Balm in Gilead

By Jay Engelbrecht

There is balm in Gilead,

To make the wounded whole;

There’s power enough in heaven,

To cure a sin-sick soul.

The opening line of an old African-American spiritual answers Jeremiah’s rhetorical question, “Is there no balm in Gilead[?]” (Jeremiah 8:22, King James Version*).

200134581-001In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, I discovered balm for my soul. The novel’s narrator, a fictional Iowa preacher named John Ames, is dying. He uses his remaining days to write an account of his life for his young son.

Three sentences in Gilead changed the way I view 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, which reads:

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality (New International Version).

I thought “twinkling of an eye” referred to rapid change. Now I think it refers to being charmed by the beauty of something or perhaps catching onto a good joke. The sentences below, from Gilead, transformed my view.

The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it.

We all know plenty about decay and death. We grow older, our bodies break down, and the truth of Psalm 49:20—“We aren’t immortal. We don’t last long. Like our dogs, we age and weaken. And die”—is painfully real.

Now, thanks to Gilead, I believe that when the curse of death is reversed “in a flash” by our loving creator, he will renew us with a twinkle in his eyes. I believe the “charm of the thing,” for Jesus is seeing us as he intended.

Our eyes, too, will twinkle in good humor. We will laugh as we look at our new selves and the sheer glamour of those around us, those we love. The biblical script is a comedy, after all—things turn out surprisingly well in the end.

All’s Well that Ends Well (John 8)

Thinking about the “twinkling of an eye” image as one of surprised charm and good humor got me thinking about three gospel stories as comedies. In literature, a comedy isn’t as much about uproarious laughter as about things turning out well, often in a surprising manner.

In Shakespeare’s comedies, the main characters are clueless that their lives are complete messes, while the villains are skilled and crafty. Invariably, unexpected assistance comes from a surprising source, and all ends well.

Humor me, as I look at three stories from the Gospel of John through a comedic, Shakespearean lens.

As John 8 opens, things are a mess. Our clueless heroine is dragged in front of a homeless man, a small-town bumpkin whose friends are a first-century version of the Keystone Cops. The villains are crafty politicians and lawyers about to kill two birds with one stone—rid the respectable neighborhood of a sleaze and defrock a false prophet. But the tables turn when the country clodhopper (who has been playing in the dirt) “straightened up and said, ‘The sinless one among you, go first: Throw the stone’” (v. 7).

You know what happens next (we are still using a comedic perspective). The villains depart, and we picture this clueless young woman, who a moment before was about to die an agonizing death, sitting beside a penniless preacher who is playing in the dust. The text reads: “Jesus stood up and spoke to her. ‘Woman, where are they? Does no one condemn you?’” (vv. 9, 10).

Flabbergasted by the turn of events, she can barely muster three words: “No one, Master” (v. 11).

The Galilean greenhorn (who is, in reality, the “force holding the stars in place” from a dimension of space/time she could never comprehend and whose righteousness burns like the sun) smiles lovingly and whispers, eyes twinkling, “Neither do I” (v. 11).

Pauper to Prince (John 4)

Many Shakespearean comedies feature disguised characters. A foolish court jester is actually a wise adviser. In The Merchant of Venice, a woman disguises herself as a man to protect those she loves. Often, as comedies wind down, cases of mistaken identity are cleared up. Such revelations lead to deeper insight into the nature of the relationships between key characters.

Again, if you will indulge me, we’ll look at a second Gospel story as a short Shakespearean comedy with witty banter. As the curtain opens, a sweaty vagabond is begging a drink from his ethnic enemy. She refuses, and refers to their differences: “How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” (v. 9).

She’s been around the block more times than a FedEx van—she’s nobody’s fool. The sweaty stranger isn’t getting sucked into the whole ethnic rivalry debate, but randomly says, “If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water” (v. 10).

She’s also been around big-talkers before, so she retorts, “You don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water?’” (v. 11).

They banter back and forth, and then out of the blue he tells her, “Go call your husband and then come back” (v. 16).

Up until now, she’s been a Chatty Cathy, but now the cat’s got her tongue. She swallows hard and says, “I have no husband” (v. 17).

Eyes twinkling, charmed by her answer, the stranger replies: “That’s nicely put” (v. 17).

As the scene progresses, she knows he’s not some run of the mill yokel (she’s known plenty, after all). She guesses at his secret identity: “Oh, so you’re a prophet!” (v. 19). The stranger’s eyes again light up. The chemistry between these characters is palpable.

After some extended dialogue where the disguised character speaks of light and dark, truth, and the meaning of life, sending her head spinning, the woman sighs, “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story” (v. 25).

Then it all breaks loose. Casting aside his mask, the stranger reveals himself as the Messiah. His handful of grubby sidekicks stumble in and stare at her, she takes off, and no one gets any water. End of Act 1.

Dark Comedy (John 20)

While Shakespearean comedies often hinge on mistaken identity, in Shakespeare’s tragedies, the mistaken identity is not brought to light until it’s too late. That’s the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo, deceived by appearances—he mistakenly believes Juliet is dead when she is only sleeping—misjudges the situation, and in despair, kills himself. To turn that play into a comedy we just need a minor character to text Romeo in the nick of time. The lovers can embrace and the feuding families live happily ever after . . . but that happens in comedies, not tragedies.

Let’s look at one more story using our Shakespearean view. Life doesn’t appear very comedic to Mary Magdalene, her eyes bruised from crying all weekend. Yet here she is, up before the crack of dawn, headed to anoint her teacher’s cold, stiff, dead body. You wouldn’t think things could get much worse, but they do, because she believes someone’s stolen the body.

Sometimes all you can do is cry. In John 20, Mary’s sobs are interrupted when a voice—from inside the tomb, of all places—asks, “Woman, why do you weep?” (v. 13).

As the audience, we know it’s the old Romeo and Juliet subterfuge, so we long to whisper, “Psst, Mary, things are not what they appear.” But all we can do is watch. Mary turns, looks straight at Jesus, and doesn’t recognize him. Verse 15 says, “Jesus spoke to her, ‘Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?’” She’s on emotional autopilot, and mistakes the identity of the resurrected glorious One. She says, “Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him.”

We know that, in the twinkling of an eye, Mary Magdalene’s world will soon explode into a rainbow of joy. Jesus could proclaim, “I’m alive,” but he doesn’t. It’s not about him, it’s about her, which is why he simply says, “Mary” (v. 16). What do you suppose Mary does? Cry or laugh?

And they live happily ever after, though as the preacher in the novel Gilead notes when citing Revelation 21:4, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (KJV), that “it takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.”


In one of his letters to his son, the Reverend John Ames mentions a fringe benefit of ministry. He writes, “When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them . . . emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.” Ames loves seeing the life in people; he’s charmed by it. It’s startling. Beautiful.

Which is why the dying father reminds his son that, “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.” Psalm 49:20 is true, “We age and weaken. And die,” but it’s also true that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:32 KJV).

At the end of Gilead, John Ames concludes: “I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence.” As will we all. Until, in the twinkling of eye . . .


*All Scripture quotes are from The Message, unless otherwise indicated.

Jay Engelbrecht teaches British literature at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.

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