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Questions

Matthew 22:34-46

Mark’s favourite word at present is ‘Why?’ We had heard that all children go through a ‘Why?’ phase. Mark’s, however, is different from what other parents have generally told us. It isn’t a case of ‘Why must I do that?’ or ‘Why not?’ It’s more academic. He deploys ‘Why?’ to ask questions about the world. And when we’ve answered why one thing happens, he asks why that is so. Relentlessly he pushes back our logic, sucking our brains dry. On Friday afternoon in the car, he wouldn’t stop in his quest to know more about speed cameras. I am convinced that one day soon, we’ll have to explain the Big Bang to him. And questions are at the heart of our Lectionary Gospel reading today. The Pharisees send a lawyer to ask Jesus a question. Jesus asks the Pharisees a question. Furthermore, it’s the climax to a series of questions between Jesus and his critics. Questions – and how we handle them – are vital in spiritual growth.

So today I want as much to explore the use of questions in general as I do the particular questions in this exchange.

People Questioning Jesus 
There are all sorts of reasons, good and bad, for asking Jesus or God a question. The Virgin Mary asked a question of the Archangel Gabriel when he turned up with his world-shattering news of her pregnancy. However, it was a question allied to a spirit of obedience to God. When we question out of a desire to pursue our faith and discipleship further, that is a good thing. 

Job questioned God as a result of his suffering. He didn’t get an answer to this question about why he as an innocent person suffered. He only learned that, yes, innocent people do suffer. And although he receives a kind of rebuke from God, he is nevertheless rewarded for a faith that is not contradicted by asking hard questions.

Even the lawyer in this story might have had good intentions. In Mark’s account of this story (which is most likely Matthew’s source), Jesus commends him for not being far from the kingdom of God. Yet in Matthew, he is just out to test Jesus on behalf of the Pharisees (verses 34-45). Was he a stooge of the Pharisees? We don’t know.

What we do know is that the Pharisees had unholy reasons for questioning Jesus. Matthew is only interested in noting this sense of conflict, where the Pharisees not only think they can put one over Jesus, they are keen to succeed where their rivals the Sadducees failed (verse 34). Their motives are not good. This is all about pride and putting one over their opponents.

When I first studied Theology, it was among Anglican ordinands. I had more theological knowledge than some of them, due to my Local Preacher training. There were two occasions during early lectures when I asked questions of the tutors, less to learn and more to show off. Once it was when a New Testament lecturer was giving an outline of Luke’s Gospel, and I made sure everyone knew I realised that Luke gave a special place to women. The other was in an Old Testament class, where the tutor recommended a particular Bible atlas and I said, “Oh, the one you edited?” They were unworthy moments and I am ashamed of them.

If we are not careful, we might ask questions that are less to do with wanting to draw nearer to Christ and more to do with pride. They might involve puffing up ourselves and putting others down. Before we question Jesus, it is worth questioning ourselves. What are our motives? Do I ask out of humility, a desire to learn and if necessary a spirit of repentance? If so, I am asking a question in such a way that spiritual growth has a real chance to happen.

But if I want to show off in front of others, or if I am deluded enough to think that with my intellect I can impress God, then the chances of growth are less than zero. Indeed, to have such concerns is to show no interest in growing in grace.

What, then, of the actual question here? The lawyer asks for one ‘greatest commandment’, but Jesus gives him two. Jesus won’t be confined by our questions. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 

Let me make brief observations about each of his two ‘great commandments’. With regard to the first commandment, I find it interesting to read this passage in a week when we have heard about the first atheist advertising ever to appear on London buses. One of its most prominent supporters and financial backers is – surprise, surprise – Richard Dawkins. In supporting the campaign, he was stupid enough to say this:

“This campaign to put alternative slogans on London buses will make people think – and thinking is anathema to religion.”

