by Robert Jacobs
“You are going to wear that?”
“What were you thinking?”
“Who’s ready for another test?”
Often when we pose a question, we do not actually want to know the information we supposedly seek. Instead, we use questions as a cover for making a statement. The friend who asks about your attire does not want to actually know what you will wear to the party, but instead shows disdain for your fashion choices. The exasperated parent probably does not want a blow by blow account of their child’s decision-making process, but instead desires to express their frustration. The sarcastic teacher does not want to assess your preparedness for the next test, but rather comments upon the absurdity of the imposed exam schedule.
Rather than being interrogative—or answer seeking—these questions are declarative in nature. Linguist Mick Short notes that often people will assume that all questions are interrogative when in fact many are declarative. (Short, 2013) Jesus very clearly differentiates between these two kinds of questions in the way that he responds to them as recorded in scripture. Despite a trend to posset Christianity as a blind, unquestioning faith rooted in anti-intellectualism (Reeves, 2012), Christ himself shows that he longs to answer questions that truly seek answers.
While there are numerous accounts of people asking Jesus questions, the Synoptic Gospels all share a set of exchanges where the Teachers of the Law ask Christ a sequence of declarative questions. The statements, guised as questions, ask for clarification regarding Jesus’ authority (Luke 20:1-8; Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33), paying taxes (Luke 20:20-26; Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17), and the resurrection. (Luke 20:27-40; Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 12:18-27) In reality, none of these questions are asked to gain knowledge. Instead, these questions were asked to make a statement about the authority of the Teachers of the Law, to justify their self-righteousness and diminish the authority of Jesus. In response to these non-questions, Jesus offers veiled answers, or his own questions in turn. These ostensible non-responses, however, do not indicate that Christ scorns all questions.
Amidst all of the declarative questions, Mark records a Scribe who actually asks an interrogative, answer-seeking question:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12: 28-34, NIV)
Mark notes that in response to the wisdom of Jesus, this particular Scribe asks a question that seeks an answer rather than asking a non-question in order to bolster his own position, glorify himself, and diminish Christ. In response to the Scribe’s desire for knowledge, Jesus offers a very clear response that the Scribe, in turn, intellectually engages with in a way that fortifies the truth of who God is in relationship to His creation. In comparison to the declarative questions, this kind of question asking is much more productive, with Jesus even acknowledging the outcome of the exchange as wise.
What kinds of questions do you ask God? He is not anti-question or anti-intellectual as some in our culture would claim; however, as these passages attest, there are different kinds of questions we can ask. Are you asking a question because you want God to reinforce His truth in your life, or are you asking a question to justify your sin? Do you want a clear answer from the God of the Universe who cannot be untrue to his holiness, justice, and love, or do you want Him to bend to your perspective on reality? We should all think through these ideas as we “approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12, NIV) to ask our questions. He lovingly and longingly waits to provide knowledge to those who truly seek it.
Reeves, Josh. “Theology and the Problem of Expertise.” Theology Today 69, no. 1 (April 2012): 34-42.
Short, Mick. Exploring the Language of Poems, Plays and Prose (Learning about Language). London: Routledge, 2013. 198-202.