The Three Friends Who Sought to Kill Death: A Cautionary Tale for Preachers

They were having a grand ole time, the three friends, swigging beer and throwing dice in the local tavern. A wet blanket was cast over their festivities, however, when news arrived that one of their comrades had been taken by death. So incensed were they--and so inebriated--that they left the bar raging, swearing that they would kill this scoundrel named Death who had stuck down their friend. As they went, they encountered an old man, whom they interrogated as to the whereabouts of Death. He pointed down the road, saying that they would find their enemy there. Heading that direction, what should they discover, but a treasure trove of gold coins at the base of an oak tree. Thrilled at their good fortune, they determined to guard the treasure until they could carry it off under cover of darkness. Drawing straws, they sent one friend back to town to buy bread and wine while the other two remained.

While the one was gone, however, the two conspired to kill him when he returned, so they'd only have to split the wealth 50/50. Thus they did, falling upon him with knives when he got back. To celebrate their newfound wealth, the two friends began chugging down the wine, unaware that while their erstwhile friend was gone, he did some scheming of his own. He had laced the wine with poison so as to have the coins all to himself. Before long, the poisoned drink did its work, and they too succumbed. So, in the end, the three did find Death. And in their demise, they exemplified the truth that greed is the root of all kinds of evil.

What is most remarkable about this tale is not how clever it is, but that the original storyteller was just as greedy as the three fictional young men were. He was the Pardoner, one of the pilgrims who entertained his fellow travelers in the Canterbury Tales by telling stories such as this. In his job of collecting money for the church, the Pardoner, by his own admission, resorted to emotional manipulation, blatant lies, and fake relics, all to fatten the money bags. He was unscrupulous and greedy. But in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, he could wax quite eloquent about vice. You see, he had more than a passing acquaintance with his subject. Sometimes the worst sinners are the best preachers.

I have long suspected that with most pastors, the autobiography of their soul is written between the lines in their sermons. The thorns in their flesh are those which pierce through in their preaching of the law. Granted, this is difficult to avoid since most people, pastors included, tend to interpret and expound the biblical text partially through the prism of their own existence. There is a risk in this, however. For the more we preach or teach or protest against something with which we ourselves struggle, perhaps secretly, the stronger is the tendency to view that preaching as an act of atonement itself.

One of the occupational hazards of the ministry is that the more one does for heaven, the closer it can get him to hell. He begins to assume that the performance of the sacred duties of his office is so pleasing to God that those works themselves become the basis of his relationship with God. Rather than Christ, the Christian ministry becomes his salvation. Within this broad delusion is the more particular delusion that by preaching against his own sin, that preaching makes up for his sin. So he may be greedy, but if he preaches strongly enough against greed, all is well. In the same way, the Christian addicted to pornography may publicly lament this visual exploitation of women; the gossiping priest use the pulpit to lambaste the destructive power of the tongue; and so forth. Such is the seductive power of self-justification, that we begin to imagine that our verbal crusades against our own secret weaknesses become an alternative Gospel.

Since this is a cautionary tale, I'll end on that cautionary note, adding but one more word, this one too from Chaucer, who puts these words in the mouth of the poor country parson:

This fine example to his flock he gave, That first he wrought and afterwards he taught; Out of the gospel then that text he caught, And this metaphor he added thereunto - That, if gold would rust, what shall iron do? For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust, No wonder that a layman thinks of lust? And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep, A shitty shepherd, looking after clean sheep. A truly good example a priest should give, Is his own chastity, how his flock should live.