Riddles, questions and guessing games seem to dominate our passage in Matthew and even in Exodus today. Here are a few more to wet the appetite and get us in the spirit:
What kind of car does Jesus drive? A Christler.
What kind of motor vehicle is in the Bible? A HONDA...because the apostles were all in one Accord!
OK, one last guessing game. When asked this one, it is said that 80% of kindergarten kids got the correct answer, compared to 17% of Stanford University college seniors. Here goes:
“What is greater than God, more evil than the devil, the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die?” Can you guess the answer? (It’s nothing).
For most people, guessing games, solving riddles, figuring out word games like sudoku, crossword puzzles, or word search puzzles is fun. Listening to a cleverly crafted riddle or joke is a wonderful experience. These kind of games force us to use our cognitive skills, the best of them help us to see things from a new perspective.
Jesus, like many teachers, used riddles and guessing games as a method of teaching. He often cloaked profound messages in stories, parables, riddles and questions. He did this to get people to wake up spiritually, to pay attention, and open their hearts to the good news God sent him to preach.
The temple leaders in today’s text were not in the mood for riddles. They didn’t want to hear what Jesus had to say. To them Jesus was just a trouble maker. Matthew tells us that before this heated debate, Jesus had just overturned the tables of the money changers and drove out of the temple those who were buying and selling – the people who made it difficult for the ordinary person and the poor to afford their sacrifices. Jesus challenged their authority and their deeds. The leaders challenged him back. In doing so they wanted to trap Jesus so they could arrest him. So, they ask Jesus this question, “By whose authority do you do these things?” Who said you can turn the tables, Jesus?
Jesus could have answered them easily. His authority came from God, the Father. However, Jesus knew these leader’s motives were not sincere. They only cared about their lost of revenue, power and their pride. They didn’t care about the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Their hearts were hardened and closed, just like the people of Israel in the desert. So, Jesus played a guessing game with them with this riddle:
“Does the baptism of John come from God or people?”
The Temple leaders found themselves in a corner. Either response would get them in trouble: “If we say John’s authority came from God, then he’ll ask us why we don’t believe him. But if we say John’s authority is of human origin, we’ll get in trouble with the crowd, because they believe John was a prophet.” These leaders weren’t interested in truth. They weren’t interested in engaging a holy riddle. So, in their answer they played it safe, stayed on the fence. “We don’t know” was their reply.
These leaders were playing games, but games not to grow in truth but to keep their heart closed to God. They couldn’t see the divine acting in Jesus. Jesus gave them another guessing game, scandalous to their ears: how sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors, who responded to the message of repentance and mercy, were more righteous before God then these religious leaders.
Not all riddles and guessing games are fun to grapple with. Not all riddles can be solved so easily. Consider the life riddles we grapple with today:
Is a football player kneeling before the American flag during the national anthem disrespectful or prophetic?
Why do the poor and vulnerable seem to suffer the most in earthquakes and hurricanes and other natural disasters?
Why is it difficult for people respect others different than ourselves?
Today on World Communion Sunday, why is the church more divided than ever, with at least 33,000 different denominations in the world?
If only we could come to fast and easy conclusions. If only we could answer like that the hard questions of the world. No wonder the Hebrew word for riddle can also be translated a “dark saying,” or “difficult question.”
No doubt the people of Israel wandering in the desert, encamped at Rephidim, thought God was posing them with a cruel riddle. Why would God lead them out of slavery in Egypt to test them with hunger, thirst and a lack of direction? Why didn’t God just lead them straight to the Promised Land without all this discomfort and pain? It didn’t make sense. But in the end, God provided water, and the passage concludes with this riddle-question, “Is God among us or not?”
The problems with the riddles that Jesus gives us forces us to think, pray and step out in faith. Where is the will of God calling us? It’s hard, especially since God’s will is cloaked in a riddle, we might even change our minds, like the sons in Jesus’ riddle at the end of today’s passage. Which one did the will of his father? The one who says yes then doesn’t go to the vineyard, or the one who says no but changes his mind and goes to the vineyard? Jesus shows us that grace plays a role in changing our minds to aligning our actions to the Father’s will.
What a riddle Jesus was to his followers and to the religious establishment.
Here he was a great authority, but had no “official authority to speak of.” Here was someone who did great things, taught, healed, performed miracles, and had table fellowship with the outcasts. Jesus went to the cross and died, and rose again on the third day. Figure that riddle out.
Our Christian faith is a holy riddle. We confess Jesus, son of God, human and divine. We confess Jesus both crucified and risen. We confess a Triune God, one being, as the revelation of who God is with us. Figure that riddle out.
The question for us is: do we allow the riddles of our faith, in our complex and contradictory world, lead us to follow Jesus more closely and accept people more fully? We’ve all been in the desert. We know what it’s like to be in dire straights and not know where to find help. We’ve all known dangerous, powerful people like those Temple leaders who seem out to thwart others. Our task is to live into the riddle, to let our lives be changed by living the guessing games we face.
We are called to live, like the poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggests:
“Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek for the answers that cannot be given, for you wouldn’t be able to live with them, and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along someday into the answers.”
So guess these riddles:
- What always runs but never walks, often murmurs, never talks, has a bed but never sleeps, has a mouth but never eats? A river
- What is it that we often return but never borrow? (Thanks)
- Every dawn begins with me
At dusk I’ll be the first you see
And daybreak couldn’t come without
What midday centers all about
Daises grow from me, I’m told
And when I come, I end all cold
But in the sun I won’t be found
Yet still, each day I’ll be around. (The letter d).