Hard Answers to Easy Questions

By Russ Levenson Jr.

I like it when the problems are solved quickly, but you know while most of us would probably like our problems solved easily, without much effort, it usually does not happen that way; and the harder the problem, the harder the solution. Jesus seemed to know this better than anyone. I sometimes wonder if the apostles every got tired of Jesus’ meandering answers to their simple questions. Peter comes to Jesus and says, “How many times shall I forgive my brother?”

Peter was no doubt expecting Jesus to say something like “Three!” But Jesus launches into a long parable about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants, and on he goes. Somebody else comes us and says “Should we pay taxes?” Jesus says, “Bring me a coin and let’s talk about it.”

And, boy, when you get to asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven, he never says things like “Oh! Streets of gold! Endless barbeque and pecan pie! Caribbean beaches!” He always, always goes off on some tangent about what the “kingdom of heaven is like”: “It’s like ten brides who come out with lamps … it’s like treasure hidden in a field … like a pearl of great value.” Don’t you know some days, the Apostles just wanted to say, “Oh, come on Jesus. I’m asking a really simple question. Can’t you just give me an easy answer?”

In today’s gospel, here we go again. As it is in our day, the religionists of Jesus’ time spent a great deal of time arguing about who was in and who was out, when it came to the final judgment. For most, the answer was pretty black and white. Live a life that looks godlike, and you make the grade; take a wrong turn here or there, and you get the greased pole.

Jesus puts the brakes on any kind of easy answer. He tells his listeners about “good seed,” a metaphor Jesus used to describe how people respond to God’s grace and follow his gospel.

But he also acknowledges that mixed in among this good seed are weeds, “the sons of the evil one.” Jesus knows that most farmers do not want weeds mixed in among their wheat, and so their tendency will be to rip them out of the ground to be burned. But then Jesus suggests something altogether different. The problem in ripping up the weeds is that until everything is fully grown, it is hard to distinguish one from the other. So, Jesus advises waiting until everything is fully mature.

The second thing Jesus says is that the wise farmer, who has waited until just the right time to pick the wheat and the weeds, will then separate the good from the bad. The good, who are the children of God, will, he says, “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The bad, however, will be thrown into “the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

They likely wanted an easy answer to an easy question: “Who makes the grade with God?” Jesus gives a hard answer: “Some will and some won’t; but that is not your decision to make — it is God’s, and you are just going to have to leave it at that.”

It seems to me that we are living in a kind of “wheat and weeds moment” now. We have, now, a horrific tragedy as a fruit of the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine; the growing scourge of violence, and death, in the name of religion spreading through Iraq and Syria, threatening the borders of Jordan and Turkey; the exchange of rocket fire and now ground conflict between Israel and Hamas; and even here, on our own border, a crisis as thousands flee into our country, trying to escape the scourge of poverty and violence, but at the same time testing the limits of how much our border states can actually do.

For some, the answers seem pretty easy. At whatever costs, go to any length, get the bad guys and make sure the good guys win. That is my knee-jerk reaction. I’m tired of all the conflict and problems. Frankly, I am terribly disappointed that some of our nation’s leaders are not making full use of the strength of moral leadership that our free nation should provide, both at home and abroad. But knee-jerk reactions are usually fraught with human frailty; and they carve God’s guidance and intervention out of the mix.

What follows is my struggle with my internal desire to have an easy answer to what seems like an easy question. What I have found, once again, is that often Jesus’ answer to our easy questions is harder than we might like. Allow me, if you will, to give you an example from my recent sabbatical.

Two months ago, I thought I had it pretty straight in my head who the bad guys were and who the good guys were in the Holy Land. But then Laura, Father Marty, and I traveled to Israel. Six weeks ago, we were walking in areas where air-raid sirens now sound almost daily. We walked through Jewish areas, Christian areas, Muslim areas — all three within the walls of Old Jerusalem. Many of you have been there, or read about it, and you know exactly what I am talking about.

We also went into Palestinian territory. You have to go into the West Bank if you want to visit Bethlehem. We made our way under a large sign warning Jews that they were now entering, basically, enemy terrain. Once across the border, we stood under the large concrete wall, over 25 feet tall, built by Israel in an attempt to contain Palestinians, with the hope of keeping potential terrorists at bay.

As we made our way to Jesus’ birthplace, we saw small shops, cafes, and one coffee shop with the name “Star and Bucks.” One of the first fellows we met was a city official who warmly greeted us. He was a Christian who, when he found out we were Christians, went back to his car and returned with one of these for each of us: a “Jerusalem cross.” “A gift for you,” he said. We were reminded that as Israel is home to Muslims, Jews, and Christians, so it is in Palestine — a place where many Christians are the actual descendants of Jesus’ followers.

