“Q & A with Jesus”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

September 13, 2015 – The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 12:28-34

 

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the comic science fiction hit created by Douglas Adams, a supercomputer named Deep Thought is asked to produce the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. Deep Thought thinks, and thinks, and thinks, and thinks—deeply, of course. It’s quite a momentous thing to consider, after all. After seven and a half million years of computing, the Ultimate Answer emerges: 42.

The hyper-intelligent beings who demanded the answer to begin with are understandably underwhelmed by this result. When they voice their discontent, Deep Thought responds with this: “I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

So what is the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything?

For the scribe who encountered Jesus in our scripture reading for today, the question is this: Which commandment is the first of all? What is the most important teaching of our faith? Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, the 248 things we’re supposed to do and the 365 things we’re supposed to not do, which is the foremost, the greatest, the most essential?

Many commentators read this exchange as confrontational, antagonistic. It comes in the middle of a series of confrontations between Jesus and the religious authorities, the scribes and the chief priests and the elders. He was kind of a rabble-rouser, after all, and the powers that be had taken notice. They sought to entrap him, to confuse him, to tangle him up, to make him say the wrong thing and get himself into hot water. They threw tricky questions at him—questions about authority, questions about paying taxes, questions about what happens after we die. Several times in this series of exchanges we are told that the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus, even that they wanted to kill him. He was not exactly winning the Jerusalem popularity contest.

In such a context, we might expect this conversation to be adversarial as well. But the exchange with the scribe in the passage that Leslie read to us has a different tone. Of course we can’t know from 2,000 years later what really motivated the scribe to ask that question, but it seems to me that it just might have been a genuine inquiry, a true question of the heart. Which commandment, he asked this itinerant teacher who was attracting so much attention, is the first of all? Or, in other words, What’s the real meaning of our faith, and how are we called to live it out?

 

Here’s what I wonder: what would you ask if you were in the scribe’s shoes? If you had a chance to put a question to Jesus, what would it be? What is your Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything? What is the question that’s at the heart of your very heart?

Would you ask, What is the meaning of life? Or, What is my purpose on earth? Or, What am I living for?

Would you ask, Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, How am I going to make it through this day, this week, this year? Or, Why does life have to be so hard sometimes?

Would you ask, How can we make peace in the Middle East? Or, What can we do about climate change? Or, When will black lives truly matter in this country?

Would you ask, How can I help my son fight his addiction? Or, Why did my mother have to get cancer? Or, How can I go on without my spouse?

Would you ask, Is God actually present like we say we believe? Or, Why do we do this church thing, anyway? Or, Does any of this really matter in our modern world?

Whatever your Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything might be, I suspect that somehow, the answer Jesus gave to the scribe is the answer he would give to you, too. Most of the time, when Jesus is asked a question in the gospels, he responds with another question, or with a parable, or with an enigmatic saying that really doesn’t answer the question he was asked. But here he is about as unequivocal as he ever is. Here he gives a pretty clear-cut response, a reply that is, perhaps, the closest thing we’ll ever get to an Ultimate Answer for our Ultimate Questions.

 

Which commandment is the first of all, Jesus? Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. That’s it.

What is the meaning of life, Jesus? Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. And then he might say, remember this: if something advances the love of God, neighbor, and self, do it. If it diminishes the love of God, neighbor, and self, stop it. It’s that simple.

How can we address the pressing justice issues of our time, Jesus? Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. And then he might say, remember this: neighbors include those who don’t look like you, even those you can’t stand, and when everyone understands that we are all kin, we’ll be a whole lot closer to peace. And then he might say, remember this: love is not just about warm and fuzzy feelings in your heart—it’s about rolling up your sleeves and taking action.

What am I supposed to do in the face of the suffering of people I love, Jesus? Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. And then he might say, remember this: all human love flows out as a response to the love of God, the love that brought all worlds into being, the love that has surrounded you since long before your birth, the love that endures to the end of the age and beyond, the love that is holding this world together, the love that is the heart of the very heart of everything.  And then he might say, remember this: there is no pain the world can throw at you that I do not know, no suffering you can face that I do not endure with you, no hurt you can experience that I cannot help you transcend.

What’s the point of church today, Jesus? Love God with all you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. And then he might say, remember this: the world needs places where people gather in the name of something greater than themselves. Whether that’s for worship services, or homecoming dinners, or committee meetings, or chicken barbecues, or rummage sales, or church school classes, or conversations on racial justice, or community kitchen meals, or youth group retreats, or service projects, or 325th anniversary celebrations, the world needs places where people gather to practice loving God, loving neighbors, loving yourself. The world needs places where people are reminded of who they really are. The world needs places where people put the world back together, one healing soul at a time.

 

And then I think Jesus might ask a question in return. What else do you want to know, my friend? Because to ask these Ultimate Questions is itself a faithful act. It is in seeking understanding that we grow in our relationships with God. It is in wondering together about the meaning of life that we grow in our understanding of who we are called to be. It is in yearning together to heal this broken world that we grow in our discipleship, in our sleeves-rolled-up practice of love. It is in facing the unanswerable questions that suffering brings that we learn to give and receive tenderness.

We may never get a clear, simple answer like 42. But with God, and with one another, we just might find that the questions themselves are enough, and that in asking them, we are formed into an answer that will bring light and love into the world.

May it be so.

 


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