Sunday, August 27, 2023

Sermon: "But Why?", Deuteronomy 6:20-25 (August 27, 2023)

Kids ask a LOT of questions. I think we can all agree. It’s in their nature. A 2017 British study found that children ask an average of 73 questions a day,[1] which, while lower than the estimated 2.3 million that most toddler parents probably would have guessed, is still an impressive number. A majority of these questions are directed towards a parental figure – while kids today have access to technological resources like Google, Alexa, and Siri right at their fingertips, their caretakers are still their primary source of new information. This is probably for the best, considering how many of their questions require a nuanced response: Alexa may be able to tell your 3-year-old how much an elephant weighs without incident, but you don’t necessarily want her fielding the “were do babies come from” inquiry, and she’s certainly not equipped to satisfactorily explain why people who don’t finish their vegetables don’t get dessert in your house.

Some of the most frequent questions posed by children are about the particular rules and regulations that govern their life. Parents aren’t just a child’s first and most important teacher; they’re also responsible for providing a safe and healthy environment, and children want to understand WHY they’re not allowed to do certain things. Wherever there are boundaries, there are ALWAYS more questions. “WHY do I have to brush my teeth before bed?” “WHY do I have to wear shoes outside?” “WHY can’t I watch more TV?” “WHY can’t we get a dog?” “WHY don’t I get to stay up past 9?”

Now, parents don’t generally set rules arbitrarily; each one has a degree of reasoning behind it. But just because there’s an explanation doesn’t mean that the explanation is easily grasped by the youngest members of the family. And a child’s method of pursuing answers – usually an avalanche of questions – can be exhausting to a busy adult. So, despite a caretaker’s best intentions, these interrogations often end with a beleaguered adult declaring, “Because I said so!” As a result, many children grow up understanding rules as an expression of one person’s authority over another, and they learn to stop asking questions about them.

Moses was a parent, too,[2] and although parenting was probably a lot different three thousand years ago, kids, as a whole, weren’t. Moses would have known that rules lead to questions, and given all the new laws God had just handed down to the people, he knew that Hebrew parents would be struggling to figure out how to respond when their children predictably asked them, “but WHY?” So, right at the beginning of Deuteronomy, Moses takes a moment to address the inevitability of this conversation in today’s scripture reading.

It’s worth noticing up front what Moses does NOT say: he doesn’t tell parents to demand obedience to the Law, “Because God says so.” Many people may find this surprising or even disappointing. I mean, that response would fit perfectly with the understanding of rules that so many of us grew up with, and it’s certainly not WRONG: “because God said so” should be sufficient reason for any of us to do anything. Not to mention that it would keep the conversation blessedly short– it pretty much shuts down any cross-examination right away, because who’s gonna argue with God?

But much to our collective chagrin, Moses doesn’t say that. In fact, before he even begins to answer the question, he opens the door to even MORE questions by offering a brief history of the people’s relationship with God (I can hear it now: “Why did the Pharoah enslave us? Why did God rescue us? What deeds of power did God do? What’s a dynasty?”). Then, three verses later, when he finally gets around to answering the question, he does it in an unexpected way. Moses doesn’t encourage obedience by threatening dire consequences, as we might expect, but by emphasizing what we stand to gain. We should follow the divine laws, he explains, “so that things go well for us always, and so we continue to live, as we’re doing right now.” We’re supposed to tell our children that God’s Laws have been given to us in order to help us live the best lives possible.

In this guidance, Moses reveals that the best way to encourage obedience is not by demanding it blindly, but by taking the time to really engage the “why”. His approach may lead to still more questions – but it also leads to a greater appreciation of the Law and its purpose. When we help children to understand the rules instead of just demanding compliance, behavioral change eventually follows naturally, AND it comes with an added benefit: a relationship with God based on love and trust instead of fear. While his way may require more effort, Moses demonstrates that encouraging and engaging with questions is the best way to help children learn.