We went into a little shop run by a Muslim. After we looked around a bit, he would not let us leave until we accepted his hospitality, drank tea with him, broke bread with him, and left with gifts of oil, soil, and water from the place where Jesus was born. And then we left, crossing back into Israel — the place considered by many Palestinians as enemy territory.

Before you think I lean one particular way or another, remember I’m a Christian with a Jewish name. My grandfather descended from the Rabbinical Tribe of Levites; my grandmother was the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor; and I have another forbear who was a Creek Indian. You can’t pigeonhole your rector.

Despite what political pundits and commentators on the left, right, and in between suggest, there is no easy answer. When you and I try to sift wheat from chaff, the good from the bad, in today’s very complex world, we are playing God; and according to Jesus, we simply can’t go there; that really is “no man’s land.”

Scripture is clear, again and again. God does not play favorites when it comes to his love. “For God so loved the world,” in the verse we all know — not “this part of the world,” but the whole world; not just these people or those, but all of them. “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight” — remember that wonderful children’s tune? We could stand to begin each day singing it, praying it.

In the face of this terribly vexing day in which you and I are living, what is the primary duty of the Christian? That really is the question we need to ask. You and I are not to take marching orders from political pundits and news outlets. When we are besieged with anger or fear or confusion, we are to run into the arms of the one Paul reminds us of in the lesson from Romans: our Abba, our Father, literally translated, our “Daddy.”

I am not suggesting we be naïve. There are bad people out there. Many of them are doing good people harm; many of them want to do the United States harm. I am not suggesting there are not viable and vast opportunities for diplomatic and political solutions. There certainly are. And while I want an end to all war everywhere, I am not a pacifist, I believe there are, as Augustine theorized, times when, sadly, war is justified. I am asking, in light of Jesus’ parable on wheat and weeds: What is our primary duty toward those who differ from us; toward those we may be so tempted to quickly lump into the weed pile?

On our last day in Jerusalem, Laura, Marty and I had dinner in the small apartment of a wonderful woman in her 80s named “Fide,” or “Faithful.” We feasted on grape leaves and squash filled with lamb and rice, until we could eat no more; and then, as is their tradition, eating turned to coffee and conversation. Fide’s two sons were Arab Palestinians, and they were Christians, serving as leaders in a small Baptist congregation. We talked a lot about their church and their work. “How can we help you?” I asked.

“That’s easy! We want people to know that along with Muslims in Palestine, there are Christians, and our numbers are growing!” That was an easy answer to an easy question. But I had another one for Fide.

You see, I knew that Fide grew up in Beit Shean, one of the Decapolis cities of Rome, and absorbed into modern Israel at its founding in 1948. She remembers the day when soldiers showed up at her house and told the family they had two hours to vacate their home. Loaded onto a bus, they were carried away from their home to the foothills of Nazareth, where they were dropped with only the belongings they could carry.

So, I asked an easy question, “Fide, you remember, you have seen what has happened to your country, to all of Israel. What do you think the answer is?” She sighed, dropped her head a bit, and said, “My father was a Christian, and he told us to forgive, so the answer is to forgive, to love, to pray.” Easy for me to say; not so for her.

To forgive is the power you hold to eradicate the force of evil that infects the world. Forgiveness makes impotent the wounds of the past; and buries them beneath the gentle soil of mercy.

To love is the power God gives you to convert darkness into light. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Whom you would change, you must first love.” That great old song we like to sing here is “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Love is the unforbidden fruit that the Jesus says is the greatest of all laws.

And pray. Pray for peace. You and I need to pray, daily, for peace. Toward that end, I quote our former president, and St. Martin’s parishioner George H.W. Bush, who knew well the price of war: “peace is in the interest of all parties; war to the absolute advantage of none.”

You know Jesus told us to pray for one another, and he told us to pray for our enemies. He did not tell us to pray at our enemies, such that they would agree with us. He told us to pray for them, that our concern for them might, in some miraculous way, melt divisions into peace. Pray for peace. Pray with all your heart for peace.

This is important to understand, because the principles of Jesus’ teaching apply not just to war-worn places around the globe, but to where you and I are right now. It is a scary place out there. The demonic powers that seek to tear the Middle East apart, that seek to split Jesus’ land wide open, are just as happy when they settle into Houston and work hard to find ways into our homes and hearts on this side of the world.

There is a way to disarm that evil, but it is not to return evil for evil. If you are like me, you wish there was an easy answer to all the darkness in the world. But there is not. The answer is to forgive, to love, to pray. That may be the hardest answer we will ever hear. In the end, from a human perspective, it may seem, well, impossible. Then again, the woman who gave me that answer was named Fide … faithful. She knows what she’s talking about.

The Rev. Dr. Russell J. Levenson Jr. is rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston.


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