Text: Matthew 7: 1 – 5 & John 8: 1 – 11
Did you know that according to biblical scholars, Jesus is asked 183 questions in the gospel narratives and directly answered only 3!? Interesting! His plan, I conclude was to provoke the thinking of his disciples, to encourage contemplation and inner conviction. Our egos, however want answers…we are always eager to resolve a problem and put it to rest. We may be content to accept falsehood rather than to take on the arduous task of searching for the truth. Jesus wanted to keep us on the search. …one that will lead to a vital relationship with God. Jesus was a wisdom teacher…. his questions probing deep to encourage relationship.
One of my favorite wisdom sages, Fr. Richard Rohr has some comments on this, which he wrote as a forward in the book The Questions of Jesus written by Father John Dear. Fr. Rohr writes:
In the realm of soul and spirit, there are not really answers as much as there are answering persons. I am told, for example, that Jesus only directly answers 3 of the 183 questions that he himself is asked in the four Gospels! (I will let you find them!) This is totally surprising to people who have grown up assuming that the very job description of religion is to give people answers and to resolve peoples’ dilemmas. Apparently this is not Jesus’ understanding of the function of religion because he operates very differently. Jesus either keeps silent as with Pilate (John 19:9), returns with another question as with the coin of Caesar (Matthew 22:19), or gives an illustration, as with the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:30f).
When the Pharisees ask for a sign from him (Mark 8:12). Here he out-rightly refuses to respond. He has painfully learned, no doubt, that any attempt to interact with an entrenched position of resentment or ego-fortified suspicion will normally only be used to dig the trench deeper and further fortify the argument. Many times silence, quiet prayer and genuine love for the opponent are the only answers, even though you will be judged harshly in the moment and by any observers. ”
As usual, Fr. Rohr’s words and wisdom hit the mark for me during a time when entrenched positions appear to be the norm in the news! It’s tragic, isn’t it, when good intentions turn ugly….when windows to our understanding are slammed shut? ……When we stop listening to each other with open minds and compassionate hearts. Whether it’s campaigning for political offices, for referendums for or against fair bear hunting or local parking meters, we are too frequently assaulted with angry, misleading rhetoric and ads, as opponents and proponents try hard to get those in entrenched positions to wiggle a bit! Deciding how to cast our vote, requires that we ask the questions and listen to the responses with open minds. Of course we are going to disagree and that is a healthy thing! A pot pourrie of ideas and insights expands our vision and understanding and can move us in new directions….give us fodder for growth.
H. G. Wells was asked once to name the half dozen greatest men in history, and his reply was widely publicized.. By what rule do you measure true greatness? His answer was: “What did he leave to grow? Did he start people to thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? It is significant that a historian, without any theological bias whatever, should find that he cannot portray the progress of humanity honestly without giving a foremost place to a penniless teacher from Nazareth … By the historian’s test of greatness, ‘What did he leave to grow?’ Jesus stands first,” said H. G. Wells.
He did not give us pat answers….. He challenged us to think for ourselves…to develop an inner faith and understanding of the Divine nature and the inner Kingdom that will stand the test of time and trial. Jesus was a lover of questions….encouraging our thinking and being to evolve…expand….as we journey deeper toward spiritual peace and surrender.
I just started to read an interesting book by the Rev. Dr. Charles Kimball, professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University who authored three books about religion in the Middle East. This, his latest book is entitled When Religion Becomes Evil and he identifies what he believes to be the Five Warning signs that religion is becoming destructive…. moving away from the Divine Source of Love: 1. Claims of Absolute Truth, 2. Blind Obedience 3. Establishing the “Ideal” Time, ie the second coming or end of the world based on current events, 4. The End justifies any Means and 5. Declaring Holy War.
What Kimball writes about the danger of “ blind obedience” seems relevant to my musings today: He writes: “ Blind obedience is a sure sign of trouble. The likelihood of religion becoming evil is greatly diminished when there is freedom for individual thinking and when honest inquiry is encouraged. As the Buddha lay on his deathbed, he emphasized human responsibility and used the metaphor of light. He offered these poignant final words to his disciples:
‘ Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in our books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher… Be ye lamps unto yourselves….”
Blind obedience, it seems to me leads to the entrenched positions I was discussing earlier and encourages us to judge others….often quite harshly and irrationally. It also inspires us to judge ourselves harshly for failing to live up to arbitrary laws and unrealistic expectations. If we think we have all the answers and become entrenched in a foxhole of faith that leaves no room for freedom of thought and an evolving relationship with the Divine, we may be quick to conclude that all who disagree or worship differently, we will judge as wrong.
Matthew’s gospel says: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Brennan Manning, author of The Wisdom of Tenderness: What Happens When God’s Fierce Mercy Transforms Our Lives shares this wisdom with us:
“None of us has ever seen a motive. Therefore, we can’t do anything more than suspect what inspires the action of another. For this good and valid reason, we’re told not to judge.
Tragedy is that our attention centers on what people are not, rather than on what they are and who they might become.”
