Dissecting a No-Brainer

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

“To be or not to be; that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. It is easily one of the most remembered lines of any of William Shakespeare’s works. In this tragedy, Hamlet was pondering heavily whether to keep living or to give up. It is a dilemma that sometimes troubles one who experiences depression. I suppose we encounter many such questions in daily life, perhaps not as gravely consequential, but still serious and important nonetheless. And there is no two ways about it. We have to make a choice. Get up now, or hit the snooze button. Breakfast, or an empty stomach. Regular or decaf. Arrive a little early, or get a lousy seat. Sit next to a stranger and pay close attention, or sit next to a friend and endure some distraction. Leave early and get out of the parking lot first, or hang around and make a few new friends. Try something new and exciting, or settle for the same-old, same-old. Face the music, or make up an excuse. Fix what’s wrong, or complain about it. Ask the one burning question, or remain in the dark. Make the tough commitment, or walk away. As with Hamlet, we also face difficult choices every day, often between what is convenient, and what is right. And what is convenient is often not the right choice. Yet choosing not to choose remains a valid option.

Some choices we encounter in daily life might afford us a middle way. When we need to communicate: by phone call, text message, or face-to-face? Maybe one or two or all of the above. Where to have lunch or dinner? Which laundry detergent to use? Which TV show to watch? Who to spend the day with? And the question I had to face many times when I was in Rome: raspberry, passion fruit, mint chocolate chip, or German chocolate – yes, yes, yes, and yes. Each of us plays an important role in the unfolding of our own, and even other people’s lives. So we need to make the best choice. We look up the necessary information. We educate our consciences. We use our God-given gift of reason. We listen to all sides. We weigh all the consequences. We steer clear of gossip, unfounded allegations, and hearsay. We pray for the light of the Holy Spirit. Then we cast our vote. And as much as we might be led to believe in campaign ad after campaign ad, there is not and will never be a perfect candidate. Both, or if you consider the third party contender a serious choice, all of them have their good points. And all of them have their flaws. And when the dust finally settles, we still have to get up the next day, and go to work or school. We still have to face other important decisions. And in another four years, we will have to endure the circus all over again.

But the issues that we hear proclaimed in scripture today are not to be easily dismissed. Sometimes we imagine we have already made our choices, perhaps a whole lifetime ago. But in reality, these are choices we must face each and every day. They will always require our serious attention. And whatever we choose, the consequences can endure longer and reach farther than we might think.

The choice that Joshua placed before Israel sounds straightforward. “Decide today whom you will serve?” And he gave them options. Will you serve the gods your fathers served beyond the River – a reference to the time their ancestors spent in bondage in Egypt – or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling? And with the unapologetic intent of swaying their choice, Joshua announces his own. “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” So the choice was ultimately between upholding the covenant God had just recently made with them (Joshua was Moses’ immediate successor, accompanying them into the promised land), or returning to the worship of false gods. Joshua wanted Israel to recall God’s history with them, especially more recent history – their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, the quail and manna in the desert, the water from the rock, the healing of those bitten by serpents, the fall of Jericho, and their taking possession of the land promised to Abraham and his descendants. If they only recalled the compassion of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, the holy and faithful One who had been their refuge and defender, the question would be a no-brainer. And despite the choice they make at any one point, they still had to make a choice each and every day.

Jesus’ disciples come upon a defining point along their journey – to believe his teaching that his flesh is truly food for everlasting life as he claims, or reject his teaching and everything about him. Jesus recognizes their dilemma, yet refuses to back down. “Does this shock you?” Instead, he raises the stakes. “What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” This particular teaching even in our day is still a divisive issue between groups of people who call themselves his disciples. But Jesus himself makes no apologies. “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” There is no such thing as half-hearted discipleship. You are either a disciple or you are not. “To be or not to be; that is the question.” And since Jesus makes no room for exceptions, why would we water down his teaching?

Which brings us to that troublesome passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we hear proclaimed every three years in the late summer. If you are within striking distance of your better half, and if you have no desire to sleep on the couch tonight, or if you have a genuine appreciation of the Christian marriage covenant, the question is a no brainer. You can invoke historical precedence all you want, and dig up all the fire-and-brimstone preachers you can find. I can assure you, the passage is very frequently misunderstood. The emphasis is not on who should be subordinate to whom, but rather, that the marriage commitment must reflect the commitment between Christ and his church. “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.” And if that is not enough, one who truly desires to follow Jesus Christ must recall his command that we love one another. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Why then would the marriage commitment be exempt?

As for Hamlet and his dilemma, I am sorry to say it doesn’t end well. The play is not called a tragedy for no reason. I would hate to spoil it for anyone, but the body count is comparable to that in Romeo and Juliet, if you consider everyone even remotely referenced in the play, including those who breathe their last off-stage. But for our purposes, if we are mindful of our Christian commitment, we should have no trouble knowing a no-brainer when we see it. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”