Thinking is anathema to religion? What he surely means is, you haven’t thought unless you’ve come to the same conclusions as me. Sixth Form arrogance. Against that background, I read Jesus saying that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. The word ‘mind’ is additional to the original (although the Hebrew will have implied that the total person is involved in loving God). I cannot find God by thinking, but I can dedicate my thinking to God as an act of loving worship. Be trusting of God, but the Sunday School song never said, ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’.

The second commandment is about love of neighbour. One of the problems with the atheist bus campaign – along with religious advertising, too – is that it reduces everything to slogans. That’s exactly what Jesus doesn’t do. The proof of his ‘campaign’ to love God is not a slogan. Proof comes in love of neighbour. 

In early September, the American ministry journal Leadership has this poll on its website:

When it comes to evidences of true worship at your church, which of the following do you pay most attention to?

  • People singing enthusiastically.
  • People praying fervently.
  • People fully attentive to the sermon.
  • People coming for confession or prayer afterward.
  • People committing or recommitting themselves to Christ.
  • People serving others during the week.
  • People so captivated that they invite others to join them at church.

Other: click here to let us know what indicates to you that people are worshiping

Much as I like enthusiastic singing, fervent prayer and close attention to the sermon, I can’t understand any measurement of true Christian love that is less than a measurement of action that happens afterwards. People who put their faith into practice after church – they can ask questions.

Jesus Questioning People
In my early years as a Christian, a popular slogan was ‘Jesus is the answer’. There was a famous song with that title by the gospel singer Andraé Crouch. It’s a comforting song about the hope troubled people can find in Christ, and of course I believe that.

However, I have come to believe also that it is just as true to say that ‘Jesus is the question’. He didn’t always spoon-feed his listeners. He told parables that would only make sense to the spiritually curious and committed. 

And in this passage, Jesus questions his critics. He throws in a theological conundrum. It’s a little biblical hand-grenade that is meant to blow apart their preconceived ideas, their limited vision and their prejudices. In summary, it’s this: if the Messiah is the son of David (as was commonly accepted), how can David call one of his own descendants ‘Lord’ (verses 41-45)? The problem was that in Jewish tradition a father could not call his son ‘Lord’. Yet here was Scripture saying just that. And if it were true, what possible grounds could there be for denying the Lordship of the Messiah? And if Jesus were the Messiah, what would that mean for the Pharisees’ treatment of him?

To change the metaphor, it’s checkmate to Jesus (verse 46).

And Jesus is still about the business of asking questions as a means of either eliciting spiritual growth or letting people confirm the hardness of their hearts. Sometimes, we are seeking his guidance and he doesn’t appear to be answering. That may be because he is making us wait for an answer, but is it also possible we are not hearing what he is saying? So set are we on receiving an answer that will make everything fit into place that we miss what he is saying. Instead of giving us an answer, Jesus replies with a question. 

Not only that, it’s something Jesus calls his followers to do, too. Take the rôle of the minister, for example. One traditional expectation of a minister is that this is the person who will dream the big dreams, see the great visions and impart them to the congregation. One Anglican rector friend told me he believed his job was to be like Moses coming down from Sinai with the tablets of stone.

But what if that isn’t the minister’s calling? Suppose instead the minister invites people to engage their situation with a holy imagination? That may be more effective, because it will help call forth what God is already doing in the midst of the congregation.

Or take the rather modern preoccupation that the exposition of Scripture in a sermon or Bible Study group is meant to be a way of reading answers off the page to today’s dilemmas, or coming up with a set of biblical principles on how to make life work. Is that right? Might it not be more faithful to the Bible if instead the minister preaches the great story of Scripture to the people, saying, this is ‘the story we find ourselves in‘. If that is the case, then how do we see our world? [Source for last 3 paragraphs]

If we allow Jesus to question us, he might shake up some of our cherished beliefs and practices. Those moments when we sense a discomfort, that something doesn’t quite fit – those are times when we might well need to be especially attentive to the voice of Christ. Is he asking us a question that will take us on a journey into deeper biblical faithfulness and away from those human traditions which have become unhelpful?

