By: Brian Harris
Don’t know if you were ever caught up in the WWJD quest – that’s the initials for the phrase, “What would Jesus do?”
It’s a good question, and it’s only possible to answer it if we look seriously at the WDJD query – what did Jesus do? When it comes to what Jesus did do, we know a few things for sure – he taught, he healed, he provoked, he forgave, he challenged. He lived, he died and he rose again. And so much more.
Part of the so much more that doesn’t always get a look in is the way Jesus asked and answered questions. What would it mean if we asked (and answered) questions like Jesus?
First point to note is that this isn’t a purely theoretical exercise – or not once you realise how many questions Jesus was asked, how few he answered directly and how many he shot back at those he interacted with. What are those numbers – well of course it depends on how you define a question and answer, and calculations may differ, but some suggest that the Gospels have Jesus being asked questions 183 times, answering them directly somewhere between 3-8 times (so difficult to give a direct answer to the question “what is a direct answer?”) and he then fired off 307 questions of his own. Put slightly differently, for every question he answered directly, he asked about 100 others.
Are we ready to reach a conclusion? If you want to be like Jesus – ask questions – lots and lots of them.
True, but let’s look a little deeper, because the kind of questions Jesus asks are fascinating. They are pretty penetrating.
Why Are You Afraid?
Take Mark 4:40. The disciples had been battling to keep their boat afloat while Jesus slept calmly in the stern, verse 38 adding the detail that he was comfortably resting on a cushion. Nice for him, but not for the disciples who see clearly the trouble they are in. Panic stricken, they wake him, flinging one of the 183 questions Jesus gets asked to him, “Don’t you care if we drown?” (v38). Abandoning the cushion, Jesus gets up and does the Jesus thing – he calms the storm. Then he asks his questions. There are two.
Question 1: “Why are you so afraid?” Come on Jesus – be fair. They were afraid because it looked like they were going to drown. Surely that was a redundant question. Or was it? (That’s my question!)
Well look at the question Jesus immediately follows up with: “Do you still have no faith?” Still have no faith? They had seen a fair few miracles, heard amazing teaching, seen demons cast out, sins forgiven – and chatted endlessly about the new Kingdom Jesus was inaugurating. But when they woke him, they prefaced their question “don’t you care if we drown” with the title they thought fitted best, “Teacher” (“Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”) If Jesus was simply a teacher they had every right to be afraid. I’ve done a lot of teaching in my time, but if you only have my help to rely on in a storm, be afraid, be very afraid! But Jesus was so much more than a teacher. Jesus is Lord – Jesus is the Son of God – Jesus is the Creator of all, the one before whom storms and squalls must bow the knee. So why are you afraid, and do you still have no faith? It all depends on who you think Jesus is. And in asking the question, Jesus is saying, think more deeply about who I am. Think more deeply about who you have with you. And those questions weren’t just for those disciples back then…
Let’s look at another passage, Matt 15:1-20. It has 5 fascinating questions – 1 from the Pharisees (v1), a counter question from Jesus (v2), a “let’s respect the status quo” kind of question from the disciples (v12), and a surprisingly rude response from Jesus to a curious question asked by Peter (“Are you still so dull?” v16), followed by another question from Jesus that is really a statement (v17).
Let’s track the flow.
The passage starts by alerting us that some Pharisees and teachers “from Jerusalem” come to Jesus (who was in Galilee) to ask him a question “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating?” It’s a reasonable question, similar to the one my mother often asked me in my childhood (“Have you washed your hands?”), but my, they had come a long way to ask it (about 130 km – all on foot). Closer examination of the context (see the encounter of Jesus with the local Pharisees in Matt 12:1-14) suggests that these Jerusalem Pharisees had been called in to help contain Jesus – and they have been looking for a “got you” moment to trap him. They find it when Jesus’ disciples don’t wash their hands before they eat (all this could have been avoided if they had known my mother!). And so their question – which is not really a question but a statement. Jesus and his disciples have been caught with unwashed hands. Things are looking bad…
If they expected a shamefaced Jesus, they were about to be disappointed. Jesus simply ignores their question and fires back with another, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (v3). He then puts them in an awkward pickle by asking about their evolving tradition which provided a way around the law to honour your father and mother by suggesting that if you simply declared your goods and wealth dedicated to God or the temple, they were no longer available to help your parents. Those Pharisees would have fared well as tax consultants – they sure knew how to save their clients dollars – but this was at the expense of the parents they were supposed to honour.
In effect Jesus is asking, “Do you seriously think that my disciples having a little dirt on their hands equates with your systematic and deliberate attempt to keep elderly parents impoverished. You hypocrites. Oops – not very diplomatic Jesus (remember, these are the big guns from Jerusalem)
It’s this that the disiples pick up on as they ask the 3rd question in v12; “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” In other words, “calm down Jesus. A little diplomacy can go a long way.” Perhaps they would even have agreed to wash their hands in future. Jesus will have none of it, and dismisses the Pharisees as blind guides. I guess when you are actually the Son of God you are a little less impressed by the local celebrities (even if they are from Jerusalem), and Jesus sees right through them.
Not that Jesus completely ignores the question of what does and doesn’t make you clean – it’s just that he gives the answer to the crowd, not the Pharisees (he clearly knew how to put people in their place) (v10-11).
It’s What Comes Out of You That Matters
The passage then takes a slightly surprising turn. Peter asks for clarification on the parabolic way Jesus has been answering, and Jesus asks a somewhat rude question in return, “Are you still so dull?” (v16). “Well, I’m sorry for being interested!” Peter could have huffed back, but it’s as well that he didn’t. Jesus is just expressing mild disappointment, perhaps even sadness, that the disciples grasped so little of what he stood for. He does answer however, and what he says is crucial. This debate is about what makes you clean or unclean. Surely (surely) says Jesus, you get it by now. It’s not outward things (like dirt on your hands, or picking grain on the Sabbath, or mixing with tax collectors and prostitutes) that defile you. It’s how you process them, and what comes out from you as a result.
Jesus knew what he was talking about. Think about the things that went into him. Born into a defeated nation, he had poor parents, spent part of his early years as a refugee in Egypt, was belittled and harrassed wherever he went, usually for performing wonderful miracles. Betrayed by a friend, he is whipped, spat upon, humiliated and crucified. What went into him was truely terrible. It could have defiled him. Instead, what came out was love, forgiveness, and resurrection hope. The terrible things done to him did not define them. Instead, even as dying, he prays, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” He models that we are not determined by what goes into us.
And what about us? We sometimes worry because we haven’t got everything right. Or perhaps we have suffered horrible wrongs. Or we might be struggling to come to terms with an unexpected difficulty. What goes into you, Jesus calmly announces, does not defile you. It’s what comes out that matters. Gosh, that’s a much more significant insight than “tell me why you did not wash your hands?”
The questions of Jesus – all 307 of them. Why not let Jesus ask you a few questions this week. Unsettling though they might be, Jesus’ questions point the way to life and liberation. This week, let’s shift from the WWJD question to the WDJA question – what did Jesus ask. Why not imagine he is not asking it to some anonymous other, but is asking it directly to you? Now that is a good question.