Ask a better question
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
March 23, 2019—Lent 3C
Exod 3:1-15; “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte; Luke 13:1-9
Please make no mistake: this is urgent! As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, he knows he doesn’t have much time left to convince us. He spent the entire chapter before this begging us to consider our motivations and behavior. Is your goal to convince others that you are righteous? That way lies madness. Is that because you are afraid of dying? Let that go, because God has you in the palm of his hand. Does your fear lie in what you possess in this life, thinking that will mean riches in the next life? Don’t worry about those things: possessions distract us from what truly matters in the kingdom of God.
Be rich towards God, he says. Be alert and ready, he says. Stand up for the kingdom of God, even if others reject you for it. Pay attention, and learn how to recognize what is right and good and worthy of God’s kingdom! This feels urgent to Jesus, and he speaks passionately. Which means he might well have been frustrated by their response: Are you saying that God will kill us if we continue to be sinners?
(“Oh, for the love of Pete!” I can almost hear Jesus think…)
They’re trying to find a way to distance themselves. Jesus is urging them to be alert in the midst of a spiritual turning point, and they flip into that mode we enter when we hear about a terrible misfortune or tragedy. Tell me the details, we say. Tell me what they did to bring it upon themselves, so that I can assure myself that it won’t happen to me or my family. Were they a smoker? Did they overeat? Did he go somewhere he shouldn’t have gone; did she wear something she shouldn’t have worn? Did they make the wrong move, say the wrong thing, trust the wrong person?
Anything, please, tell me: how can I believe that I won’t meet the same fate? Tell me they were fools, tell me they were lazy, tell me they were sinners of a kind I can imagine myself beyond.
They were not, Jesus said, but you still need to be alert and ready. You still need to be at work in the Kingdom as it breaks in, or all will be lost! You’ll be destroyed!
“You mean if we’re really BAD sinners, right? Like the folks who had that tower fall on them?”
No, that’s not the point. The point isn’t to bring your level of sinfulness into some kind of “safe” zone, in order to avoid destruction. The point is that the kingdom of God is breaking into this world even now, and soon (very soon, but we don’t know exactly when) it will arrive in full. And you have to choose: choose to cooperate with that kingdom, and help make it more visible; or choose not to. Choose life, in other words, or choose death.
They still don’t get it. They are caught by the image of death, and so they hear it as a threat that God’s going to kill them and all they want to know is how to avoid that. It must be about wrongdoing and punishment, right? So tell us what not to do.
Jesus decides to take another tack. Debi Thomas likens this to the Buddhist concept of “mu” in which a teacher responds to a question “that’s too small, too flat, too confining,” with “this word mu, which means, ‘Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.’ A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question. A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.”[i]
Jesus invites our better questions by offering us parables. Which, in their very nature, invite us to explore something from a variety of angles. What does this teach us if we imagine ourselves as the tree who isn’t bearing fruit? What if we’re the impatient land owner who wants to cut the tree down? What if we’re the gardener, who offers to nurture and tend the unpromising tree? What do any of these teach us about ourselves, about God, about life in the Kingdom? How does this take us deeper than our concern about (avoiding) punishment and death?
It’s about repentance, Jesus has been clear. But repentance in Luke isn’t the somewhat limited view that we often take. It isn’t just about turning away from some of our sinful behaviors (enough, say, to avoid having a tower fall on us). Repentance is linked, over and over, with the appearance of the kingdom of God in this world. Lift up your head, Luke exhorts us, for the kingdom of God has drawn near. Turn, not so much away from your sins, as toward any signs of the kingdom. Turn towards them, as plants turn towards the sun that gives them warmth and light and growth.
I thought of this as I watched my son John’s performance of Les Mis this week. And I was struck once again by the contrast in theologies between Valjean and Inspector Javert. Valjean, as you might remember, went to jail for 19 years for stealing some bread to feed his family. He completes his sentence, but Javert makes it clear that he will bear the consequences of his crime forever: he must carry the mark and status of thief all his life. For his part, Valjean is exceedingly bitter after his long punishment, and justifies stealing silver from a priest who has taken him in. This gets turned upside down, however, after the priest not only covers for his crime but offers him more money to help make himself a better man.
This he does, skipping parole to build a life as a respected factory owner and mayor of a small town. Javert searches for him for decades, during which they have numerous encounters in which Valjean requests more time: to help a dying employee, to rescue her orphaned daughter, and then to carry a gravely injured man to the hospital. Through all this, Javert continues to insist that Valjean broke the law and therefore put himself outside the realm of goodness and God. This bone-deep conviction means that he simply cannot comprehend it when circumstances eventually place him helpless in Valjean’s hands, and Valjean chooses not to kill him.
How can a bad man, a criminal, a sinner, show mercy? Javert doesn’t know how to un-ask this question, to ask a better, deeper question about what Valjean has chosen to make of his life. He cannot see the ways in which Valjean has indeed turned his face and his life towards the light of God. All he knows is that his sense of the world has been destroyed, and thus he has been destroyed. And so he throws himself off a bridge.
His belief about sin and punishment, about bad people separated from good people, literally killed him. He couldn’t give it up. Jesus knows that we too find it hard to relinquish. So he invites us to un-ask the questions we so long to ask: questions like what we can do to avoid someone else’s terrible fate, and how is it THEIR fault this happened to them? He invites us instead to go deeper into the stories we hear, deeper into the pain, rather than distancing ourselves from whatever it is. What happened to these people? If they are the like the landowner, why do they give up hope so easily? If they’re the fig tree, what has stunted their growth, and what would sunlight be for them? And if we could be the gardener, how might we help them turn towards it?
Mu. It burns like the bush, this invitation to leave our regular pathways and ask better questions. Repent, my friends. Turn towards the burning bush, turn your face towards the light, turn your life towards the kingdom of God that is breaking into this world in so many ways. May it be so. Amen.