The Kitchen God and Grace

Zhao Jun the Kitchen God and his wife

Today is the fourth day of the first lunar month, the day that Zao Jun the Kitchen God returns from heaven. In Chinese tradition Zao Jun the Kitchen God hangs out in the kitchen of each home, because the kitchen is the heart of the home where all the juiciest gossip can be overheard. There he observes the family's good and bad doings throughout the year, with the faithful help of his wife who records them. Ten days ago, a week before the New Year, Zao Jun ascended to heaven to file his report with the Jade Emperor. Before his departure (via burning of his effigy) his lips were smeared with honey. Some say that the honey is a bribe. Some say that it sticks his mouth shut. Either way, the hope is that only sweet things about the family make it to the Jade Emperor's ears. Now, ten days later, Zao Jun returns. Each year I wonder, what about the ten days while he is gone? Are they a time when folks can do whatever they want? Or does the Kitchen God's wife keep an eye on things in his absence?

Funny story about how Zao Jun the Kitchen God got his job. He was not always a god. Once he was a human being named Zhang Lang. He was a handsome and wealthy man and rather full of himself. Zhang Lang was married to a devoted wife. In typical Chinese patriarchal fashion, even though people praise her for her virtue no one ever bothered to record her name. But she was dutiful, we know that. Nonetheless, Zhang Lang's roaming eyes landed on a pretty, younger woman from whom he left his dutiful wife. As punishment, the gods struck him blind, and the younger woman left him. Zhang Lang was reduced to begging door to door. One day he happened to knock on the door of his abandoned wife; only he didn't realize it was her because he was blind. She, on the other hand, recognized him immediately and saw his condition. Taking pity, she invited him in and fed him. Warmed by the roaring kitchen fire and with a belly full of food, Zhang Lang began to relate his story, tearfully regretting the poor choices that he had made. When his wife heard his remorse she said, “Zhang Lang, open your eyes. I am your wife whom you wronged, and I forgive you.” At that moment, Zhang Lang opened his eyes and he could see again. He saw that it was his wife, whom he had abandoned, who was his benefactor. And he was overcome with shame. Unable to face her, he flung himself into the kitchen fire and perished.

As the story goes, the gods took pity on him and made him into the Kitchen God, with his (again unnamed) wife as his aid. Together again, forever. I'm not entirely sure that this was a mercy though... always having to listen to the petty foibles of families, year after year, being smeared with honey and then burned, only to return and do it all over again. And his poor wife – what did she do to deserve her fate? Secretary to the man who twice did her wrong due to his pride. Yes, I said twice. Once, when he left her for the younger woman. And once again, when he could not accept her forgiveness and instead punished himself, and her by extension. Zhang Lang felt shame. And shame comes from pride, not humility. Shame comes when you are caught not being as great as you think you are. If Zhang Lang had truly learned his lesson he would have gratefully accepted his wife's forgiveness.

But I am not writing this to condemn Zao Jun the Kitchen God. I'm writing this because I know how he feels. I too have felt shame for hurting others with my bad behavior. And I too have been unable to accept forgiveness. In fact, I remember once telling my minister that I knew that God loved me because I could feel that love, but I could not accept it. I did not feel worthy. That may on surface sound humble but talk about arrogance! It is arrogant to think that you are the one who can decide. Forgiveness, like love, isn't based on merit, and you can neither decide that you deserve it nor decide that you don't.  Forgiveness is a gift, a blessing, grace.  I know that, I do, and yet at times there is part of me just can't let go.  So pity poor Zao Jun.

Maybe the Kitchen God is doing penance even now. Caught in a purgatory of sorts in which he'll stay, condemned to be burned again every year, until he learns true humility and accepts his wife's forgiveness. Maybe the Kitchen God's wife isn't his secretary, but rather just patiently waiting for that day to come.

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