Jesus Takes the Fifth

November 17, 1996


Jesus Takes The Fifth

One of the strangest things about the life of Jesus of Nazareth is the way he answered questions — or didn’t answer them, as the case may be. Christians who look for easy, simple answers to all of life’s problems, and who expect their most unambig-uous source to be the Bible, have to come to grips with the fact that Jesus often didn’t answer people’s questions — a discovery only made by actually reading the Bible instead of merely hijacking it now and then to make some religious or political point. You find out, when you actually read it, that Jesus frequently responded so obliquely to questions that the ones who asked had to go off and ponder what the answer really meant. And when you are wondering about the real nature of Jesus and how truly human he was, don’t overlook that moment when he responded to a sincere question by saying, “I don’t know” (Matt.24). His disciples were curious about when normal time would come to an end, and he told them bluntly that he lacked the knowledge to answer. We have radio and television preachers who know, who are forever setting dates, in fact, but Jesus didn’t know and he was not embarrassed to admit it.
That unknowing moment in the life of Christ is not a favorite sermon topic in popular religious culture because it puts too much emphasis on his humanity — as another verse does which says (Luke 2:40) that Jesus grew in knowledge: not omniscient at birth, as some Christians like to think, but one who — like us — learned as he got older. And clearly didn’t learn everything, or he would not have said to his best friends that he couldn’t answer their question because he simply did not know. This is one of those many differences between popular religious culture and the actual content of the gospel. People are forever saying things like: Got a question nobody seems able to answer? — Just take it to Jesus — he has ALL the answers!
You hear this superficial approach to religion all the time. Bumper-stickers and highway billboards announce the Bible-as-Ultimate-Reference-Tool, meant to tie up all of life’s loose ends. I saw a bumper admonition down on south Hillside the other day; it said, LOST YOUR WAY? LOOK HERE FOR DIRECTIONS — with an arrow pointing to a picture of the Bible. Well, you can certainly find some useful directions in that book, but it’s simplistic and misleading to define it as a dictionary of answers to questions about medical ethics, mental illness, just war, capital punishment, and surrogate motherhood — to name just a few examples. Look for unequivocal guidance about abortion, the great moral issue of the moment, and you will not find it. Search for a clear answer to the agonizing problem of what to do with loved ones who suffer unbearable and hopeless pain or lie in a vegatative coma for years, and that glib bumpersticker will make you want to scream.
We have plenty of questions, all right, but we play a cruel trick on trusting souls when we tell them that there is always a definitive answer. Even the most sincere people did not always get an answer when Christ was alive, and when he thought questions were self-serving, he really clammed up. In the Scripture you heard earlier, when certain religious leaders ask him by what authority he has challenged their System he answers the question with another question — one they can’t answer without making themselves look bad. And this particular obliqueness is not an isolated case. At his trial the crowd asks, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” and he answers cryptically, “You say that am.” And when Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” he replies, “You have said so” — not as direct or helpful, surely, as the questioners hoped. And when he does come out with a straight answer it may be the last thing in the world the questioner wants to hear. To a rich young CEO who yearns for inner peace but loves the money which in his case is not making him happy, Jesus has a special prescription which the rest of us devoutly hope does not apply to us: “Go sell what you have and give the money to the poor.” Even those Christiqans who insiost on reading all plain statements int he Bible literally do interpretive cartwheels to find another meaning for this one! We can only deal with that painful piece of advice, which Jesus never gave to anyone else, by supposing that Jesus had sensed that the young ruler’s money — unlike ours, of course — was blocking his chance for happiness. I’m sure people learned in those days to think twice before asking a question whose answer— if he deemed them serious enough to deserve one — might send them into shock.
But it was also his way, if he thought the question was a front for some hidden agenda, to have no part of it, to take the Fifth and decline to answer. Which means, I think, that he would be a real thorn-in-the-flesh for what is known today as the Christian Coalition. I’ve seen some of the questions they use to see how well candidates for political office or school boards score on their key issues — loaded questions, like: Do you believe that life is sacred, or are you willing to let someone murder an unborn child? Do you believe creationism should be taught in public schools, or only the godless theory of evolution? What an irony it is that the most odious examples of loaded questions are being asked nowadays by followers of a man unwilling to answer loaded questions — who knew how easily they turn into legalistic pop quizzes designed to disgrace those who hold different convictions.
So, in our text this morning, when the ultra-conservative Pharisees ask what authority he has to teach, he outwits them by answering with another question, and then goes on to tell them a strange little parable not nearly as artistic as most of his — more like a sledgehammer than a riddle: A certain man has two sons. When he asks them both to work in his vineyard, the first one says flatly, “I won’t go.” He is so rude he doesn’t even bother to say “Sir.” The second son says respectfully, “I will go, sir.” But for reasons not spelled out in the parable, the first son changes his mind and goes to do the vineyard work after all, while the second son — after making a promise to do the work, never does it. Which one, the parable asks, actually did the will of his father?
