You make your way across the floor to the black chair. As you sit in it, sinking slowly into the upholstery, you feel the bright spotlight hot in your face. Through the light and out into the darkness, you can just about make out the face of your inquisitor. Name? Occupation? Your specialist subject?
Sunday, October 07, 2012
A Questionable God?
Sermon preached at Our Lady of Walsingham and St Francis on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity.
What would your specialist subject be on Mastermind?
There are some people that thrive with having questions fired at them left, right and centre, but for most of us, it’s an ordeal. Think of those called to give evidence in law courts. While the media rejoices in making the courtroom dramatic and even glamorous, the truth is that it is not as fascinating as one might be led to believe. However, the witness must still answer every question put to him by both the prosecuting and defending counsels. Why is it such an ordeal? If we’re telling the truth, then surely there isn’t a problem. We just answer the questions honestly, and we are allowed to step down and leave.
Things, of course, are very different if you are not just the witness but rather the one on trial too. In this case, you are afraid that one wrong answer will send you to gaol. That’s a problem far worse than not knowing the principal currency of Vietnam at Mastermind. The whole interrogation becomes a deadly game between you and your accuser who is trying to trap you into convicting yourself. How much better if you were able to silence him?
These days we face a very similar problem from a more aggressive and anti-Christian society. Have you ever had someone ask you some difficult questions just in order to catch you out? “How can you believe in God. You can’t see Him?” “There’s no evidence for God, why do you still believe that rubbish?” “Aren’t you sexist for not letting women be priests?” and of course the biggie, “If there is a loving God, then why all this suffering in the world?”
St Peter may remind us to be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. This is fine, but some of these questions have been argued by some very wise philosophers, so how on earth can we ordinary folk possibly answer them?
It’s clear that there are and always have been people out to discredit Our Lord’s teaching by trapping him into saying something that either is outright blasphemy or that shows him up to be a fool. They watch him like a hawks looking for some gap in his teaching so that they can swoop down and catch him out!
“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?”
THE great commandment? You might as well ask to sum up someone’s entire life in one single word, to teach an entire law course in half an hour or fit an entire rose garden into a flowerpot.
This is not a genuine enquiry. You can tell simply by the way it’s asked that he is trying to force the Lord into saying something foolish. If Jesus were to pick just one of the Ten Commandments and proceed to justify His decision, then the Pharisees would say, “well, what about the other nine? Isn’t that important enough?” In fact, the Rabbis around Jesus are deeply divided as to which Commandments are greater and which are lesser. If Jesus were to answer one way or the other, then it is going to cause an almighty ruckus among the Jews, and Jesus would be caught for stirring trouble.
Jesus is not taken in for a moment. He does not launch like the Pharisees into some great speech into what makes a commandment great. He puts the Pharisees and Sadducees to silence by careful quoting of Scripture: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. This is Deuteronomy vi.5, one of the books of Moses revered by the Pharisees. But Our Lord doesn’t stop there! Without drawing breath or pausing so that the Rabbis can jump in and say another word, we have the second commandment. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. That’s Leviticus xix.18 Another book revered by the Pharisees. In one fell swoop Our Lord has not just answered the question, but given a great guiding principle for human life
Before they can even reply to this, Jesus turns the tables. He asks them a question from their very own scriptures, and they are stumped. They cannot answer.
How can we answer the big questions of Life? It seems that the people of this world want Christians to answer all the questions in one short sentence. It may not even be possible for Our Lord to give us a verbal answer to all the big questions in one short sentence. After all, the Lord Himself says, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” We do not even understand the language of our own reality to begin to understand the language of God’s knowledge.
That’s not to say that the Lord cannot give us an answer to the problem of Evil. It is the very Life, Suffering and Death of the Lord Jesus that answers the question but not in a way that leads to an earthly answer and His Death is the inexpressible, wordless, unutterable “No” of God to all things Evil and “Yes” of God to Humanity.
Yes, we may be occasionally be stumped by the questioning of those who hate Christianity. We must give the best answer that we can, but not allow ourselves to be pressured into thinking that because we can’t answer a question, our Faith is worthless. Quite the contrary, how can so great a faith be expressed in words alone?