I believe Jesus is asking us big questions about our fitness for mission in today’s world. Do our structures, traditions, practices and even some of our cherished doctrines which we clam to have ‘received’ fit with a biblical reflection on where we are today? I for one am not sure they do, and I believe Jesus may be asking us awkward questions.

But then that’s just the sort of thing that might preoccupy me as a minister. For others, it might be other questions. He might be asking many people about their place, situation and calling in life. The spiritual writer Frederick Buechner observed that our call is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. If some of us are misfits on those grounds, then is Jesus asking us challenging questions about where we might best serve him? Has Jesus given us a passion for something that we are not using? If not, then what questions might he be asking us?

The alternative to Jesus asking us questions is simply for him to give us pre-packaged answers. But if he does that, then that is the end of the conversation. Orders have been given from on high, and that’s it. Now he has a perfect right to do that. He is Lord. But I suspect he often asks us questions instead of giving us answers, precisely so that he can engage us. Questions properly given and received promote conversation. Jesus asks us questions so that he can stimulate a combination of prayer and action.

And come to think of it, aren’t prayer and action the very things that drive us to ask the best questions of him? Will prayer and action be the reasons we have a relationship of questioning faith with our questioning Lord?

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Don’t Stuff The Dog

Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:

Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.

These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.

… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.

It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.

However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.

But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?

In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?

Don’t Stuff The Dog

Angie Ward has an excellent piece at Leadership Journal entitled Don’t Stuff The Dog. She talks of how pet owners have deceased animals stuffed and left in the house as a sign of denial and also sometimes to scare off strangers. She makes this telling comparison:

Churches seem to have a special proclivity toward “stuffing the dog,” maintaining programs, buildings, and even members in an attempt to forestall necessary change. In the short term, it’s sometimes much easier to stuff a church’s pets than to acknowledge their death, grieve their loss, and give them an appropriate burial.

These pets may take the form of programs that are tied more to history than to current effectiveness; they may be personal favorites, the “pet projects” and ministries of influential leaders who don’t want to let go of them; or they may just be familiar mutts that everyone agrees have passed their prime, but are more familiar (or maybe just cheaper!) than a new animal.

… stuffed animals might bring temporary comfort to those inside the organization, but they may actually turn off or even frighten newcomers who aren’t familiar with the history and meaning behind them. Whether it’s a particular worship style, a ritual, an outdated program, or even a powerful clique within the church, visitors will usually be quick to notice that something’s not quite right. They may not stick around to find out what, or why.

It’s so hauntingly familiar. How often as church leaders we are called to exercise spiritual terminal care over a church group that does not realise or want to contemplate that it is dying. For all my interest in contemporary ministry, the classic meeting that fits this idea wherever I go is the Women’s Fellowship. The formula is predictable. They meet on a midweek afternoon for an hour. There are always three hymns taken from a long-superseded hymn book, an opening prayer that remembers the sick who cannot be present, and a speaker who may be religious in theme or not. It meets a genuine need mostly for elderly widows who would not otherwise see many people from week to week apart from Sunday morning.

However they often cannot understand why the women in the congregation who have more recently reached retirement age don’t want to join them. There has been a culture change, and these women generally prefer the home group. It’s more informal and in the best ones more opportunity for vulnerable openness and mutual support.

But while it’s easy to look down on outmoded Women’s Fellowships, we may miss the likelihood that the home groups may themselves soon need terminal care. A Bible study where the challenge of the material is dissipated by a quick closing prayer and the opportunity over tea and coffee afterwards to move onto less uncomfortable topics of conversation, anyone?

In truth, all such new formulations are prone to this danger before too long. It isn’t just about culture change, it’s about losing the vision and the passion. What am I doing, both to give outmoded activities terminal care and a decent funeral, but also to help ensure that our whole focus remains on life and discipleship? Jut introducing something new as if ‘cell’ or ‘base communities’ or whatever were the answer is to miss the point. To change the metaphor, what am I doing to promote new wine and new wineskins?