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Virtue in Literature (2) – The Odyssey: Hope (7th Grade)

When most people think about Homer’s Odyssey, they think about bizarre monsters and odd happenings—Circe turning men into animals, a cyclopes eating sailors, Poseidon sending storms, etc. But these mythical sections actually compose a rather small part of the story, and for my money at least, they are the least interesting parts of the book. More interesting than monsters and witches is the drama that occurs in Ithaca during Odysseus’s absence.

Odysseus is the rightful king of Ithaca, but he has been gone for twenty years. In his absence things have fallen apart: injustice reigns, the poor and weak are being exploited, and the rightful king is forgotten and ignored by many. Everyone agrees that things are not as they ought to be, but no one has the ability to set things right. The wicked rejoice in the king’s absence and claim he is never going to return, while a righteous remnant hold out in hope that he is alive and that he will come and set things right.

This description should resonate with every Christian. We too live in a world where things are not as they should be. We too eagerly await the return of our King, but He has been gone longer than we expected and many people have given up all hope or expectation that He will return. We too lack the power to set things right without our King. And we too groan when we see evil succeed and rule.

When Odysseus returns to Ithaca, he returns humbly, disguised as a beggar. He does this to test his subjects—those that continue to hope that their king will return, obey his will, and honor him by showing kindness to a weak and poor stranger are ultimately rewarded; those that insult or exploit their disguised king are ultimately judged and punished. This whole section has strong parallels to Christ’s parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25).

Like Christ, Odysseus judges the wicked, saves the righteous, and restores the kingdom to the way it ought to be. But the parallel is not perfect. Odysseus is still a man and though he restores justice and order, this restoration is only temporary.

Despite its flaws this book is a great example of the value of pagan (and by pagan I mean pre-Christian, not anti-Christian) literature. God has left us many hints, many intimations, of the Gospel. Earlier Christians called these praeparatio evangelica—preparations for the Gospel.

Seeing aspects of the Gospel in different contexts, in different cultures and languages, in different literary genres, across the centuries, can deepen our appreciation and gratitude for the fullness of the Gospel that was revealed in Christ and recorded for us in the Bible. And, Lord willing, reading a story, like The Odyssey, where the righteous live patiently in the hope that their king will return and save them, will encourage our sons and daughters to likewise wait patiently in the hope of their King’s return and in the confidence that He will make things right and reward those that kept their faith in Him.