From the Gospel according to Matthew:
There was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 8:2-3 (NRSV) – May 31, 2014)
I admit that I’m never quite sure how to read this publicly, what tone of voice to use for Jesus. I suppose I could avoid that question by reading in that dull monotone some lectors chose, or in that “stained glass church voice” many clergy affect. However, the bible is mostly story, and the Gospels are entirely story, and I believe stories are to be read, especially in public, as stories — living, breathing, interesting, engaging stories.
So how to read Jesus in this narrative? Angry? Authoritative and decisive? Amused? I once heard a deacon read this tale in a way that made Jesus sound surprised that he had a choice, with a tone of voice that said, “Really? I don’t have to do this?”
Sometimes it seems to me that the Gospel is presented in such a way as to suggest that Jesus had little, if any, say in anything. “This was God’s design, the plan of salvation from the very beginning, ba-blah, ba-blah, ba-blah . . . .” as if Jesus were simply some preprogrammed automaton. But, of course, Jesus always had a choice; everyday Jesus had to make the decision whether to continue, whether to “set his face toward Jerusalem” even knowing the probable outcome of his choices.
And so it is with all of us. Life is a series of choices. We don’t always get our way; the choices we would like to make a sometimes refused us. Today in the church is the Feast of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day set aside to honor Mary’s visit with her cousin Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. It is the day on which she sang the Magnificat. It is the day I chose to be ordained. However, it was not the day my bishop chose to ordain me. Guess whose choice prevailed.
So, no, we don’t always get our choices, but we always have choices to make. I simply do not understand and cannot accept the sort of religion that denies that. Not to long ago, I read a devotional text in which the writer asserted that “God is strategic. He has laid out an exact plan for our lives right down to the smallest details. God has it all figured out. He is orchestrating your life right down to the very second.” That sort of spiritual belief has always seemed to me a cop out. It lays our bad choices, our poor decisions at God’s feet, denying our own responsibility.
And it is a belief which can’t be sustained. Within a few pages of that statement, the author then wrote that God can “turn any situation around” because “it doesn’t matter how you got there, whether it was by your own poor choices or maybe someone else treated you unfairly.”
Which is it? Either God has a plan for every second of everyone’s life and is orchestrating every detail or human beings have free will and are always making choices; it can’t be both ways. Or perhaps it can. As the great Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was fond of saying, “We must believe in free will — we have no choice.”
We always have choices.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.