There are many tales about the life of Christ that circulated orally in the ancient Near East and never made it to the canonical Gospels. Some of the loveliest of these tales remained oral for centuries, and eventually came to be told and retold by both Christians and Muslims.
Here is one of the sweetest and most profound of these tales. Even if you think you have heard every good Jesus story, you may have not heard this one. This story appears in a number of important Muslim sources, such as the Musibat-nama of Farid al-Din Attar (a great 13th century poet and mystic from a generation before the time of Rumi), and the Khamsa of the 12th century sage Nezami of Ganja, the famed writer of Layla and Majnun (whose dark-eyed beauty Layla would someday inspire Eric Clapton to write his equally immortal song of unrequited love. (See the full story here.) Let's get to the story.
One day Jesus and his disciples were walking in the old city, which had very narrow streets. They came across the carcass of a dead dog. The dog had been dead for a long time, and its rotten stench filled the whole alley. The disciples of Jesus held their noses, picked up the hem of their robes, and tiptoed around the dead creature. One of them said: "Whew ... piff! What a horrible stench!" Another one said: "The very sight of this makes me sick to my stomach." One by one they made their way past the dead creature, even as others in town gathered around the carcass to further remark on its hideousness.
Jesus, and Jesus alone, stopped by the dead dog. He knelt down, and lovingly gazed at the dog. After a long pause, he finally said: "Praise be to God, what beautiful teeth this creature has."
Why do these Muslim sages tell and retell these stories of Jesus and the dead dog?
Is it to transform how we interact with dead dogs on our streets?
Of course not. These stories are parables. Like the parables in the Quran, they point to a truth inside our own hearts and souls. We come to see that the dead dog is us, the disciples are us, and yes, even Jesus is inside our own selves. There is a part of our own being that is rotten, a part of us that would like to pass by other human beings without dealing with their ugliness, and there is that part of us, divine or divinely-illuminated, that can pause and reflect Jesus-like upon any and every situation and recognize the presence of God right then and there.
The sages do not tell us these stories to change how we deal with carcasses.
They tell and retell these stories to change the way we deal with fellow human beings.
They tell us these stories to find the Jesus-like presence inside our own heart and souls.
It is often the case that we come to interact with one another when the other person pushes our buttons. No, let's be honest, when they take a hammer to our buttons. The other person may be a random stranger who cuts you off on the road, may be the pundit on news that reports the wrong perspective (i.e. different than ours), and is often our child, our parent and, all too often, our partner. How often we stand in judgment as Christ's disciples did in this parable, noting and complaining how hideous and malodorous the actions and words of this person were. At times, we might even think that it is not just their words, but also their very being that is hideous. "You stink!" something inside us proclaims.
The sages tell us these stories so that the image of Christ kneeling by the dead rotting dog instills itself in our hearts, and can be resurrected (as Christ was) in precisely such a moment. At the very moment that we want to equate another human being with the hideousness of their action or words, we recall the example of Jesus who was able to recognize something good and beautiful in the midst of all that ugliness. And as Jesus said, "praise be to God," or in another version, "This creature belongs to God." In other words, in looking at the person who shows us such ugliness, can we still pause and recall the divine presence inside us that always strives to recognize something divine, something good and something beautiful in the other person.
This is a great challenge, because we are called to do this not when people are their most beautiful, but precisely at the moment when their ugly side is showing. And we all have this, every single one of us. As Rumi says, every single one of us is a jackass, with wings of angels tacked on. Can we pause long enough to say to our own selves: this anger will not define me, I am not this vile fear and anger that has taken a hold of my heart, and I will -- so help me God -- reach to recognize in you something that is good and beautiful. However ugly and hideous the words of this person are at this very moment, are they any more hideous than that rotten dog was? And can I, for one instant, behave like Jesus did at that moment?
Why do the sages care about this?
Why should we care?
Because religion is not ultimately a simple matter of otherworldliness. It is not simply a matter of faith in a system of belief, and salvation There and Then. It is also a matter of a heart-transformation Here and Now. To walk in the footsteps of Muhammad and Christ and Buddha, one has to behave like them. Their very manners have to illuminate our hearts, and transform our beings. The measure of religion, ultimately, is the extent to which our interactions with fellow human beings and fellow creation are transformed to something is lovely and beautiful. While all of us know far too many example of religious bigots, that very combination is a sign that the very compassionate spirit of Christ, Muhammad and Buddha has not yet penetrated and transformed the soul just yet. In the language of the Quran, you have joined the ranks of Islam, but faith and beauty (iman and ihsan) have yet to penetrate your heart and soul. In the words of Gandhi, "As soon as we lose the moral basis, we cease to be religious. There is no such thing as religion over-riding morality."
This recognition may or may not transform the person across from you. This recognition may or may not bring the dead dog back to life. This recognition may or may not get the person across from you, red in the face and foaming at the mouth, to act like a divinely fashioned human being.
But it will transform you.
And that, after all, is the whole goal of every religion: to take what is rotten in us, and transform it to something luminous and divine.
Praise be to God, what beautiful white teeth all of us have.