The religious and moral authorities of his time took Jesus to see a woman who had been caught committing adultery. They reminded him that the tradition at that time required that such a person be stoned to death. They asked Jesus what they should do. Knowing that they were bent on tricking him, at first Jesus said nothing, so they asked again. Jesus said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” He did not say, “Let he who has not committed this particular sin cast the first stone.” He said, “Let he who is without sin, period, cast the first stone,” reminding us that we are all frail and fallible. Recognizing this, the religious and moral authorities of his time dropped their stones, one by one, and went away. Jesus turned to the woman and said, “Go, and sin no more.”
Note in the gospel story, all the questions thrown at Jesus, the religious authorities hoping for an answer that would give them grounds for condemnation. At first Jesus did not answer, instead wrote a mysterious message in the sand. Hey, maybe he drew a cartoon or wrote a shopping list! Then he avoided their question completely by saying “ let those without sin cast the first stone.”
This was a response that made them think…while it also made them wicked angry! They dropped their stones and left…and what were they feeling….shame? guilt? anger? Out smarted by Jesus?
I just have to tell you this story!
A prosecuting attorney called his first witness, a grandmotherly, elderly woman, to the stand. He approached her and asked, “Mrs. Jones, do you know me?” She responded, “Why, yes, I do know you Mr. Williams. I’ve known you since you were a young boy. And frankly, you’ve been a big disappointment to me. You lie, you cheat on your wife, you manipulate people and talk about them behind their backs. You think you’re a rising big shot when you haven’t the brains to realize you never will amount to anything more than a two-bit paper pusher. Yes, I know you.” The lawyer was stunned. Not knowing what else to do he pointed across the room and asked, “Mrs. Williams, do you know the defense attorney?” She again replied, “Why, yes I do. I’ve known Mr. Bradley since he was a youngster, too. I used to baby-sit him for his parents. And he, too, has been a real disappointment to me. He’s lazy, bigoted, he has drug problem. The man can’t build a normal relationship with anyone and his law practice is one of the shoddiest in the entire state. Yes, I know him.” At this point, the judge rapped the courtroom to silence and called both counselors to the bench. In a very quiet voice, he said with menace, “If either of you asks her if she knows me, you’ll be jailed for contempt!”
Hey….we’re all guilty of something, aren’t we!?
Jesus’ teachings are tough for sure. How can we not judge!? Of course we know that there are horrific acts going on in this universe by sick, depraved, confused, angry, hateful, frightened, mis-guided folks who are destroying lives and threatening the well being of all of us. Of course we judge them as wrong and believe they must be punished for their acts. Does Jesus really mean that we should “turn the other cheek” and allow this behavior to continue? Of course not! Jesus was appalled at the injustice and oppression going on in his time. Outraged at the greed , the prejudice and lack of compassion and love that he witnessed. … the treatment of the poor and marginalized. He judged this behavior to be wrong, didn’t he!?
Of course he did and so do we! I am not talking today about the evil systems that invade our peaceful dwelling places, about thoughtless, destructive acts that destroy our planet and the precious variety of life on it, about violent behavior that kills and terrorizes…actions that move our society far away from God’s dream of a peaceful kingdom. I believe that the texts today are referring to our interpersonal relationships…. the way we treat one another…the way our personal attitude and behavior… the words we choose… either encourages or diminishes others. Whether our actions are kind and loving or hateful and negative. About whether we are quick to judge and condemn one another or forgive and move on, as Jesus did.
Let those without sin cast the first stone.
Ram Dass, well known spiritual teacher and author wrote:
Watch how your mind judges. Judgment comes, in part, out of your own fear. You judge other people because you’re not comfortable in your own being. By judging, you find out where you stand in relation to other people. The judging mind is very divisive. It separates. Separation closes your heart. If you close your heart to someone, you are perpetuating your suffering and theirs. Shifting out of judgment means learning to appreciate your predicament and their predicament with an open heart instead of judging.
Mother Theresa said simply: “ If we judge others, we will have no room to love them.”
The wise spiritual mystic Henri Nowwen is quoted as saying:
“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to putting people and things in their “right” place.”
In the gospel of Luke, we find one of the most powerful of the question and answer encounters. A lawyer ( again a lawyer!!) stood up and , wanting to test Jesus, asked “ What do I have to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus answered him with a question: What does the law say?
“ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Right…. you got it! Now do it and you shall live.” Then the lawyer asked another question: “ Well, who is my neighbor?” And how did Jesus answer him? With a story, the well know parable of the Good Samaritan. Not only does this story teach kindness and compassion, but it addresses the conflict between Jews and Samaritans, Samaritans being judged as unclean and wicked. Jesus makes him a hero!
As Margaret Silf said in the quote I included on the back of the bulletin: The most harmful elements in our human living are not the infamous weapons of mass destruction, but the small but constant stabs of spite and malice we inflict on each other in polite conversation…all that we say and do to diminish the level of love in the world.
Most all of Jesus’ questions and answers lead us to a place of love…to a transformation of consciousness where we see the divine spirit in one another. Let those without sin cast the first stone.