Have You No Answer?
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Mark 15: 1-5, 25-39
Palm Sunday Service
At a recent meeting of the Colorado State Legislature, Rep. Tom Sullivan got up to the microphone as he does every other Friday the legislature is in session. He announced that this was the 448th Friday since his son Alex was shot to death in the Aurora Theater massacre in 2012. “I am here to remind you daily what gun violence looks like,” he announced.
But this time someone chose to respond. Representative Richard Holtorf got up to the microphone right after him. “We must understand,” he said, “that maybe there is a time when God needs the spirit of those children to do something in heaven.” He advised his colleague that the time had come for him to “let go” of the loss of his son.
You can agree or disagree with either of the state representatives when it comes to gun rights or gun violence, but I find Rep. Holtorf’s assertion that “that maybe there is a time when God needs the spirit of those children to do something in heaven” to be, well, disappointing. There is certainly nothing in scripture to justify such an idea. It implies a level of divine callousness that would make God contemptible, as if God causes the violent death of children for personal ends that matter more than the terror of those children or the grief of those who love them or the loss to the world of that life’s potential.
As if God did not grieve with us at the death of anyone, but especially of a child.
Many of us find it uncomfortable to ask God “why” there is suffering and pain. I’d say that raising questions about the meaning of suffering is far better than coming up with answers like that.
In our Gospel reading for today Jesus is brought before the Roman Proconsul, Pontius Pilate, by his accusers, a group of priests including the high priest of the Jerusalem temple. They bring their charges to Pilate, who is the judge who holds Jesus’ life in his hands. Those charges include attempting to lead a rebellion and asserting that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Most High.”
Pilate is not convinced. But when he presses Jesus for an answer, Jesus refuses to respond. “Have you no answer?” Pilate says, amazed. “See all the charges they have brought against you.”
“But Jesus had no further reply.”
You could fairly accurately say the same thing about God. In this Gospel lesson God, in the form of Jesus Christ, is on trial for his life. The charges are brought. Why do you do things this way? Why are things the way they are? If you are loving, why do you allow it? If you are God, why don’t you change it? Have you no answer?
But God has no further reply.
There is a second question in our passage today, but this time it is a question that comes from Jesus himself. It comes from Jesus hanging on the cross, crucified between two bandits, taunted by onlookers, abandoned by his disciples. “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus asks. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus has reversed roles here. No longer is he God, on trial in a human court. Now he is a human being, and he’s raising a question—possibly an accusation—against God. God, why have you abandoned me?
We don’t like Jesus asking this question—because it’s the question we ask. It’s all the questions you and I have about everything, all boiled down to its essence: Where are you, God? Have you abandoned us? Are you there at all?
We don’t like it that Jesus asks this question because this is precisely the question we expect Jesus to answer. And we want the answer to be clear and concise and to cover all the bases. Oh, so that’s why people suffer! So that’s why people die! It’s all so clear now. I fully and completely understand it all now and can now accept all of life’s vicissitudes and my mortal fate with equanimity, because Jesus has given me such a clear and sensible and unshakeable answer.
Austrian psychotherapist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl wrote that rather than thinking of ourselves as asking questions of life, we do well to think instead that life asks us a question. “It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to those questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”
Ultimately that is how Jesus answers the questions—both the one he asks and the one he is asked. Jesus didn’t say anything in response to Pilate’s question, “Have you no answer?” but that is hardly the same as not answering. It’s just that the answer wasn’t given in words—it was given in actions. It was given in how he lived his life and in how he faced his death.
Remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Jesus in the Garden was in that moment praying the prayer we all pray when we face our darkest moments: “Lord, you are all powerful: you can take this away. You can make it disappear. Please, make it disappear.” And for Jesus, what happened then is what often happens to us: it doesn’t go away. It doesn’t disappear. God doesn’t make it go away.
And then the moment came, the terrible moment arrived. The entire time he did not resist, or fight, or refuse to accept his destiny. He took responsibility for it. Even though he felt abandoned and alone, as we know he did when he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”, as we ourselves do when we have to traverse the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Jesus accepted the path that he was on. He didn’t blame it on God for taking him someplace he didn’t want to go. He didn’t fight or resist, and in that sense he accepted his destiny; but at the same time he challenged his accusers’ actions. Critically in his own trial before the Sanhedrin, he asserts his identity as the Son of God and so actually seals his fate—it’s this statement that convinces his enemies he has to die.
