A Theological Dilemma
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Today's Gospel reading is filled with bits and pieces. Jesus on a journey, his face set to go to Jerusalem; his entry into a village of the Samaritans who would not receive him; his moving on to another village that would receive him; and, then a series of requests from several who expressed a desire to follow him. Requests that were rebuffed with impatient and puzzling responses.
It would seem, however, that the essence of what Jesus is saying to his potential followers in these puzzling responses is that, “My journey and the kingdom of God come before all else. Forget your dying parents; forget your family; forget your fields, your animals, and your livelihood. Nothing in your life is as important as your commitment to follow me on my journey to Jerusalem.”
“We need to keep moving on. If you cannot drop everything in your life now, right now, and follow me, you are not “fit for the kingdom of God.”
Pretty strong words – drop everything in your life now, right now, and follow me on my journey or you are not fit for the kingdom of God.
How are we to interpret these demands that fly in the face of prudence, responsibility, accountability, and just plain old common sense?
For many of us, the demands made by Jesus in this passage from Luke create a very real theological dilemma. They leave us wondering, “How can I justify leaving all responsibility behind, and still believe that I am living a Christian life? What does Jesus mean when he says I am not fit for God's Kingdom unless I abandon my family, my work, and the life that I have created for myself in order to follow him?”
The theological dilemma that Jesus presented to his followers, is not unlike many dilemmas created by the events and demands that we encounter in today's world. Events and demands that pose a deep incongruity between what we believe and what we are being asked to do. Events and demands that are frequently, for those of us who take scripture and our baptismal covenant to heart, almost impossible to resolve with true peace of mind.
Theological dilemmas – situations that cause stress and anxiety. Situations that cause us to re-examine our belief system and the comfort of the world that we have built for ourselves within that belief system. Theological dilemmas – situations that can literally make or break us.
This morning – I am going to focus on theological dilemmas; how we handle them, and how we learn from them.
What is a theological dilemma anyway?
St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, a philosopher and theologian, defined the Latin equivalent of theological, theologica, as “reasoning or discussion concerning the deity.” Richard Hooker, an Anglican priest and theologian, defined theology as “the science of things divine.” Essentially, theology is the use of various forms of analysis and discussion to help understand, explain, defend and/or promote various religious beliefs and/or topics.
As Episcopalians, we develop, perhaps without knowing it, our own personal theologies. These theologies help us understand our religious tradition; they help us understand other religious traditions; and, they help us understand our religion in comparison to others. They provide the foundation for a unique and individual code of ethics that guides us in dealing with relationships and current life situations. They provide a framework for our understanding and interpretation of world situations.
Put another way, our personal theology, based on our interpretation of scripture, the traditions of our Church, and the culture in which we live, is the framework for our religious beliefs and our way of being in the world. It is the tool that we use each and every day to understand the world, and what is going on around us in the world – both environmentally and physically.
Whether we know it or not, we all have a personal theology that shapes our attitudes and behaviors, helps us negotiate life's situations, and provides us with some small understanding of what our life, and life in general, is all about.
A theological dilemma is a situation that seriously challenges our personal theology. Our personal comfort zone of the hows and whys of life is quite suddenly in direct opposition to what is being asked of us, or what is going on around us. This incongruity forces us to ask ourselves, “Are my beliefs valid, or have I been wandering down the wrong path.”
A theological dilemma frequently causes confusion, anxiety, anger, and not infrequently, a feeling of being lost and alone. The outcome of dealing with a theological dilemma can frequently cause discomfort and a disruption in a life that previously had felt calm and settled.
In today's Gospel reading, Jesus causes a big theological dilemma for those who ask to follow him on his journey to Jerusalem. Jesus says to them, “Follow me and leave everything else behind.”
I am sure that you can see the dilemma that Jesus posed for both of the men who offered to follow him on his journey to Jerusalem. In Jesus' culture, children -- especially sons -- were the only social security. If you had sons, they (and their wives and children) were expected to stick around to take care of you until you died, and then to make sure you get a proper burial. According to tradition, the very least that you could do to "honor your father and mother" (Exodus 20:12) is to take care of them when they grow old and are dying.
But in today's passage, Jesus says, in effect, “you have absolutely no obligation toward an earthly father; your only obligation is to your heavenly Father.” Wow – Jesus said that?
He did. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus called people to drop their nets and their plows, leave their families and their villages, and follow him.
This demand creates a theological dilemma – how do you honor your father and mother, and do your duty toward family, neighbor, and work according to Christian tradition; and, at the same time, drop everything and follow Jesus. What does this mean? How is it to be implemented?
All of us experience theological dilemmas, in one way or another, on a daily basis. Some are quite minor and easily resolved. Others are far more difficult to negotiate. These are the situations that force us to examine our personal theologies and to spend significant time, in conversation, reflection, and prayer in our attempt to make decisions about how to proceed in resolving the dilemma.
An example might be trying to decide whether or not, after years of turmoil, to deliver a “tough love” ultimatum to an alcoholic or drug addicted child or spouse by saying, “No more. I want you out of this house immediately, and do not expect any financial bailouts from this moment forward.” This tough love move is in direct opposition to our daily efforts to follow Jesus by “seeking the Christ in all persons and loving our neighbors as ourselves.”
In making a “tough love” decision we may be forcing someone onto the streets and possibly into jail. Is this a Christian thing to do? What would God have to say about this? What would Jesus do if he were in our shoes?
Of course, there are no answers to these questions. They are just that – questions; important questions.
There are no rights or wrongs in solving our theological dilemmas. We simply do the best we can, making every effort to “follow Jesus, while tending to our personal lives as responsibly and realistically as possible.
The theologian Marcus J. Borg says,
“...questioning also serves a necessary religious function: it prevents us from thinking that there can ever be a final formulation of “the way things are.” Our words and concepts, no matter how sacred or scientific, can only point to a stupendous and wondrous Mystery beyond all language. That is their function: they are pointers, and some point better than others. Sometimes language can even mediate the Mystery, the sacred.
But none of our “tenets or traditions” can be the last word, the final word. They are creatures, creations. To think of them as absolute is to give them a status that belongs to God alone.”
Borg does not believe that the Bible can be taken literally if it is to be taken seriously. He views the Bible as a lens through which we can view the Divine. The lens helps us to see God. The Bible, therefore, becomes our mediator - a means, not an end in the formation of our personal theologies, and the way in which we live them out in our day-to-day lives.
To question; to use the Bible as a lens through which we can see the Divine; to become engaged in the practice identifying our personal theology; to grow continually and endlessly through struggling with theological dilemmas both large and small, is to hear Jesus saying, “Follow me.”
Our theological dilemmas are simply a starting point. Other questions must follow – “Where am I to follow you?” - “How am I to follow you?” - “What does following you really mean in this particular situation?”
The questions are many; the conversations with God endless; the prayers for guidance, strength, courage, and compassion unceasing. But, the goal is always the same. The goal is to be on the road, our face set to Jerusalem, following Jesus.