There are a lot of reasons to ask questions. If you are in school, and your teacher says, “Do you have any questions?” then you ought to speak up and say, “I don’t understand. Why do you call feel an intransitive verb?” If you want to meet a friend for lunch, it would be fine to ask, “Is Sweet Tomatoes on the right or the left side of the street if I am coming from work?” It might even be good if you are thirteen to ask you mother, “What do they mean when they say ‘go all the way?’” Sometimes people ask questions because they actually want answers.
Sometimes they don’t. Want answers, that is.
The book of Mark is a barebones gospel that wastes no details as it almost flings Jesus into ancient Galilee with his startling message: “The kingdom of God has come near.” This good news resonated with a lot of people who were looking for improvement in their lives. If God’s kingdom was emerging on earth, they wanted in on that thrilling development.
The religious leaders in Galilee and Judea were quite apprehensive about the meaning of such an announcement. They certainly looked forward to the Messiah promised by the ancient prophets, but some common laborer from Nazareth didn’t look much like a Messiah to them. They lurked in the crowds that mobbed Jesus wherever he went, and each time Jesus made a point with the people, some Pharisee or scribe or representative of the high priest asked a question.
They were really simple questions.
- Jesus looked at a paralytic who wanted to walk, and before he said anything else, he said, “Your sins are forgiven.” A Pharisee popped up and asked, “Why does he presume to forgive sins?
- Jesus went to dinner with his new disciple Matthew, popularly known as Levi. Matthew invited his professional colleagues, other tax collectors and an assortment of people commonly classified by Jewish law as ‘sinners.’ Some Pharisee hanging around in the crowd outside asked, “Why does this fake rabbi dare to eat with such people – tax collectors and sinners?
- When Jewish religious leaders in Galilee and Judea fasted, they made sure everybody knew it by dressing and acting in ways designed to signal how they were suffering in obedience to God. They soon thought they had figured out that Jesus’ disciples were not fasting. One of the Pharisees buttonholed Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast?”
- Jesus went into a synagogue where there was a man with a withered hand. Jesus looked at the man and right away, he knew that the Pharisees were looking at him. Before he healed the man, he reflected the question he knew they would ask. He asked, “Is it okay to do good on the Sabbath?”
- As Jesus and the disciples were strolling somewhere on a Sabbath day, the disciples plucked some ripe grain, rubbed the husk off in their hands, and ate it. The Pharisees, who presumably had already concluded that the walk was not longer than a Sabbath day’s journey, seized the moment to ask, “Why are your disciples harvesting on the Sabbath?”
- On another Sabbath, Jesus was invited to read and speak in the synagogue in Nazareth. The scene sounds like “home town boy makes good” and they probably expected to hear a speech much like we might hear from a freshman home from college who is invited to speak on the subject, “How my home church helps me succeed in life.” Jesus gave a very different speech, and they all muttered, “Who does he think he is? Where did he get all this?” One day, the Pharisees n
- oticed that Jesus’ disciples were eating something without washing their hands first. Funny they didn’t comment about that when the disciples were plucking grain out of a field, but it didn’t come up at that time. On this occasion, however, they were pained to observe such disrespect for the traditions. One of them had to ask, “Why do your disciples eat with defiled hands?”
The interesting thing about these questions is that they could all be answered the same way Jesus answered the last one. His answer was that our lives are not measured by the externals, but rather by the internals. His entire response to this question addressed the myriad of issues the Pharisees wanted him to attend to, because he and his disciples did not put on a mask of religiosity. Jesus healed the paralytic by attending to the internals first. Jesus chose to associate with people without judging their externals. Jesus didn’t teach his disciples to give external signals when they were fasting, so nobody knew whether they were fasting or not. He didn’t think God would be dishonored by the fact that somebody observed a healing on the Sabbath. Jesus wasn’t willing to fret over external appearances that might lead somebody to think the disciples were working on the Sabbath. Jesus didn’t give his home town a “feel-good” message instead of the truth he came to preach. Jesus didn’t worry about exaggerated respect for traditions that expressed total disregard for God. Every time the Pharisees challenged Jesus, they demonstrated in one way or another that their point was to take the emphasis off the arrival of the kingdom of God and put the emphasis on things they could see and control.
The questions of the Pharisees were not designed to get any new information. Their questions were designed to change the subject away from the arrival of the kingdom of God and turn the subject to the things they controlled.
A lot of us do that. We face Jesus and he rocks our world. We depend on the things we can see to define our reality. The guilty feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness that wells up when we see Jesus makes us think we need to fix our own externals. We think that if we could just say the Lord’s Prayer every morning, that ought to fix things. If we could just stop telling even little lies, maybe that would be the ticket. If we could just get to church every Sunday morning, maybe God would be happy with us. We keep asking the question, Will this be good enough? But our question is changing the subject from what God wants to do because he loves us to what we do to get God to love us.
The good news is that we don’t have to do any of those external things in order for God to love us and calm all those disturbing internal storms. God loves us, just as he loved the crusty, hidebound Pharisees who kept trying to change the subject. In Christ, God shakes up our internals, and like Nicodemus, we may creep around in secret trying to figure out why Jesus makes us feel so uneasy. In Christ, God reassures us that he loves us. On the cross, our shameful internals are washed away by the shed blood of Christ. Each time we receive the Lord’s Supper, we remember that Christ promised to heal what is wrong with us by giving his own body and blood for us. We receive an external gift and internalize the gift that is in, with and under the elements, remembering the Christ whose love heals and transforms. Like every human being, we continue to live in the tension of our internal/external dialogue. It is the indwelling Holy Spirit who battles for us against the evil internals that defile us.