Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Unasked Question

Jesus told a story once, about a man just bursting with success. He surveyed with satisfaction all the grain piled up to the roof of his barns, the yield of the land he owned. Only one thing troubled him. The barns were full, but the harvest was not yet all gathered in. “Where would he put the waiting wheat?” he asked himself. Left in the fields, it would rot. “I know,” he answered himself. “I’ll tear down these barns and build bigger ones to hold all this harvest gold.” Then he made plans for the perfect retirement: “And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Luke 12:19). (He was obviously a man much given to talking to himself.) However, God had plans for a different kind of retirement: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' (Luke 12:20). The moral of the story, Jesus says, is this: “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

The man’s real problem, it appears, is the limited circle of his conversation. He talks to himself, listens to his own advice, and acts on it. He does not even think of consulting God. There is a telling passage in the book of the prophet Isaiah. Here God is speaking to the city of Jerusalem as it prepares for a siege: “In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many, and you collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or have regard for him who planned it long ago” (Isaiah 22:8-11). In other words, you asked yourself what you needed to protect the city, and you listened to your own answer: you gathered weapons, you strengthened your defenses, you collected water. But you did not ask me, who gave you the city and lived there with you. The Jerusalem war committee had a good reason not to ask God. God had already told them to trust in him and not in their own utterly inadequate resources for war against a far more powerful enemy, Babylon. They didn’t like that answer, so they didn’t ask the question. Perhaps that was the rich landowner’s strategy also, for he belonged to the nation whom the prophets had chastised in God’s name for centuries for hoarding wealth rather than using it to care for the orphan and the widow and the starving poor. If you don’t ask, you won’t hear the unwanted answer you suspect is coming.

We see a different version of this story in the life of Joseph, husband of Mary. When Joseph discovers that his betrothed is pregnant with a child not his, he finds himself in a dilemma. According to the law, she could be stoned to death, although scholars say that it is not clear how often that law was invoked by the time of Jesus. Even if she was not condemned to death, she would certainly be disgraced. So, apparently, he asks himself what he should do.

He is a just man, St. Matthew tells us, and does not want to see her shamed publicly. So he answers his own question by deciding to divorce her quietly. (It is a little difficult to imagine how this might save her from public disgrace—she is still a single pregnant mother, probably a young teenager.) That night, of course, God sends an angel with a different answer: “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:20-21).

Joseph was a just man, that is, an observer of the mosaic Law. He did not exactly ignore God in his debate about what he should do, but he assumed he knew what God would say because he knew his options under the law. (Scholars point out that the opinion that the law obligated him to divorce Mary is not justified, but he could not, as a just observer of the Law, unite himself with a woman who had offended so seriously against it.) But, as far as the story goes, he did not actually ask what God wanted him to do in this troubling situation. God told him anyway, as God told the rich man and the leaders of Jerusalem—and God’s way was not Joseph’s way anymore than it was the way of the landowner or the city: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isaiah 55:8). (One of God’s irritating habits is to answer questions he has not been asked, so persistent is he in his desire to lead us to happiness despite our best efforts to go somewhere else.)

The first moral of Jesus’ story is to lay up treasure not for ourselves but for God, but the second moral goes even deeper: if any of these biblical characters had asked God rather than themselves what they should do, they would have found themselves sent down surprising roads, not always to their own comfort but always to their good. The unasked question is the one that traps us in the dead ends of our own too-small minds.

©2008 Abbey of St. Walburga

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