The Miracle of the Toothpicks

In 1989, Rain Man, a movie starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, won the Oscar for Best Picture and Hoffman won for Best Actor in a Leading Role, playing Raymond, an autistic-savant.  Long before autism was widely recognized, Raymond showed that those with autism have amazing talents, personalities, and human dignity just like anyone else.  In the movie, Raymond wins the affection of his selfish, arrogant brother Charlie, played by Cruise, who was initially only interested in Raymond because of his inheritance.

In one of the movie’s more well-known scenes, Raymond performs what in another context might be considered a miracle.  You can watch the 1 ½ minute clip here or read my summary below it.

In the clip, a waitress drops most of a box of toothpicks on the floor and in just a couple of seconds, Raymond counts that 246 of them scattered on the floor (he also counts three groups of 82).  At this point of the movie, Charlie still sees Raymond as someone he has to put up while he chases down his inheritance.  The waitress says the box had 250 toothpicks, so Charlie says Raymond guessed “pretty close” because he just wants to leave.  But when the waitress says, “there’s 4 left in the box”, Charlie realizes something amazing has just happened.  It wasn’t a guess.

It’s easy to be skeptical of miracles, or to choose to ignore them, but some of the Bible’s miracles aren’t much different than Raymond counting toothpicks at super-human speed.  We can’t explain why some people count faster than others, or run faster than others, or have photographic memories while others don’t, yet if we call something a “miracle,” many people will demand an explanation.  Other very abnormal things we just take for granted.

One miracle is recorded in Matthew 21:18-19, which says: “In the morning, as [Jesus] was returning to the city, he became hungry.  And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, ‘May no fruit ever come from you again!’ And the fig tree withered at once.”  This tree was eventually going to wither anyway, so all Jesus did was change the speed of a natural process.  True, Raymond was special because of his own speed, and Jesus controlled the speed of something other than himself, but still part of what makes it a miracle is the speed.

If the speed of a natural process, like counting or the growth of plants, can be variable and manipulated, why not also the direction of the process?  In Mark’s gospel, the word “immediately” appears in at least 5 references to healing miracles[1].  The word “immediately” means the speed was part of the miracle.  Jesus not only healed a paralytic in Mark chapter 2, but the paralytic “immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all,”[2] without months or years of physical rehabilitation therapy.  From everyday experience, we know that different people recover from injury at different rates, yet why do we demand an explanation when its immediate?  If we don’t know what process took place to make this man a paralytic, why is it hard to believe that process could go backwards, and quickly?  It’s partly a miracle of degree, not of kind.

Of course, we shouldn’t believe every miracle: some are mere hoaxes, and some signs are done in opposition to God.  But also, we should not be too quick to dismiss the possibility of miracles we didn’t expect or can’t explain.  And while Rain Man does not claim to be based on a true story[3], the Bible does.  And Jesus, the one who could control the speed and direction of what we consider “natural” processes, claimed to be the God who put those processes to work in the first place.

“As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.” – Ecclesiastes 11:5

[1] See Mark 1:42, 2:12, 5:29, 5:42, and 10:52
[2] Mark 2:12
[3] The movie was based on a novel, but Raymond’s abilities were modeled on a real person named Kim Peek, who you can read more about at this link.

4 thoughts on “The Miracle of the Toothpicks

  1. Kim Peek’s life was truly amazing. Thanks for providing the link to his bio. The brain really is a phenomenal blob of gray matter that helps us to understand God’s Word and His many blessings and miracles that happen every day.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s