Matthew 5:46, Jeremiah 1:11-14
The Rev. Tom Herbek
January 31, 2016
For me, the questions are much better ways for me to learn than are answers given to me by someone else. Part of the reason is that I learn much more when I have to struggle to find my own answers. And part of the reason is that I really resent it when someone else presumes to give me their answer and assumes it is the best answer for me.
Jesus spent his life asking questions, beginning with his question to Mary as a 12-year-old: “Why were you searching for me?” And his last question was on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In a new book entitled What Did Jesus Ask? people from varied backgrounds and faith perspectives write brief essays on Jesus’ questions. Writer Mitali Perkins responds to try to understand Jesus’ questions of Mary from the perspective of a writer of books for young readers. She writes:
A family journey. A missing child. Three days of separation and searching. A frantic mother scolding her 12-year-old-son.
This story told by Luke features a plot and characters that are recognizable in most cultures and historical periods.
The only strange twist comes in the son’s response to his mother.
It’s easy to relate to Mary. The clan walks five days to reach Jerusalem in time for Passover. A day or so into the return trip, she discovers that Jesus isn’t with Joseph and the other men. “He’s not with the other children?” Joseph calls back.
They race back to the city, enlist relatives and scour venues where a Nazarene boy might lose track of time – marketplaces, playing fields, busy corners where tops and whistles are peddled. Finally they find him. He’s alive and well in the temple. Teaching, no less. Impressing a crowd with questions and answers.
As a mother, I would be torn between hugging and shaking the kid. He’s 12, after all – on the verge of becoming a man. He should know better! But Mary’s boy was not lost. Not too long ago he was the baby she cradled. His voice cracks as he greets them, but his cheek is still smooth when she kisses it.
“Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Can you hear the relief and reprimand? Doesn’t the reminder of a united parental front sound familiar?
The boy Jesus replies with two questions of his own. The first seems typical for a 12-year-old. But the other is different.
Luke includes this one vignette, but it is brief, restrained, and barely hints at the extraordinary. Jesus is not yet a full-fledged adolescent. He is 12, just embarking on the task of forming an identity.
“Why were you searching for me?”
The words ring with surprise. He is taken aback by his parents’ lack of insight. They should have known! Why are they so worried? He realizes with a shock that he is old enough to see himself m ore clearly than the adults who have raised him.
His reaction is fairly universal. Age 12 is about when most of us dethrone our parents. We begin to know more about culture, more about trends, more about even ourselves than they do. The first question shows a Jesus coming of age much like every other tween in history. Seeing the limits of our parents’ understanding propels us into maturity.
The incredulity of early adolescence lingers in Jesus’ next question, but even as he asks it, he coins an odd phrase. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
None of his peers would use this name for the temple. A studious, devout 12-year old may have put it like this: “Didn’t you know I had to be in the temple?” A precocious boy might have retorted, “It’s proper for a young man like me to be in the House of Adonai!”
In the Old Testament, God is called Father only a few times. But in the Gospels, “Father,” or Abba in Aramaic, becomes Jesus’ favorite way to address God.
Mary, I imagine must have wondered what she had gotten herself into, what it really might have meant to have heard the voice saying that she was “favored” by God when she was pregnant. The problem with the questions of Jesus is that, most often, they prod us to look at life differently. And, if they are taken seriously, they compel us to look at ourselves differently.
Bishop Justin Welby takes one of Jesus’ most difficult questions. He writes:
It’s very often the questions that matter. Answers take us straight to a course of action, but questions shift the responsibility, make us think and leave it up to us.
Jesus was very good at questions. He says, “You’ve heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbors and hate your enemy,’ but I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what are you doing more than others?”
The question Jesus put forward about loving our enemies is one that few of us can answer easily. It has so many assumptions in it that are uncomfortable for most of us. It assumes that we want our lives to be different from those of other people. It assumes that we will all have enemies of one kind or another. Yet most of us like to blend with the crowd and be at least tolerated, preferably popular, with as many people as possible. But sadly, loving your enemies tends not to win you any friends. It alienates those who think you’re going soft and seldom turns your enemies into friends.
Of course, if we’re living worthwhile lives we are likely to generate some enemies.
Even trying to do the right thing gets us enemies from those who profit from wrong things happening.
His question is more costly than we can imagine. To offer an enemy an open hand instead of a clenched fist carries with it the risk that they will drill a nail into the palm of our hand. They did it to Jesus.
Yet in the world that surrounds us, where making enemies seems so easy, and being someone else’s enemy can be something that happens by accident because of our ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexuality, this is the question that each of us needs to answer.
Do we think that love is only for those we find easy to love, or are we willing to love those who hate us?
What Bishop Welby says is not something I want to hear. Who wants to take the risk of trying to love enemies and getting ourselves crucified, even if it is more of a crucifixion of our job prospects, our social standing, our acceptance in our community, or even our own family’s acceptance?
There is a cost to trying to love our enemies. This was once made quite clear to me.
In the mid-1980’s, I was the director of Pastoral Care at a three-hospital corporation in the Binghamton area. The hospital system provided family planning services, including abortions for women in the community. This caused the health system to be targeted by Operation Rescue, and its raucous followers, galvanized by the head of the organization, Randall Terry.
As the head of Pastoral Care, I was given the job of meeting with Randall Terry as soon as the protesters began to arrive, and all of the TV crews showed up. I asked if we could meet privately at a nearby restaurant, a neutral site for both of us. To my surprise, when he found out who I was, and that I was indeed a Christian, he agreed to meet.
As we sat down, he fired his first question: “Why are you here?”, and his second: “Why are you working for them?” For the next 20 minutes or so, he quoted scripture at me from all over, determined to get me to see the error of my ways. Finally, I got a chance to answer his two questions, when he slowed down long enough to catch his breath.
“You asked me why I am here,” I began. “I wanted to meet with you because I felt it was vital that we safeguard your supporters and yourself, as well as the patients and their families, and the staff of the hospital, including me.”
“As Christians we both know the Bible well, and we know that Jesus said to love our enemies. While you and I are on different sides of this issue – and in some ways are enemies – we are both here because we care about people, even people who may not agree with us on many things. It is our responsibility as Christians to figure out a way to care about everyone and to make sure everyone is safe.”
“And for your second question: I believe that a woman has the right to make decisions for herself – safe and legal decisions about her own body and her healthcare.”
“The fact that we are both looking at the same scriptures, and both taking them very seriously, and both believing that what we are doing is a part of our Christian faith, tells me that I owe it to you to respect you and your right to say with great forcefulness what you believe. I only ask that you respect me and my obligation to keep everyone safe. I would hope that we can agree to disagree. By doing what we are doing and believing what we do, we will be seen by many as enemies, but I would hope that we can still love and respect each other, as Jesus calls us to do.”
He shook his head, got up from the table, and did not say a word. But for all of the time the protesters and the cameras were there, everyone was safe. As he left the restaurant that day, unlike when we began to talk, my stomach was calm.
We cannot expect our enemy to become our friend, but perhaps we can hope that our enemy will become a human being in our eyes.
The questions that Jesus asked throughout his life on this earth are ones that call us to become more of who we have been created to be. They are not easy questions, and the answers we struggle with may cause our stomach to churn, once we realize what the implications are. Someone once said, though, that if you have answers to all of your questions you have not asked difficult enough questions.
May our faith journey be filled with difficult questions, and may we struggle with answers, even for those questions that seem unanswerable. May we never forget that it’s the questions that matter.