Updated: Aug 5, 2021
When I was a little girl my mother frequently used to look at me with frustration and say, “Deborah, you think too much!” That’s because I could never seem to let things go. I never accepted, “because I said so” as a reasonable answer. I had to know why people did things – and why I was supposed to do them too.
Science tells us that curiosity is an evolutionary survival mechanism. We are born with a need to understand the world around us in order to live and grow safely in it. According to neuroscientists, “information stimulates our brains the same way food and sex do.” In other words, people share a biological drive to find answers to our questions. This is a good thing. After all, human curiosity has led to the creation of science, technology, philosophy, mathematics, art – and religion.
Religious practices provide us with a lens for viewing the world – a way to answer our “why” questions. Some religious rationales seem simplistic and unlikely. For example in my house growing up, God was very active in the weather. Thunder was angels bowling. Rain was God’s tears. Natural disasters were signs of God’s wrath. Such ideas are ancient (except maybe the bowling). They come from the efforts of early humans who lived before the dawn of empirical science to understand their world. When they experienced powerful and frightening natural phenomena beyond their understanding, it made perfect sense to attribute them to an equally large and potent force. They intuited God’s presence, uncomplicated by a need to “prove it.” Over time, people constructed very specific belief systems, all of which reflected their growing experience with and understanding of the God and the world. They asked questions and found answers in the whisper of the wind, the shifting of the sands, the thunder of the waves, and the certainty of their hearts. They talked to God and God answered them – because God has always spoken to creation. God is still speaking to us. It is the way people interpret God’s words that has changed.
As human beings learned to speak, to read, and to build we began to describe and comprehend God through these new experiences. As our view of the world expanded and we sorted ourselves into different tribes, people explained God’s behavior in terms that reflected their own lifestyle and priorities. This did not change God, but it changed the way people worshipped God. They began to believe that God was different for different people, so various groups decided to preserve the specific ways they saw God. They started to think that any variation in belief was dangerous. They took their understanding of God and set it in stone. They developed criteria for deciding who belonged and who was unworthy. They made laws that enforced the status quo. They discouraged questioning by arguing that doubt is the opposite of faith.
This is not, according to today’s gospel from Matthew, what God intended. Today’s passage follows Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount – the one in which he describes the nature and actions of those who are blessed. In today’s passage, having told his disciples how they are blessed, he tells them why. They have been blessed with “saltiness,” the ability to enhance the flavor of life, because this will help them bring out the goodness of those they encounter. They have been blessed with brightness because, as Marcia Riggs says, “Like light, the disciples as a gathered community have the overarching purpose of being the mirror that refracts God’s light so that all peoples and nations can know of God’s justice and mercy.” We are blessed with gifts from God so we can do the work of God.
This requires that we study all of the commandments that God has set before humanity to discern which are true to God’s purpose and which serve only human desires. Fortunately, God has provided us with a perfect and unchanging criterion for knowing what is right and true. We are to live according to God’s laws as interpreted through the words and actions of Jesus. This is what Jesus means when he tells the disciples that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. “The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees,” says Riggs, “is concerned with observance of tradition, public displays of piety, and adherence to the letter of the law. The righteousness of Jesus flows from his relationship with God and, in turn, is the ground of Jesus’ relationship with his followers.” Jesus lived with other humans, and he kept the laws of his ancestors not for his own justification or self-aggrandizement, but for the sake of those with and for whom he lived.
God’s laws are a blessing and a pathway. They are God’s instructions on how to get along with God and one another. They are about responsibility, kindness, reliability, compassion, and love. They assume relationship. True obedience to the law, according to the psalmist, always results in acts of mercy, generosity, and empathy – and it is through such acts that we find joy. It is impossible then to live righteously without living in relationship. This is the model that Jesus provided for us and one which has remained the hallmark of Christian living for over two thousand years.
We cannot earn salvation by blindly quoting laws. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the sin of the people was not that they did not seek to follow God’s laws, but that they did so for their own self-interest. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house.” As Carol Dempsey puts it, “A gap exists between their seeking God and God’s ways and their actual way of life, which reveals the people’s hypocrisy… acts of religious piety as private acts of devotion are meaningless when they are divorced from acts of justice and righteousness.”
The same rules apply to us. We cannot say that we wish to see “a future where every child has a warm, safe and loving home,” and then allow certain children to be brutally torn away from their parents. We cannot say we support religious freedom if we are only willing to allow people who share our beliefs to live among us. We do not respect the dignity of every human being when we consistently deceive them and use cruel and vulgar words to describe people who disagree with us. We cannot say that we are grateful for God’s majestic and beautiful world and then refuse to protect its resources.
It is not wrong to ask questions. It is a matter of asking the right questions. Our questions must not be about who belongs and who does not. We need not ask what we as individuals need to do to be saved. We need instead to wonder whether our behavior reflects the consistently loving, life-giving, and relational way of God. No one, St. Paul tells the Corinthians, comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. What we should be asking then is to understand the gifts we have received from God and how to use them in God’s service. Faith frees us not from asking questions, but from the need to find all of the answers for ourselves. The Holy Spirit is present among us, guiding us, so that our light shall break forth like the dawn, our righteousness like the sun at noonday, and justice and peace be established throughout the world. Why? -because God said so. AMEN.
Vivian Hemmelder and Tommy Blanchard, (9/14/16), “Why human beings are hard-wired for curiosity,” HuffPost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-humans-are-hardwired-_b_11984748.
Marcia Y. Riggs, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle location 12010.
Carol J. Dempsey, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster Knox Press], 4, Kindle locations 11366-11384.
This section is based on the article, “Trump, prayer, and the faithful voter’s gut check,” by Eva Kendrick, https://religionnews.com/2020/02/06/trump-prayer-and-the-faithful-voter-gut-check/?fbclid=IwAR21B-cRZXwoVR2wtg3NbpH7J28f5UNC5YJGmq1qNjcw-w7oCvtAHtKP7YE