Apparently, he was well ahead of his time. A 2019 study proved this very same thing: scientists observed 65 children between the ages of 4 and 6 playing with toy gear machines at a children’s museum. Some of their parents were told to interact with the children as they normally would, but others were specifically instructed to ask questions like, “How do the gears work?” or, “What will happen if this gear moves?” The study found that the children whose parents asked them questions engaged with the exhibits to a greater degree, understood them better, and even remembered what they’d learned better.[3] It turns out that questions are, in fact, a key ingredient for effective learning.

Now, up to this point, we’ve been discussing God’s rules and regulations in the context of children’s understanding. But Moses didn’t plop this section in the middle of Deuteronomy as an unrelated aside. No; to use a familiar analogy, these six verses are to the book of Deuteronomy as a “children’s message” is to a sermon. In other words, this passage is a summarized version of the exact same message that Moses is trying to communicate to the community at large throughout the rest of the book.

Deuteronomy represents Moses’ final teaching to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land without him, and he’s VERY concerned that they follow God’s laws. So, over the course of 34 chapters, he painstakingly follows the exact same pattern that he establishes for parents at the end of chapter 6: he first takes the time to remind the people why God is worth following, and then he makes sure that they understand why the rules are in their best interest.

Now, Deuteronomy concludes by informing us of Moses’ death right after delivering this message, so he certainly isn’t able to answer any follow-up questions. But in the care he takes to meticulously outline and explain the importance of the law, he seems to be doing his best to anticipate and address as many potential questions as he can. From beyond the grave, he’s laying the groundwork for a faith that’s open to investigation for the sake of understanding.

As adults – especially those of us who have been a part of the Church for our entire lives – it’s easy to feel like we should have all the answers by now. When we’re asked to lead a Christian Education class or to serve as a church leader, this belief may become even stronger, convincing us that if we have any doubts or questions, we need to keep them to ourselves. But even the best-known stories and the oldest rules aren’t beyond examination. How else can we be sure we’re REALLY on the right track?

When we choose obedience without questions, we run the risk of missing the mark without even realizing it. We start to see the rules as existing for their own sake and forget what Moses told us about God’s greater goal of creating a just, compassionate, and equitable society for us to live in together. Jesus directly calls us out on this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he lifts up several well-known religious laws (including four pulled directly from Deuteronomy) and explains how the people have been getting them wrong for years. “You have heard it said [to do this thing]. But I say to you [that y’all’ve been missing the point].” Maybe, if the religious authorities had allowed themselves to ask WHY these laws exist, they would have been able to see what was so clear to Jesus much sooner.

Even as Jesus rejects the “traditional” understanding of the law, he’s very clear that his purpose is not to abolish it, but to fulfill it. Sometimes, it might feel to us like questioning the Law is a betrayal. But the fact is that questions don’t indicate a lack of faith; they demonstrate a desire to go deeper. Learning new information doesn’t separate us from God’s purposes; it provides us the opportunity to become even more closely aligned with them. Jesus turned everything that the world thought it knew upside down in order to bring us closer to God. And asking questions is one of the ways that we can continue this important work today.

The minute the Church begins to discourage questions is the minute it stops seeking God’s kindom. The minute we relegate questions solely to the realm of children is the minute that we begin to ignore the teachings of Moses and of Jesus. The minute we stop asking questions is the minute we forget one of the greatest parts of being Presbyterian: discerning God’s will TOGETHER.

I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume that we don’t want any of that. So, learn from the children in your lives, my friends: keep asking questions. Our God is not so frail that their plans can be derailed by your curiosity, and you are not so powerful that your doubt can destroy the kindom that God is determined to build. People asking questions is how Gentiles came to be a part of the Church, how the Bible came to be translated into common languages, how women came to be ordained to ministry, and how our denomination came to finally allow full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life of the Church. Questions make the Church more whole. Questions are how we come to better understand God’s will, and how we discover new ways to live it out.

So, continue building the kindom of God through your questions, beloved. And the next time a child asks YOU a question that you aren’t sure how to respond to, don’t panic. If you don’t know the answer, then you’ve been given the opportunity to ask the question together. What a gift – to discover new depths of faith together in community! I doubt there’s much that could make Moses prouder. Thanks be to God for questions, even – especially – the hard ones. Amen.



[2] 1 Chronicles 23.


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