“Two Kinds of ‘Why’”
The Rev. Dr. Anthony Hutchinson, Lent 3C
3 March 2013 8:00 a.m. Said and 10 a.m. Sung Eucharist
Parish Church of Trinity, Ashland (Oregon)
Dear God, let us not accept that judgment, that this is all we are.
Enlighten our minds, inflame our hearts with the desire to change—
With the hope and faith that we all can change.
Take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
Today’s lessons all have important points. In the Hebrew Scripture lesson, the calling of Moses, the nature of religious faith and a sense of the holy as well as the nature of God are described. Usually called the “story of the burning bush,” what attracts Moses is not that the bush burns. In the Sinai desert, there are plenty of bushes in that furnace-like heat that occasionally burst into flame, blaze for a short time, and then are reduced to ash and stop. This one is unusual—he notices that is burning and is not consumed. It has the unnatural about it, the extraordinary, the awe-inspiring. The core of religious experience is a sense of awe before the mysterium tremens et fascinans, the unexplainable that gives us goose-bumps but yet draws us near.
When Moses does hear the voice of God, it tells him to remove his shoes, for the place he is standing is holy. It is a thin place, where the veil between this world and the unseen ground behind it is almost imperceptible. It calls us to acts of reverence.
Moses asks this god’s name, knowing that the Israelites won’t accept the leadership of a former Egyptian prince on his say-so alone. The God of the Hebrews whose name is so holy it cannot be uttered, and who is so real that no image can be made of him answers. His name is YAHWEH, a form of the verb HWH, “to be.” “Yihweh” means “he is,” or “he will be.” “Yahweh” is a causative, “He brings what exists into being.” The answer, however, is in the first person, “Eheweh asher eheweh” “I am who I am” “I will be that I will be,” or, more importantly, “I am who brings into existence.” In Hebrew, God here is saying, “I AM BEING ITSELF, THE GROUND OF EXISTENCE.”
This God is not a tribal deity, a pet, or a tame companion who comforts us without challenging us. It is the ground of all existence, and yet is personal, and active, and calls us beyond who we are.
The fact is, we tend to always want to tame this God, and make him out domesticated pet. Here in the western United States, in Ashland, we are connoisseurs of boutique religion, picking and choosing what we like and dislike.
But this is not healthy. As the Dalai Lama said, “if you are going to be a Christian, be a Christian; if a Buddhist, then a Buddhist. But don’t be half and half, because then you are nothing. Set your roots down deeply in a tradition, and then when you branch out, your branches will entwine with those of other traditions” (paraphrased).
Sometimes, people think that a firm monotheism is closed minded, or exclusive. But it is important to realize that monotheism is only as closed or exclusive as it seeks to tame God, to control his brand, to ascribe our thoughts and prejudices to God.
The Epistle reading underscores this. Note that Paul is talking about ancient Hebrews who weren’t even Jews yet. Yet he says that they relied on the Rock of God, and that rock was Christ. He says that their walking dryshod through the Red Seas as a baptism. This is a scriptural argument for the doctrine of anonymous Christianity: though they were not Christians, it is as if they had been, because it was God they were dealing with.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is asked about people who suffer horrible things. “Did you hear that the Romans massacred those countrymen of yours who were worshipping in the Temple? Their own blood was mixed with that of the animals they were sacrificing! What did they do that was so bad that God punished them this way?”
The assumption in the question here comes from certain parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly the Book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History (Joshua – 2 Kings). The view in these passages is clear: God is just and good. If you do what is right, God will bless you and prosper your way. If you do what is wrong, God will punish you and bring calamity upon you. The idea is taken to a logical extreme with almost mathematical precision in later writings of the Hebrew Scriptures, like the Books of Chronicles, where the governing principle seems to be, “if something bad happens to you, it is clear the you have done something wrong, and God is punishing you.”
This mathematical view is what lies behind the question posed Jesus: “Look at those pitiful people killed in the Temple! Not only were they pathetic Galileans like you, but to have your own blood mixed with that of your sacrifices! They must have done something really bad to merit that from a just God!”
This kind of second-guessing God is all too well known today.
Remember back in Spring 2010—when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, television Evangelist Pat Robertson quickly chimed in saying that this earthquake was direct punishment by God against the Haitians for what he called their ‘historic pact with the Devil’, dredging up a bit of Haitian revolutionary war propaganda from two centuries ago. Most of us when we heard this were aghast.
Remember Jerry Falwell’s blaming the 9-11 attacks in 2001 also on the victims, saying that God had visited punishment on an America for what Falwell said was an-all-too lax sexual morality and an-all-too-casual acceptance of abortion.
Hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorist acts—all of these have been described as acts of an angry Deity out to punish the victims. Again, the idea is based in a faith that God is just and good, and therefore must reward good actions and punish wrongdoing.
But Jesus’ answer disagrees with this view of God, despite the fact that major parts of the Hebrew Scripture teach it. He replies: “They did nothing any worse than anyone else,” and then adds, “What about those people who died in the Tower of Siloam when it collapsed? They were no worse than anyone else. The lesson we should take here,” says Jesus, “is not that they were particularly bad, but that we all need to be better” (Luke 13:1-5).
