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God Squad: Universal religious stories

Recently I asked readers for help tracking down the source of one of my favorite stories. As I heard it, the story was about an eager student who wanted to know the difference between heaven and hell. He asked his teacher, who explained that in hell, hungry people are sitting around a table filled with food, but they can't bring the food to their lips because they can't bend their arms.

Then, the teacher described an identical vision for heaven. "So, what is the difference between heaven and hell?" the student asked once again. His wise teacher replied, "You see, in heaven, the people are feeding each other."

This remarkable story has now taught me a remarkable new lesson: Many different religions can share the same stories. This would be striking if the religions were all in the West -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- but the amazing truth of this story is that it also appears in Hinduism, Buddhism, Japanese and Chinese folk legends.

Many of you offered suggestions about who wrote the story or where it was first told, but nobody knew for certain where the story originated. What all this has taught me is that if a story is good enough, spiritual enough, compassionate enough, it can cross over between religions. At that point, who really cares who wrote it?

Here are some of your suggestions about the origins of this great story:

L., writing via the Internet, cited several sources. One pegged it as a story from the Jewish Talmud, which I know is not true but wish it were. Another identified as an ancient Chinese story (not confirmable). Still another claimed it was a Hindu parable (not in the Vedas, I'm afraid). Still, good work, L., and thank you.

Several readers thought the story was from the Hasidic Jewish teacher, Rebbe Haim of Romshishok. I think it predates Reb Haim, but I so love saying Romshishok that I'm prepared to believe it is his story. However, S., from somewhere else, wrote: "I don't know the original source, but I do know that this story has been passing around as a sermon illustration in Protestant circles for the last generation." I'm not sure how many Hasidic stories find their way into Protestant sermons, but who knows?

S., from Cary, N.C., wrote: "I teach English as a Second Language [ESL], and the story about heaven and hell appears in a wonderful dictation book I use, but the source is unknown."

(Thank you, S., but that's what I thought all along!)

My favorite suggestion about the source came from P., of Morgantown, W.Va., who wrote: "My daddy told me it was from Ben Franklin."

(Good idea, P. When in doubt, credit Ben Franklin!)

One of the most interesting elements revealed in our joint effort to find out who wrote this great story are the variations in the text among different cultures. In medieval Europe, the food is a bowl of stew; in China, it's a bowl of rice.

Another fascinating element to this story is the way different cultures describe why the people in heaven and hell could not eat the food themselves. The way I heard the story, it was because their arms were locked, but in many versions sent by readers, it was because the people had to eat with spoons that were so long they couldn't bring them to their mouths. In fact, the story is titled in many places as "The Parable of the Long Spoons."

In the Chinese versions, however, the people are eating with very long chopsticks that accomplished the same purpose as the long spoons. My own personal view is that my version with the locked elbows is the best because ingenious hungry people could just throw away their spoons or chopsticks and eat with their fingers unless their arms were locked in an outstretched position. That's what I would do!

In the end, the message that we should feed and care for each other, and that only in this way can we overcome the curse of selfishness, is such a high and holy and universal message that the story deserves to be claimed by all. This is what my great friend Father Tom Hartman and I have tried to teach during all our years as The God Squad. We know enough about how we're all different, but we don't yet know enough about how we're all the same.

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