We—ten of us—are sitting in what may very well be one of the nicest rooms in town. What am I saying? This could be one of the nicest rooms in America. The furniture is antique and magnificent. Each piece could fully occupy the most discriminating eye for minutes in a row. Flat surfaces are graced with statues, urns, and carvings collected in a lifetime spent in foreign service in the most exotic places in the world. The tea we sip is Persian, the biscuits we are careful not to crumble on the carpet, are Pepperidge Farm, the only nod—so far as I can tell—to the ordinary.
We have just listened to a sermon. Like I said. There is no ordinary here. We do this every Tuesday afternoon and have for all that matters of two years. We listen and we talk. The preacher confined to audio is granted no rebuttal. No matter, we agree with him often as not, and when we don’t we sometimes keep that to ourselves.
The topic on the carved, well-burled, and burnished, table is God’s (discriminating) mercy. How come he blesses whom he blesses? Namely, most everybody in the well-fed, well-educated, well-placed, well-housed, well-heeled room. Why us? is the question we willingly nod at. Why not the child who will be dead of hideous cancer before our little gathering ends today? Why not the destitute whose sorry lives are spent in dying on the streets of cities where they are no longer visible to passers-by? Why does the God of all creation, the Ruler of the universe, the Holy Eternal One deign to involve himself with me and with my precious, periodic peccadilloes with my erstwhile in-laws and my third-party-paid-for arthroscopic surgery.
How are we to understand this split?
We really want to know. How do we explain it to our well-schooled satisfaction that God seems to dote upon the Haves in preferential distribution of his mercies over the Have Nots? We would, I think, sit here for another hour paying pretty close attention if someone walked through that door right now and offered to explain.
But it’s not until the next morning, sitting in a state of drowsy meditation by the rain-streaked sunroom window that it hits me. We want an explanation. We want to understand. And just how lunatic is that?
Say we are given what we ask for, say God himself or an angel or a human spokesperson with a PowerPoint sits us down and explains the whole inexplicable thing. Say we even get to ask questions at the conclusion of the explanation, till we understand the thing like we have never nor will yet again comprehend a thing in our whole lives. Say the explanation is amazing, even for an angel with a PowerPoint. Say the whole thing makes sense—perfect sense—even to our miniature minds.
Or, put another way, What then?
We call up Air India and take the first flight to Calcutta? And jetlagged and all wrinkled, run up and down the dusty streets, shouting in a sloggy Boston accent, “Listen up. Gather round, folks. Get yourselves over here. I can explain the whole damn thing,” to the beggar far too weak to bear the weight of understanding?
He wants rice.
Let me say it again. He wants rice. And water.
I’m talking about the kingdom of God here.
If we had all understanding, if the starving beggar knew the very mind of God, he would want rice. And water.
And in his place, we would want it too.
And in our place, we make sure he gets it.
We make sure he gets it, or the one who has the questions, the one wanting explanation, is the Lord God.
The one I think who wins the contest for the best question this afternoon is Jesus.
His is loquacious. (He is the word.) In the interest of brevity, I paraphrase: “I pour out blood-bought blessings and mercy on your head, so much that you are unable to contain it,” he says, “and you thank me. You say, Thank you. Thank you very much. Thanks a lot. And then you sit down and you scratch your head. For fifteen or fifty years, you scratch your grace-drenched head, and say, Why me? Why not everyone? And you wonder about that. Every life-blessed day.”
Then Jesus gets that look in his eye, he does that thing he does with the set of his shoulders, and you just know it’s parable time. “There was a child,” he says, “who lived on the street from the day that he was born, who never one day in his life had slept inside or eaten till he had his tiny fill. His only tie to life was one small mother, one crippled father, one small baby sister they passed back and forth between them. These people were his very life to him. And one day, a stranger in a purple shirt, and tight black jeans, wearing a gold earring in one ear, and riding in a scary limousine, pulled up beside him on the street and handed him a paper shopping bag, and it was full of hundred dollar bills, tall stacks of them, held in thick, caramel-colored rubber bands. And when the boy crept into a shrouded doorway, he counted out more than a million dollars. You know the rest. It’s hardly worth the telling. He walked over to a park bench, a nice park bench he’d never seen before, and sat there for all that mattered of the next eighty-seven years, pondering the question—the stumbling block really to being able to believe in God—the question: ‘Why me?’
Some days he muttered it out loud. ‘Why me? Why doesn’t this God you hear so much about bless my mother this way? Why does he not care for my crippled father? Why not bring a doctor to him? Why does He not feed my starving ’
“That’s the story,” Jesus says, and he sits down.
“But wait a minute,” I say. “You said you had a question that you wanted to ask.”
“I do,” Jesus says, scratching his head. “I do.”