As in many of Jesus’ controversies with his opponents, he here has chosen a completely different set of scriptures to use as the core of his understanding about God. Where his opponents quoted passages about the salvation of Jews at the end of the world and the punishment of their Gentile oppressors, Jesus focused on a passage in Second Isaiah where the banquet of God at the end of time was for all people. Where his opponents quoted Deuteronomy about God blessing the righteous and punishing the wicked, Jesus quoted parts of the Psalms about God wicked being bounteous for all, giving food to all, and then pointed to the sun and the rain as gifts from God to both good and evil alike. Where his opponents like to quote passages about God’s holiness and purity, and stringent demands for such, he pointed to passages where God noted the fall of each sparrow, and blessed the foreigner and outcast.
Thus here, instead of Deuteronomy, Joshua- 2 Kings and Chronicles, Jesus is thinking of other passages and other books in the Hebrew scriptures when it comes to the problem of bad things happening to people.
The Book of Job tells the story of a man who is “perfect in all his ways,” yet who suffers horror. His friends, ever willing to defend the justice of God, urge Job to confess and repent of whatever hidden sin he has committed that God is so obviously punishing him for. Most of the book’s 40 some chapters outline the argument. But Job just can’t agree that what has happened has any semblance of fairness. He won’t lie to get God off the hook. Yet he does not “curse God and die,” as suggested by his wife. He continues the argument, drags out the discussion. Finally, when God at long last engages him directly, and speaks to him from “out of the whirlwind,” the revelation of the difference of their perspectives is so overwhelming that all Job can do is put on dust and ashes, repent himself, and bless the name of the Lord. In so doing, he is not granting his friends’ arguments. He is simply mourning the hard, hard, facts of our human condition, and expressing his hope and trust for its ultimate resolution by a reliable but mysterious God.
The mystery of God is the Book of Job’s non-answer to the problem of pain. The difficulty in this, of course, is that you still have to keep your faith in God’s goodness and power despite the clear evidence in front of your eyes of bad things happening to good people.
Jesus makes some room for this faith by separating how things are now and how God intends them. That is what the prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” is all about. This distinction between God’s ultimate intentions and how things are playing our right now is important.
In today’s Gospel, after his initial response, Jesus tells a parable of a patient gardener working with a slow-bearing fig tree. The point is to describe the connection between the arrival of God’s ultimate intention and where we are today. God is cutting us slack so that we can bring forth fruit. The delay in the arrival of God’s intentions is actually a mercy to us, since we are part of the problem in keeping God’s will from being achieved.
The gospel stories of Jesus healing the sick tell us that the ultimate purpose of God does not include disease, suffering, and death. Jesus’ ministry of announcing the in-breaking of the reign of God focused in large part in healing physical and mental suffering. This tells us that God doesn’t intend horror and disappointment for his creatures.
Jesus knew well that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that in this world the evil often prosper. His death of the cross is the ultimate example of the righteous suffering unjustly. But he trusted in God and the goodness of God nonetheless. That’s why in Gethsemane, he asks if it is possible to have the cup pass from him. But immediately he adds, “Your will, not mine, be done.” It is this very openness to God that gets us out of the way of the arrival of God’s final intentions, and helps bring the kingdom closer.
Jesus was asked questions like this several times in his life. “Why was this man born blind—did his parents sin or was it him?” “Neither,” he replies, “it wasn’t as punishment, but so that I would have the chance to heal him” (John 9:2-3). They ask him why, and he answers why. But note—the “why” question that Jesus answers is a very different “why” than the question posed. The question asked is “why was he born blind,” i.e., “what was the cause or origin of his being born blind?” The answer Jesus gives is a “why was he born blind,” i.e., “for what purpose was he born blind, or for what effect?” Jesus’ shift between the two different kinds of ‘why’ is essential. It forces us to look for opportunities to serve and help bring the ultimate intentions of God closer to the reality we see before us.
“The coming of the rule of God” was the great image used in Jesus’ day to describe the hoped-for day when God’s ultimate purposes were realized. Jesus’ proclamation of the in-breaking of God’s reign was marked by his healings and exorcisms and his call for social justice—this embodies his shift from “why, on what account?” to “why, for what purpose?” He saw the arrival of the final purposes of God as not only possible but inevitable, but knew we needed to get out of God’s way.
One of the collects of the Prayer Book begins with the wise words, “O merciful Father, you taught us in your holy Word that you do not willingly afflict or grieve those whom you have made.” Jesus would agree.
In The Doors of the Sea, a book written in response to the Indonesian tsunami of 2004, theologian David Hart writes: “As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy.” Jesus would agree.
William Pike, writing on the Haiti earthquake, said that he had been reminded of the story of Elijah’s flight to Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19, where God spoke to Elijah not out of an earthquake, whirlwind, or fire, but out of the whispering of the still breeze. In thinking about Pat Robertson’s graceless remarks, Pike remembers the words used in the passage—“The Lord was not in the earthquake.” Jesus would agree.
God indeed is not in the earthquake, is not in the horror. He is not in towers falling, whether it be the tower of Siloam or the Twin Towers in New York. All these things show us how far the world is from God’s ultimate intention, not God in action. Rather, God is in the efforts of people trying to help the victims of such things. He is in reconciliation and service. He is in justice and peace. And the just and righteous God, because of his love and compassion, is giving us more time to help get this right, just like that farmer with the fig tree.
May we learn to shift our perspectives and better submit to our loving God. May his kingdom come, and his will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
In the name of Christ, Amen.