The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Art of Deflection

When tempted with excuses, why do we choose the donkey’s way?

By Mark Labberton

OT Reading: Deuteronomy 30:9-14

For Sunday, July 11: Year C Ordinary 15

Humans are creatures with excuses.

Made by God with choice, not just instinct, we have a compelling capacity to make meanings. And we are especially prone to offer some in the form of self-defense, explanation, rationale, justification. The tempter offers Adam and Eve a rationale, and with it they take and eat. A good excuse is all we need for sin to be set in motion. We have that story in our minds and hearts: it’s the art of deflection and we depend on deploying it daily. Even when God says it leads to death.

Called out from behind our excuses.

So it went with Israel, just as it did with Moses. Called out from behind his excuses, Moses led Israel out of Egypt, never completely shedding the habit. Through wilderness wanderings, marked with Moses’ excuses and Israel’s too, the moment comes when the River Jordan holds the promise of a new beginning. Kept from the Promise Land by the impact of his own faithless excuses, Moses offers in Deuteronomy a summary and sermon: a looking back for the sake of a looking forward.

The hinge on which Moses hangs the past and the future is the imminent faithfulness of God. Look to the past, replete with God’s demonstrated love that hears, rescues, provides, forgives, sustains. Let this be your remembrance for it is also your hope: “…the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors.”

Stop with the excuses, already!

And in the meantime? Get on with the word that has already been given to you. Get on with doing with you already know to do. Stop with the excuses, already! Give up waiting for someone else from somewhere else to come and do what in fact you already to do know in your heart and mind. “No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

We hate that. We say we just want to know what to do, but we don’t. We prefer a good excuse. Moses says that excuses, however, are not a viable, defensible option. He should know. We would rather whine about needing to wait for more insight. We would rather lose ourselves in alleged complexity. We would rather blame someone for not showing up. Especially God. Moses says, we have two stories locked in our hearts and minds: our excuses and God’s word.

The Hardest Question

On a Saturday before Palm Sunday, when our youngest son, Sam, was about 4, I read him a children’s book about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It had a picture of Jesus on the donkey. Sam looked at the picture for a long time, stroking the image. Then, stroking his own chest, Sam said, “Daddy, Jesus is in my heart.” “I am so glad you know that,” I replied. Then, still stroking his chest, Sam continued, “But where is the donkey?” “Trust me, Sam, the donkey is there too. That’s the problem: Jesus and the donkey are in our hearts!”

We tend the donkey of our deflections so well. It is at our command. We opt so readily for excuses and against life. So the crisis is: why is this counter-to-life alternative so captivating? The lure of excuses entrances us with the notion that we can have it both ways: excuses and life. We forget this is a lie. We have to learn again and again that it leads to death. And, when we do, we try and make things okay by offering an excuse first, long before our hearts are truly ready to confess.

Why is excuse an illusion we do not want to give up? Why do we put life itself in jeopardy and choose death so often and so well? Why do we choose the donkey’s way?

Mark Labberton is the Lloyd John Ogilvie Associate Professor of Preaching and Director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary. Prior to that, Mark was a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor for over 30 years, and he’s the author of The Dangerous Act of Worship: Living God’s Call to Justice.


  1. David S. says:

    OK…so why does Shrek’s donkey keep coming to mind? Am I really more concerned about placating that side of me than being Jesus? So many excuses so little time.


  1. […] needing to wait for more insight. We would rather lose ourselves in alleged complexity.” (The Art of Deflection) But complexity is not an excuse! In any event, it’s not complex! As Jesus says, it’s […]

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