St Mary’s, Robinson–Matthew 22:34-46
In Archibald MacLeish’s classic drama based on the Old Testament story of Job, the title character JB frames the terms of an impossible dilemma: “If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God.”
If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God
Hurricanes, wildfires, an out-of-control deadly virus, escalating racial tensions and a toxic political environment all certainly support such an assertion. We can add to this mix all manner of personal misfortune. We all know somebody whose livelihood has been undermined by the pandemic. Where is God when a family needs to eat and pay its bills and can’t do so? At any given moment, somebody we know is dying, or grieving a death. What kind of God allows such sorrow to happen among those whom he professes to love? All around us in central and southern Illinois, there are victims of poverty and racism and various forms of violence. What kind of God allows husbands to beat their wives and a young person walking down the street to be labeled by others as the enemy just because of his physical appearance?
If God is God, then he is not good; if God is good, then he is not God
Sometimes, as we search for answers to these questions, we may surmise that God is somehow testing us. We think of Job, who, according to the story, God allowed to be tested by Satan,
to suffer all sorts of unimaginable loss, just to see whether he would curse God. When horrible things happen, we may think that perhaps God is testing us. Or we may tell ourselves that it’s just part of God’s mysterious will, in a way we cannot explain, and that everything will work out OK in the end. Responses such as these are sometimes the best we can do under difficult circumstances, and I certainly don’t fault anybody for coming up with them. But there comes a point, eventually, when they are intellectually and spiritually unsatisfying. They seem like cop-outs. They allow us to feel like we’re “religious” and “people of faith,” but they give us that feeling at the expense of our connection with reality—or at least with what feels like reality.
Of course, many take what seems like an obvious way out: There is no God. That way, God is neither God nor good. There just is no God. So there’s nobody who’s personally responsible for bad things that happen, and there’s nobody whose job it is to rescue good and innocent people from those bad things. Bad things just happen. Tectonic plates shift. Low pressure systems become tropical storms. The wind just blows; it isn’t capable of caring about what’s in the way.
There is no God.
Or, if you’re fearful of taking the full-blown atheist option, there’s always the variation—it’s called deism: God is out there somewhere, but just doesn’t care. This resolves JBs dilemma by removing half of it: God is God, he just isn’t particularly good. This was a way of thinking that was particularly popular about 300 years ago, and had a great influence on Christians everywhere, particularly in the Church of England—both in England and in the American colonies.
Either of these responses, however—the atheistic or the deistic—leads ultimately to cynicism and despair. It’s just no appealing way to live. Even if one of them turned out to be true, what good would it be? Most of us would rather live with a pleasant fantasy or illusion than with a truth that horrible. It takes us only to hopelessness spiraling downward into purposeless dissipation and despair.
This is an election season, as I’m sure we are more than sufficiently aware! Politicians are being peppered with questions from the media in all forms. The smart ones are adept at not being trapped by a question that poses what seems like an impossible dilemma. Their advisors are constantly telling them, “Look, you do not have to accept the premise of the question.” You do not have to accept the premise of the question. Don’t let yourself be led into a false dilemma. Find a way to turn their question into the one you do want to answer. Make them accept your premise.
My brothers and sisters, today’s good news is that God refuses to accept the premises with which we approach him. God refuses to let himself be trapped by the dilemmas that we pose. Instead, he leads us to answer his questions. We see the pattern for this in Jesus’ interaction with his adversaries in the final weeks of his public ministry. Last week it was in the question of whether a faithful Jew at the time should pay the poll tax to the Roman government. Then there is an episode that we don’t have in Matthew’s ‘Year A’ version; we read Luke’s account of it in Year C. It’s the dilemma about the seven brothers who all marry the same woman, in succession, after the previous bother/husband has died. Whose wife will she be in the world to come? Now we have the narrative climax to a long game of rhetorical cat-and-mouse:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”
Now, there were some 613 distinct statutes in the Torah, the Law of Moses. Whichever one Jesus picked, he risked offending the fans of the other 612! At first it looks like he’s going to take their bait:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.
But, in fact, Jesus refuses to accept the premise of their question. In other words, he refuses to accept the notion that there is indeed one of the 613 that is greater than all the others. He continues:
And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.
This statement by our Lord is known by Christians as the Summary of the Law, and it has a particularly privileged place in the Anglican liturgical inheritance. Our first moral obligation cannot be separated from our second moral obligation. If we love God without loving our neighbor, then we do not really love God. And if we do not love God, then we are not capable of really loving our neighbor. And, for Jesus’ original Jewish audience, the other 611 laws in the Torah were certainly not abrogated by anything he said; quite the opposite: Each of them became a thread in the fabric, a concrete expression of the fundamental duty to love both God and neighbor. As he so often does, Jesus here refuses to accept an implied false dilemma, and instead reframes the question so as to get to its essential meaning without taking the trouble to deal with some messy but secondary issues relating to form and style.
But that’s not all. Jesus doesn’t rest after sliding between the horns of the dilemma his adversaries thought they’d hung him on. He keeps going, and proceeds to best them in their own strategy of posing false dilemmas!
Jesus asked them a question, saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet’? If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions.
So, instead of falling into the Pharisees’ trap by answering their question as they posed it, Jesus ends up making them answer his question! Or they try, at least—they are, in fact, unable to answer it, and walk away from the encounter clearly having been defeated.
If we’re observant, we find here a clue to how God deals with us. He refuses to accept the premise of Job’s dilemma, and JB’s modern version of that dilemma: “If you’re God, you’re not good, and if you’re good, you’re not really God.” And in the same way, God refuses to accept the premise of any dilemma that we might put to him. In his loving desire to save us—to save us from ourselves, from our egocentricity, from pride and envy and anger and lust and sloth and greed, and mostly our own sheer stupidity and ignorance—in order to save us from ourselves, God makes us respond to his questions. This is God’s way of—as one might say—keepin’ it real. Amen.