His refusal to resist physically, while at the same time asserting absolutely his identity and purpose, are proof of him taking total responsibility for the path he was on. God wasn’t making him do this. He was choosing it. He took responsibility.
The answer, ultimately, to the question of why does God allow suffering and evil and all those terrible, awful things, is not an answer that can be put into words. To put that answer into words is to minimize it, to make something we can control or explain away. God does not answer that question for us in words because God does not want to trivialize something so important. God instead answers with an extraordinary action, an extraordinary, inexplicable, unbelievable event: God becomes a human being. God walks among us as one of us. God is tried in a human court and found wanting. God is tortured and nailed to a tree as a criminal and dies.
A friend made a good analogy recently. She said that the rational mind is like a railroad hand cart or pump trolley: you know, those things you see in cartoons that have one person on each end pumping the cart along the track to keep it moving. That’s the rational mind trying to come up with a rational explanation for everything.
But coming straight at it from the other direction is the irrational, unconscious mind just like a high-speed locomotive, and it will just run right over that little pump trolley like it wasn’t even there.
That’s the problem with our attempts at rational explanations for psychologically complex and emotional issues like suffering, evil and death. The power of the unconscious and inexplicable easily overwhelms all our rational, clearly thought-out responses. For something to make sense at an unconscious level it must go deeper than the rational. It must go beyond the realm of words or even the realm of logical thought. Only a soul response can touch the soul.
God doesn’t answer with words. God doesn’t say: “Oh, suffering is good,” or “It serves a purpose.” God does something completely irrational and unreasonable and even contrary to the very nature of what we imagine God to be. God offers no explanation for suffering except to suffer with us. Only a soul response can touch the soul—and this is a divine soul response.
God suffers and dies and doesn’t explain it away but simply takes responsibility for it. “In case you were wondering,” God says, “I take responsibility for this. I hate death too, but I own it. I own it so much I’m willing to die myself. I can’t explain suffering away—but I can suffer with you.”
There’s a lot of theological debate about what Jesus meant when he cried “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did God somehow really abandon Jesus at that moment? I’ve no idea. It’s hard to imagine how Jesus could both be God and be abandoned by God at the same moment.
But I think we can relate to Jesus’ being two things at once, being torn between opposite feelings, because in a crisis we are that way, too. Jesus’ balancing act between faith and despair, between confidence in God and that sense of abandonment, that sense of both trusting and doubting, is a profoundly human experience. It is perhaps the truest test of faith there can be: our ability to believe that God is with us, in spite of that overwhelming sense that God has abandoned us. Our ability to hold onto hope in God’s love and mercy and goodness even when all our feelings scream that God isn’t loving, merciful or good. Our ability to try to do good even when we feel like life has not been good to us or to those we love.
Our innate ability to choose belief even when we don’t believe. That is what it means to take responsibility.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, days before his prison camp was liberated by the allies. As his execution date approached, he wrote a poem called “Who Am I?”
“Who am I? They often tell me,
I come out of my cell
Calmly, cheerfully, resolutely,
Like a lord from his palace.
They also tell me,
I carried the days of misfortune
Equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one who is used to winning.
Am I really then what others say of me?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
Restless, melancholic, and ill, like a caged bird,
Shaking with anger at fate and at the smallest sickness,
Trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
Tired and empty at praying, at thinking, at doing,
Drained and ready to say goodbye to it all.
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and another tomorrow?
Am I both at once?
In front of others, a hypocrite,
And to myself a contemptible, fretting weakling?
Or is something still in me like a battered army,
running in disorder from a victory already achieved?”
Whoever I am, You know me, I am yours, O God.
Bonhoeffer’s biographers report that his jailers were struck by his equanimity, faith, and kindness even as he walked up the scaffold to be executed. But this poem points us to his inner turmoil, to the struggle between faith and fear; and ultimately to his faith, the faith of “a battered army/running in disorder from a victory already achieved.”
This as much as anything is why Bonhoeffer is a hero to me. Though his destiny was not one he chose, he took full responsibility for it. In this is the answer to the question life puts to all of us: even in the midst of despair, hope; even in the midst of fear, courage; even in the midst of doubt, faith. Despite his fears he chose faith. Even when we feel God has abandoned us, we know we are not abandoned. Even when all hope is lost, we have all hope.
Even when we can’t explain it, even when we don’t believe it, we know that God is with us and that we are God’s. It is both no answer, and the only answer possible.
“It is we ourselves who must answer the questions that life asks of us, and to those questions we can respond only by being responsible for our existence.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, 1905-1997, Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor