15th Sunday After Pentecost September 26, 2011

by Lea F. Schweitz
Associate Professor of Systematic Theology/Religion and Science, Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science

On this new day, grace and peace to you, Brothers and Sisters.

My adorable, curious two-year-old son, Isaac, has begun to ask questions.  “Mama, where’s he going?” “Mama, can you read me a story?” “Mama, can you read me another story?”  Right now, his favorite is: “Mama, where’d you get that (milk, yogurt, banana, sandwich, shirt, shoe, train, or anything that might populate his world) from?  Where’d you get that from?”  Most of these questions show an engagement with the world that I love, and most of them are pretty easily answered.

But, sometimes, he asks questions that I know he knows the answer to.  He knows that apple he’s eating came from the farmer’s market.  He was there; he helped to pick them out.   When I think the question he’s asking is a trick, I respond with a question: “Isaac, you were with me, do you remember where the apples came from?  He grins, and answers his own question.

The exchange of questions in our Matthew text doesn’t seem so unfamiliar.  Surely, the initial question in our reading from Matthew is a trick:  “By what authority do you do these things?”  We might read Jesus’ questions in the same vein.  Jesus asks trick questions to which he knows his hearers know the answers.

However, this assumes that it’s the answers that matter.  [Sometimes, admittedly, it is the answer that matters.  This is not an excuse to forget your candidacy committee or to skip your Pentateuch quiz or to ignore your Systematic Theology reading or the like!]  But, not all questions operate on this model of exchange.  Not all questions are about an accumulation of answers.  In our readings today, Jesus asks three questions:  “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”; “What do you think?” and “Which of the two did the will of his father?”

What kind of questions are these?  They don’t emerge from nowhere.  Jesus asks these questions because he’s provoked by a question of another sort.  The chief priests and elders try to set a trap: “By what authority do you do these things? And, who gave you that authority anyway?”  If we read Jesus’ questions as returning “like-for-like”, then Jesus, like the chief priests and elders, uses questions as tricks and traps.  Is this the way to read Jesus’ questions?

In Philippians (2:1-13) we hear the exhortation to be of the same mind as Christ.  Imagine that the mind of Christ to which Paul calls us is one in which God can be at work in our questions.  What does this look like?

In the first instance, it’s a call for the return of a thinking faith.  This is a faith that rejects both the absence of faith in some scientific reductionism and the uncompromising faith of a belief-without-doubt.  Theologians like Philip Clayton are arguing that this thinking faith requires that we give up the assumption that doubts should be viewed as sin.  And, we have to give up the idea that all questions are about getting the one right answer.

Humans are questioners, but all our questions need not be signs of our sinful nature or of spiritual immaturity.  It is simply our way to put together the many facets of our complicated lives.   [Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology: For Church and Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 38.]

Questions can be a healthy, faithful way to do this work together.  The thinking faith lies in an ambiguous space somewhere between an unquestioning faith and a soul crushing doubt.  In this space, God can use our questions, but only if we allow our questions to be seeking more than information.  Thinking faith is a creative space where a commerce model of questions and answers is supplemented by a community model of inquiry.

Now, we might be tempted to see the “thinking faith” in contrast to a “childlike faith.”  However, thinking faith isn’t a rejection of  “childlike faith” because even a “childlike faith” doesn’t ask or require or demand that we leave behind our questions.

The question my two- year-old son Isaac asked about the apples was not about gathering information on the farmer’s market.  He was not seeking the answer.  His question was an opportunity to open up a story about an adventure with his family.  Childlike faith comes with real questions. Everything with children – from socks to faith - comes with real questions.  Childlike faith is a questioning faith. 

Another of my favorite questions from my son, Isaac:  “Mama, where’d you get that face from?”  Of course, there is a very long pause here where I try to sort through how much science and how much theology is appropriate.  And, how to communicate whatever it is that I decide.   But, what I decide to say is that, “Well, mama got her face from her mama, her daddy, and God.  Just like you got your face from your mama, your daddy, and God.” 

As an answer, I’m still working out whether it was the right way to go.  However, if it isn’t just about information, I hope it’ll suffice.  Isaac is blessed to know his grandmas well, but he never had the chance to meet my dad.  By putting them together, my hope is that eventually he’ll ask about his grandpa and by including God, I’m hoping eventually he’ll ask about that too.   It’s an answer, but more it’s an opening to more questions and to building a relationship with God.  That’s how God uses our questions.  God uses our questions to invite more questions and to build relationships with us.

That we lose track of this is the tragedy of the so-called answers in our texts today.  Jesus asks: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  The chief priests and elders argue and calculate the costs: “If we say from heaven, he will say: why didn’t you believe?  If we say from humans, we are afraid of the crowd.”  In the end, they say “We don’t know.”

Some have read this “we don’t know” as not answering the question.  However, this is too easy.  It misses the radical nature of Jesus’ question.  The chief priest and elders do answer the question.  It’s not a good answer.  Jesus refuses to play the game.  He’s not playing a trick; he’s not setting a trap. 

It’s not a good answer because in this instance, “we don’t know” is a profession of ignorance that is more worried about the costs of the answer than what God can do with the question.  The thinking faith to which we are called is not one that dismisses unknowing.  “We don’t know” is sometimes precisely the confession that opens up the possibility for a community of inquiry to grow and transformation to take root.  But, it’s only a good answer when it’s the beginning of something rather than the end.  “We don’t know” is only a good answer when it stops looking much like an answer.

That we lose track of this is the tragedy of the willful ignorance of some on climate change.   The professions that “we don’t know” enough about the causes of the changes to our planetary systems, or “we don’t know” the effects of the changes, or “we don’t know” the possible solutions to the changes…   These are not good answers.  Not because of the unknowing they profess, but because it too often covers for a calculation about the effects on the polls and the effects on the bottom line the businesses and corporations that benefit.  It’s not a good answer because it serves as the end of debate rather than the start of something transformative. 

Here at LSTC, this is the tragedy when we cling to our answers and calculate the costs, rather than being open to the questions that draw us closer to God and closer to one another.  Today we begin the fourth week of the semester.  The shiny newness of the term has begun to fade and the to-do lists have grown, but we can be prepared to ask and to receive questions.   We can humbly let the same mind be in us as was in Christ Jesus.  We can resist the traps of willful ignorance and the simple accumulation of information.  The Spirit moves us in a thinking faith, in a community of questioners.  Here, God is at work in us.  When questions are turned into an opportunity not for the pure accumulation of a piece of information but for the opening of a relationship, here we have a glimpse of the mind of Christ. 

Jesus’ questions are more about relationships than answers.   The good news is that God is at work in our questions; God is at work in your questions.   So, what do you think? 



Matthew 21:23-32

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