everything. And the man knew that no one had made him. He was a self-made man. This problem notwithstanding, he wanted to meet God. And so he told all of his employees in his factories to stop building and all of his employees in his hotels to stop cleaning and all of them to get out their shovels and their hammers.
I, he told them, am going to build a tower.
So start digging and hammering.
And so his employees began. And day after day, as the rich man watched, the tower got higher and higher until at last it reached up into heaven itself. On that day the rich man ordered all of his employees out of the building and he ascended to the top in his private elevator and there he stood in his private, heavenly penthouse. He looked around and he said: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything.
And then he added:
Well, God, I am here in heaven. Appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And so the man tried again.
This is the tallest and the best tower in the world. So, God, appear to me now.
But God did not appear. And the man became impatient.
God, he said, Don’t you know who I am? Appear to me now!
But God did not appear. The man was alone in what was supposed to be heaven. He opened his window and looked down upon the people, many of whom were his employees. Across the height of the tower the sound of their laughter and their joy and their words floated up to him.
And the rich man had the oddest impression that the people down below were speaking a language that he could not understand.
Years passed and the rich man lived in the tower alone. He grew old. Until one day his doctor came to him and said, You don’t have long. Soon you will die.
And the rich man said, I would rather not. How much will it cost not to die?
His doctor cleared his throat nervously. And the rich man said to him in a hoarse, small voice: I did this. I paid for it myself. I don’t owe anyone anything. I will not die.
But even the rich man knew that this was not true.
And so one day, early in the morning, the rich man left the tower. Out he went onto the streets where the people spoke a language that he could not understand. He wandered the streets until he was lost, until even the tower that reached into heaven was out of sight.
A passerby saw the old man, lost and alone. And so she approached the old man to ask if he needed help. But the old man could not understand the words that the passerby said. And the passerby could not understand when the rich and old man replied, when he said:
I am looking for God. And I am so, so lost. I cannot search any more on my own.
And there the two of them might have stood, both wanting to understand, neither being able to.
Except that in that moment something like fire appeared among them. And everyone began to talk at once and the man could understood all of it, all of it. He heard everyone’s joy, everyone’s sadness, everyone’s grief, everyone’s hope.
The passerby said to him: This is the moral at the end of the story. This is the question at the end of the parable.
For the first time in years, maybe for the first time since he was a child, the man giggled. He giggled until he wept and his tears fell down his cheeks and mixed in with the holy flames.