The answer is so obvious it hurts, but that’s the point. Those ultra-religious pillars of the Jewish “church” who are listening say “The first son,” since it’s clear that going to work eventually, after you have repented and come to your senses, is better than saying you will and then never following through. And having led his critics into that judgment, Jesus explains the parable: God is the father, the first son represents every muddled, messed-up human being who even without the support of an organized faith is full of compassionate and kindly service to others, and the second son represents those of us who join churches, solemnly promise to promote peace, justice and brotherhood — and never actually go out to work in those vineyards for as much as a single day…..people vividly described by that modern piece of street slang thrown at someone who talks a big game but never does anything: Hey man! — Walk the talk! I think that Jesus, who pulled no punches himself, would have enjoyed hearing his ministry summed up in those three crisp words! Walk the talk!, which is even shorter than Put up, or shut up!
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon once said about this parable of the two sons: “A man may say, ‘I believe my house is on fire,’ but if he goes to bed and falls asleep it does not look as if he believes it.” Millions of Americans who claim to love Jesus spend more for lottery tickets than they give to church, and far more on pets than on innocent children trapped in poverty. We live in a time when an ever-widening gap between rich and poor threatens to change the whole nature of this free society. Those of us who have been fortunate cry out for tax relief, especially when we see how government wastes money, but none of us seem willing to point out that we are even better at prodigal spending than the government. Every time I drive through exclusive residential sections and see another castle being built for two elderly people who will need an elaborate intercom system so they won’t lose each other, I think to myself: These people are mad about money spent on Head Start, low income housing, protection of the environment? I wonder what thoughts cross their minds each month when they come home from Sunday worship and gladly cash the Social Security check they do not need? And if they cannot see this irony in their lives, what ironies am I missing in mine?
This little parable about the father and his two sons is not very comfortable if lip service is the only kind of service we give, if we forget the words of that short little Scot and towering preacher, George Buttrick, whom I got to hear once: “The ritual of worship without some serious attempt at worthy living is a painted lie.” In a book called A Christian Primer, I read John Mackay’s description of basic Christian life: “Some people,” he says, “try to be Christian believers up in the balcony, up there, detached, dispassionately observing life below. But Christians have to be down on the road, caught in the traffic, jostled by others, amid the cries and sweat and smell of life. Believing,” he insists, “ is a road matter.” This is not to disparage worship. Jesus obviously felt that without worship and prayer we are not likely to find the strength to live nobly. But he felt just as strongly that we cannot say sweetly in our worship, “I will go do the work that needs doing,” and then never go — people who in his indictment, “Preach, but do not practice.” There is a divine rhythm to life, as He saw it: worship, and then neighborliness — ritual and kindness, back and forth, like the swing of a pendulum.
You may think this is all about joining yourself to some great cause or marching on City Hall, but mostly I’m taking about living up to your faith in the most ordinary ways, making the right decision instead of the convenient one. It comes down, often, as in our parable, to the simple matter of whether or not you “go.” Fred Buechner tells of an evening visit to his mother in New York city. She had prepared a gourmet meal for her famous visiting son when the phone rang. On the line was a friend whose family had been seriously injured in an accident. He was waiting for a flight to join them, and he asked Buechner if he would come wait with him at the airport. When Buechner’s mother learned of the request, she was furious. The meal was ready and getting cold. She called him a fool for thinking about ruining a rare evening together for such a ridiculous reason. “And for a moment, Buechner says, “I was horrified to find myself thinking that maybe she was right. Then the next moment I saw more clearly than I ever had before that it is on just such outwardly trivial decisions as this — should I go or should I stay? — that human souls are saved or lost.”
Most of our decisions will be made in small vineyards, but God knows we have work to do also in big ones. Think how much there is to do in building a world fit for children. The air is full of talk about that, of course. If there were an Oscar for exalted rhetoric about children, America would surely win it. But like the second son in the parable we have nodded in agreement while refusing to go unless it costs us nothing. We allow children to go to inner schools that no politician, no businessman, no talkshow host, no well-paid minister would spend one hour in, much less the better part of childhood. So who is going to tell us that regardless of our politics or our theology, America needs a Marshall Plan for its public schools? Not so long ago, after a great war, for economical and humanitarian reasons, we rebuilt Europe. Surely we can make every public school in this country fit for children to be educated in — if we care about children other than our own. Should we? Well, listen carefully for a moment: here we are in this clean lovely little vineyard whose Owner once pointed to a child and said, “Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me. But if anyone is a cause of stumbling to one of these little children, it would be better for that person to have a millstone hung about the neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Ah, gentle Jesus! Would we really want him strolling through our lives once we get away from Sunday morning worship?
I love to find a story that makes the whole point of a sermon in just a few words, and I was lucky again last week. I read about a little boy who headed off for his first day of school wearing a brand new baseball cap. His mom waited with him as he boarded the bus, and she was back to greet him after school. The first thing she noticed was that the cap was gone, so she began the familiar parental tirade. “We just bought you that hat….you HAD TO HAVE that particular hat, remember? It had to be an Atlanta Braves hat. And now, one day at school, and it’s gone.” You know that lecture. We’ve all either gotten it, or given it.
When the little boy finally got a chance to speak, he said: “Mom, my teacher told us that Sandy won’t be in school this year because she’s got this thing that makes all her hair fall out. It’s gonna be getting cold pretty soon, Mom, and I just thought she should have something to keep her head warm.” What was it Someone said? “Believe me, unless you…..become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”