If you watched the final show of The Colbert Report (and if you wish, you can see it now on YouTube), you saw a fantasy of resurrection, culminating in a rooftop scene where Santa arrived with Abraham Lincoln and Alex Trebek in his sleigh. Trebek , whom Colbert greeted as ‘the man with all the answers’ replied to Colbert’s question about the meaning of life, that all true wisdom comes in the form of questions.
What do you have to do with me? may be the question which evoked the entire Bible as its answer, its wisdom. What do you have to do with me? may be the question to which Jesus’ life and ministry, and death and resurrection, are the answer. What do you have to do with me? is certainly the heart of the matter in Eden – and at the altar where Abraham ties Isaac – and in Egypt, at the burning bush, in the plagues, at the Red Sea, at Sinai.
What do you have to do with me? is such a common comment, such an everyday noise, it seems like an overreaction to call it a demon, yet its power to alter the course of our lives, its power to make us or break us, is real.
In every setting where there is authority and a possibility of holiness, this question, What have you to do with me?, demands to be answered. Children and parents, teachers and students, doctors and patients, lawyers and witnesses, managers and employees, coaches and referees, politicians and parliaments, hurl it at each other, a deafening din that is both challenge and prayer.
The gospel calls this question a Demon – or the Demon speaking – because the questioner is angry, resistant, challenging – and afraid. Following Jesus will not be easy, and the questioner does not have to be a genius to know that – he has only to look at what happened to John, and to know how broken in hope and heart John’s followers were. Perhaps the questioner is one of those who followed John, one of those who resisted social evils in his youth, in hope of better world, and who then became disillusioned with the work, long wait and hardship the kingdom road requires. After all, John was arrested and killed. Jesus will be, too.
Epiphanies, wonderful as they are, do not turn into long-term realities. They become stars in the night, to lead us on. But the disappointment of having to continue to walk in the dark can turn many into the more comfortable paths of cynicism, which casts a glow of wisdom without any particular revelation, much like a pub where neither the reality of home or work is changed or is expected to be changed, but where a sense of familiarity and of shared misery keeps us mellow.
The question, What do you have to do with me?, becomes a Gate. Jesus, setting forth, calling disciples, about to walk the world preaching, teaching, gathering, fishing, healing, must go through this Gate, and he must get his followers through it, too.
A Demon? Perhaps. But this question is part of the Way. Part of the Way for all who walk with Jesus. Belonging to the Way is, in large part, achieved by making it past this question again and again. Turning back will remain an option for them all. And this particular question will be thrown in Jesus’ face many times. Each time will give him a new chance to articulate the kingdom vision as it opens into the very moment he is in.
Each time we ask the question, the Gate opens for us to discover in new ways what his answer is. And we do ask the question. Not directly of Jesus but indirectly, as we ask it of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice.
We ask it of the Charlie Hebdo assassinations, of ISIS and Al Qaeda and every violent act presented to intimidate us, as the imprisonment of John the Baptist was presented to intimidate men like the disciples and all who came to hear Jesus on the Way.
Discipleship is no easy walk. The Way takes us through the heart of the world, through its worst places of death, not through its safest places of warm homes and happy meals. When we do find these warm places, they are inns of recovery, they are epiphanies of hope, they are unforgettable moments for us to bring with us as we set forth into the new – and dark – day.
Stephen Colbert turned his final show into a festival, using the song, We’ll Meet Again, don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day – in a rousing, embracing semi-religious event. The song was a huge hit in WWII, a huge hit song sung for and by soldiers who were walking through a hell of death and destruction.
How dare you take us into hell and destruction, the Demon asks Jesus. Yet the presence of God, in foxholes, battlefields, field hospitals, and battle graveyards, is an unquestionable religious truth. And in these places, where hell makes brothers of all soldiers, What have you to do with me? becomes a profoundly answered question.
1. The Sower and the Devil, 1921. Egger, Lienz-Albin. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. The Temptations of Christ. Mural, San Marco, Rome. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Christ and the Devil. Duccio di Buoninsegna. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4. The Devil. Detail from The Last Judgment. Fra Angelico. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
5. Andrew and John, Easter. Jean Burnand, 1898, Musee Dorsay Paris, Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.