Why Did You Doubt? A Lectionary Reflection
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
Why did you doubt?
Jesus’ little question to Peter draws our attention. “Why did you doubt?” Why indeed? There are many reasons why we have doubts. Some are experiential and others are intellectual. Indeed, in many ways our doubts have both intellectual and experiential components, as David Hume reminded us in the 18th century. It is good to remember that Richard Dawkins isn’t the first person to raise questions about the existence of God or raise questions of the intellectual credibility of religious claims. Nor are those who raise questions about the goodness of God in light of the chaotic nature of the world in which we live. Yes, there is great beauty and there is the appearance of design, but as they say, the devil is in the details. And so it’s not surprising that people have doubts about the existence of God, the goodness of God, and even the fairness of God and God’s followers.
There are in this set of texts two themes that are present – doubt and salvation. Each emerges in different ways, inviting us into a conversation about the way we envision God and how we envision the way we express faith.
As we read the Genesis story where Joseph is the favored one, just as Jacob had been the favored one and his father before him. We also see in this story the continued theme of the older serving the younger. If you were one of Joseph’s brothers, you might have had questions concerning the fairness of all of this. Here is Joseph the little brother who is always running back to daddy telling on his brothers, getting them in trouble. And then, daddy gives him this coat with sleeves. So, maybe the brothers doubt the justice in all of this, especially since Joseph has had these dreams in which he claims to have authority over the brothers. If the question of doubt is present here, an even stronger theme that is present here, and runs through the three texts, is that of salvation. For Joseph the question he might be asking is why is this happening to me? Why have my brothers conspired against me, to throw me in this pit. All I’m doing is what my father has asked of me, and that is to check in on my brothers and report back my findings? In the course of the story, the brothers decide to get rid of their younger brother, though the oldest of the brothers, Reuben, steps in and rescues Joseph, hoping to restore him to his father. The brothers, however, get a step ahead of things, and decide to sell their brother as a slave to Ishmaelites who are heading toward Egypt. Being sold into slavery might not seem salvific, but it does preserve his life, and ultimately sets the stage for the salvation of the people in Egypt. The questions here aren’t about whether God exists, or the intellectual credibility of the story. Those kinds of doubts aren’t present, but we are asked to consider the way God is present in these kinds of difficult situations, and how God might bring about healing even from unjust situations. Ultimately, as we read further into the Genesis story, the brothers are redeemed themselves.
When we come to Paul, the issue isn’t really one of doubt but of belief, and how the message of faith will be shared. Paul is in the midst of a conversation about the benefits of law and faith, and concludes that if righteousness comes by way of law, then one’s relationship with God is determined by living by the law. On the other hand, those who live by faith, find their salvation/redemption, by the confession they make concerning Jesus as Lord. This is a rather freeing message, if we are caught up in the grasp of legalism, as many of us are. Of course, it can also lead to the legalism of having to confess Jesus in order to experience the love and grace of God. In this context, however, we would be wise to hear the message as an invitation to make known the word that Jesus is risen and thus our Lord. It is upon this confession that we are saved. Belief here is not necessarily intellectual assent, but trust. In this there is an invitation to lay aside our doubts and take that risky leap into walking with Jesus into the realm of God. The “creed” is simple, though full of nuances, for we must ask ourselves what does it mean for Jesus to be Lord, especially in an age where such words seem archaic, paternalistic, and expressions of male dominance in society. On the other hand, there is another message here that should be well received by the hearer of this invitation. God is not one to show favoritism – despite the evidence to the contrary in stories like the one we’ve read in Genesis. There is no distinction, Paul says, between Jew and Greek. Both have the same Lord and God will be equally generous to those who believe. Entering the realm of God, therefore, has a leveling effect (see Gal. 3:28 for an even broader description of this leveling effect). Thus, no matter our background, upon confession of this simple creed, we are saved, healed, reconciled. And having experienced this healing presence of God that comes to us through confession of Christ, we are encouraged to share the good news. And as Paul notes, in his quotation from Isaiah 52:7: the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful! So, where is their doubt in this conversation? Could it be our resistance to living/confessing this good news?
Our reading this week from the Gospel of Matthew is one that would have caught the attention of David Hume. He would have asked us to consider the likelihood of someone walking on water. Hume was a philosopher who liked to rely on his own experience as a starting point. He would ask us – how often do you see people walking on water? If you’ve never seen someone walk on water then how can you believe that either Jesus or Peter did so? Now, Hume might agree that in their fear they may have projected an image of Jesus walking on the water, but would that be enough to get Peter, who had never walked on water (assuming that humans don’t walk on water), out of the boat on trying to walk himself? Surely, if he tried, as soon as he put his foot outside the boat he would have sunk. So, what do we make of this text, especially Jesus’ question about why Peter doubts?
This story is one of the best known in the gospels. It has permeated our cultural mind set, so that when too much is asked of us, we ask why people think we can walk on water. After all, we’re not divine beings, so why should this be expected of us? Then of course there is the use of the text to beat folks over the head for their lack of faith and unwillingness to “get out of the boat.” Years ago, when I was teaching at a bible college in Kansas, this story seemed to be a “favorite” of our chapel speakers, especially the many youth ministers who came to speak to us, and appealing this story they would call on the students (and I suppose, we professors as well) to get out of the boat. Don’t doubt, don’t resist God, but get out of the boat and join me in whatever it is I think is most important at the moment.
So, if we’re not going to fall victim to Hume’s challenges or the metaphorical clubbing that preachers like to give us, what should we make of this story that challenges us to trust and not doubt? But, if we’re to take in this metaphor, it might be good for us to remember that for the ancients the sea was symbolic of chaos and danger (note the storm that shook even this group full of experienced fishermen). Jesus comes to them as the one who has power over the chaos (walks on the waters), and then calms them. Peter doubts, and Jesus asks why they have but a little faith, and yet that is sufficient. We are, after all saved not be our faith, but by the grace we receive by faith. Faith is simply the receptiveness of allowing God to be present in our lives, so as to calm the storms we encounter during our lives. When Jesus gets in the boat, the storm ends, when Jesus is present with us by the Spirit, the chaos loses its power over us.
Do we live with doubt? Yes. We all have questions, some serious. The question is not whether we doubt, but whether it causes debilitating injury to our souls. When that happens, we need the salvific healing presence of God, which comes to us, Paul says in confessing Jesus as Lord. And as we learn in the ongoing story of Joseph, what is meant for harm can in fact, be used by God to bring healing.