We like to think of ourselves as people of reason, but as a rule, human beings are not especially rational, especially if we don’t take time to do the math. For instance, in one experiment, people said they would walk 15 minutes to save $8 on a $15 item; but those same people weren’t keen on walking to save the same $8 on a $455 item. That’s not rational: the savings and walking distance are the same no matter how much the item costs. More expensive painkillers have been shown to be more effective than no-name brands – even though they are exactly the same drug. As behavioral economist Dan Ariely has well documented, we think we are making rational decisions, we think we are being reasonable, but all the time our decisions are being shaped and distorted by others and by society. He tells the story of an experiment in which people were offered an all-expenses-paid weekend in Paris, an all-expenses-paid weekend in Rome, and then the researchers added a third option: an all- expenses-paid weekend in Rome, but you had to pay for the coffee. What happened? Once the third, no-coffee option was added, people went crazy for the all-expenses trip to Rome. If you wanted to go to Rome, that was the better choice – coffee was free. But even if you’d wanted to go Paris, suddenly you were convinced Rome was the better choice, and more people chose Rome. The point is our brains aren’t rational in a whole bunch of real-life circumstances outside the experiment room. We need a guide to help us out, to teach us to put our brains on pause and reconsider where we are going with our conclusions.
And that, I would argue, is where God comes in. God is the voice that tells us maybe this is a trick question. God is the whisper that asks: Are you sure this is the right answer? God is the caution: Stop. Think. God is reason.
In today’s gospel, Jesus uses a parable to describe the amazing wonder that is God. Jesus refers to it as the “kingdom of God.” Now I’m not much for the word kingdom. I prefer reign or realm of God—which, by the way, is just as close to the original Greek. The word ‘basileia’ comes from the word for “base” or “foundation.” It refers not to territory, as in kingdom, but to dominion–a semi-autonomous state that is under the sovereignty of another entity. In a way, our own Lutheran World Federation is an example of this. Every Lutheran Church body around the world is semi-autonomous. But every one is also part of the Lutheran family and under the sovereignty of God in Christ.
The kind of kingdom Jesus describes is just like that: it is a realm where the members have choice, the free will to make decisions about their lives, their involvement, their direction, and their future.
And the first choice we get to make is about which kingdom to call our own. You see, when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God or the reign of heaven, he is fully aware that it is not the only way to go. There are other realms that we can choose to be a part of. We make the choice to be a part of the realm that gives life or robs us, and others, of it.
And we make that choice in big ways and in little ones, over and over again throughout our lives. Whenever we choose the life-giving path we choose the reign of God.
But sometimes, we mess up. We all do this, each and every one of us. We make a choice that puts our own selfish wishes over the real needs of the community that surrounds us. We make a choice that wreaks violence on someone else – be it physical, emotional, or spiritual pain. We make a choice that belittles other people according to category – be it ethnicity, or gender, or sexual orientation, or disability, or you-name-it.
When we choose the realm of God, we put aside our own egotistical need to have power over anyone else and we cultivate compassion, understanding, and cooperation.
When we choose the realm of God, we put an end to negative mimetic contagion, we stop all violence, freeing ourselves from the stuff that wants to rob us of life, and we promote true dialogue, empathy, and acceptance.
When we choose the realm of God, we stop the oppression of others, and we foster open-mindedness, willingness to encounter what is new, and appreciation for difference.
When we choose God, we choose reason – we choose to give an added depth, a purpose to our human intelligence. Now, we don’t often talk about God in these terms – reason is more aligned with science than spirituality, and these days religion is usually placed in conflict with science. But in fact, God, and the teachings of Jesus, guide science to the greater good. God requires us to ask scientific questions: Why do I believe this? Why have I assumed this? Why have I chosen this path? That is the gift of reason that God gives, the second thought – no, the BETTER thought – for the trick questions that life throws at us.
That’s the gift that we receive from God. Love in abundance, yes. A place to go for comfort, of course. A community, undoubtedly. But let us never forget: that faith in God also teaches us to be rational – to see the big picture. The hopeful realm of God finds reason in chaos. And that is not a small gift these days when so many people want to tell us how to think and so much of life seems predetermined.
So why, with all our smarts, do we so often fumble that trick question? If it is clear what choices will lead us into this life-giving realm, then why aren’t we all living there all of the time?
There are a tonne of reasons, and we know them all. We get lazy – making sure we get the answer right takes time and energy. We get close-minded: if we have been giving one answer all this time – beating down one group of people – it takes some effort to switch that around – to lifting them up. And we are afraid. We fear that if we go searching for the hard answer – God’s answer – it might not be the easiest, or the most popular, or the answer we want.
Not long ago, an article in The New York Times quoted Harvard professor Kim Thompson as saying that the problem is that “we’re not taught how to cope with uncertainty. We tend to want answers to be in black and white without a whole lot of gray.”
If we are lucky, we meet people in our lives who help us to become comfortable with uncertainty, to take our time with it. Those people are called optimists. For me, my father has always been one of those living-in-the-gray optimists who first helped me see that some of the most important lessons in life are learned in moments of uncertainty, in quiet decision-making, and that the rational position is most often the one that sees beyond your own actions to what may be motivating or influencing those around us. Really smart parents see that their role is not so much to provide answers, but to provide the opportunities for finding them.
When we take a step back and review where a choice will lead us, 9 times out of 10 we know what path to take. We know the road that builds people up. We know the road that is truthful to who we are. We know the path that brings life and peace and hope to those little moments in life that invite us to choose the reign of God. Amen.