When Jesus Provides Answers (Sunday May 26, 2019)
Mark 12: 28-34; Matthew 18: 21-22
When Jesus Provides Answers
So today we are concluding our series on the questions Jesus asked by looking at the few that he answered. So if you remember back, we learned that Jesus asked over 300 questions, that he was asked over 180 questions, but he provides a direct answer to only eight of those. The rest of them he answered by either asking another question, or giving an indirect answer such as a parable or something along those lines. Eight questions that Jesus provides a direct answer to. Which can frustrate us a little bit, because we very much want Jesus to answer our questions. There was a very popular wristband a few years ago that would go around with the phrase you WWJD: what would Jesus do. And what we’re really doing there is expressing a desire to figure out, given the situation that we are currently in, what would Jesus do; what are we supposed to do as followers of Jesus here? “I want to direct answer, God, in this specific situation, what do I do?” We want answers from Jesus. One thing I want to look at today is whether we really want answers from Jesus or not, what does it look like when Jesus gives us answers, and what does Jesus really want us to be doing.
So we’re going to begin by looking at those eight answers. There are so few answers in the four Gospels that we can list them out in one sermon. The first answer we get to is one of the ones that was read today. In the Gospel of Matthew, Peter comes to Jesus and asks Jesus “how much do I need to forgive someone who has wronged me? Do I need to forgive even seven times?” Which, of course, was being very generous: the standard at the day was three times. And Jesus replies “not seven, but seventy seven,” in the translation in the pews. In other translations it’s seventy times seven, or four hundred ninety. That’s one of the answers.
A scribe comes to Jesus and asks if Jesus agrees with Moses that a man can divorce a woman for whatever reason they want. And Jesus replies that if you divorce another for any reason other than infidelity, and then marry someone else, you commit adultery. One of the many times he kind of pushes the law further.
Another person comes to Jesus and asks what they must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds, eventually, with “keep the commandments. In order to inherit eternal life, keep the commandments; keep the law.”
One scribe comes to Jesus and asks what the greatest commandment is. This was read today. Jesus replied to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and the second is like it to love your neighbor as yourself. The entire law and prophets are based on these two commandments.”
Jesus goes to the mountaintop with Peter and John and has a transfiguration. He is transfigured into a glorious being, with Moses and Elijah on his side; and then they come down from the mountain top. And when they get to the bottom of the mountain, the disciples are squabbling that a person has come with a demon possessed son, and the disciples are trying to throw the demon out of the child, and they are failing. And Jesus gets frustrated with them and throws the demon out himself. And after the family leaves, the disciples try to Jesus and they ask why they couldn’t throw the demon out. And he replies, “because you have little faith.” I’m going to guess that wasn’t the answer they were looking for.
Then we get to the last few hours of Jesus’s life. He sends Peter and John into the city to prepare the Passover meal, and they ask him “what should we do to prepare for the meal?” And he provides very detailed instructions: “look for a man carrying water, and say this for exact phrase to that man, and he’ll set you up with in the right place.”
In the midst of the last supper Jesus says that one of the disciples will betray him. Peter leans over to Jesus and asks who is the one? And Jesus replies “the one to whom I hand this piece of bread, and who dips it in the saucer.” And then he hands the piece of bread to Judas. Seems a direct answer, but this is an example of one of those things that’s kinda not really a direct answer. It’s one of the ones that is questionable.
And lastly in the midst of the trial for the Jewish religious leadership, they ask Jesus “are you the Messiah?” And finally, after providing so many indirect answers to that question, he finally says “I am,” with all the extra meaning you may or may not of heard that goes into that phrase. Those are the questions that Jesus answers.
I’m left wondering what happens when Jesus answers a question. The disciples asked him so many questions, people asked him over 180 questions; they clearly want answers. But when they get answers, what do they do with them? One of the ones that we read this morning when Jesus was talking about the greatest commandment, at the end of the passage it says, “after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.” And I find that to be intriguing. We say that we want Jesus to answer our questions. It’s very common for people to suggest that when they get to heaven they’ve got a list of questions for Jesus.
And every time I hear that phrase, that they’ve got this list of questions they would ask Jesus, I remember back to the book of Job. Granted, you probably haven’t read that book, most people don’t read that book, it’s kind of depressing really. But throughout the book of Job it continually says “well, if God would just show up to me, I would would present my case, and I would be justified.” And at the end of the book, God shows up and says, “OK, I am the god of the whole universe. Present your case.” And Job remains silent before God. These moments when Jesus answers a question are moments where God shows up most profoundly. And when Jesus answers the question, that answer is so profound, and so challenging that almost every single one of those times the questions stop. They would rather sit in the questions then be challenged through the answer.
And this actually makes sense if you sit down and you think about it, within my personal experience at least. Because I’ve done several Bible studies, I’ve preached five years worth of sermons; and usually speaking the places I receive the most pushback, the places where people are most challenged, are these statements. The commands, the statements of Jesus, challenge us. Half of those answers to those questions are questions about the law, where Jesus is his explaining the law and pushing the law further. Those places get the most pushback; they’re the quickest to get the strongest pushback, the places were people just want to scream and yell “yeah, but…what about this, or that. Surely there must be exceptions to this.”
I think one of the reasons we want to push back so hard against these phrases is because we as pastors have done a good job of contextualizing the parables. And I’m not saying that’s necessarily a negative; I do that as well. But we sit here and we say, “well the parable says this, but what it’s really saying is that.” Or we try and bring you into the parable a little bit, and give you a stepping stone to get further on in the journey. It is easy to do with the parables because there is gray in the parable, there is gray in the story, and in how we might apply the story. So we are able to make them a little more comfortable, a little more palatable, to help you step closer to where you’re supposed to go.
But when Jesus gives a direct statement, when Jesus is plain and clear, there is less wiggle room. so we want to create some. We’re so used to hearing Jesus speak in story and parables, where we’re able to say, “I don’t like where that’s going. Surely there some other way around that,” and finding a way around the problematic language; that when Jesus speaks plainly and clearly, we want that same ability to find the wiggle room, and gray area, and we can’t. When we get challenged by anyone, but particularly when we get challenged by authority figure like Jesus, a natural reaction is to want to find a way out of the challenge, rather than to actually change ourselves in the way that we’re being challenged.
And that, of course, is a natural reaction. So I wonder how does Jesus actually want us to respond? Because I wonder if that squirming, that wanting to find some wiggle room, is exactly what Jesus wants. He usually doesn’t provide an answer. And I have suggested that that he doesn’t provide an answer, that he asks questions instead, in order to make us think. And I wonder if his answers are any different. Does he want to shut down the conversation? Or does he want to continue to make us think, continue to make us wrestle with things, and that’s why his challenges are so pushy: he doesn’t want it to be an easy solution, he wants to push us, challenge us, and move us. Every time he answers a question it shuts down the conversation. So, therefore he provides so few answers. I think he actually wants the pushback, he wants to converse with us, and for us to converse with ourselves. So maybe we should talk about these answers, maybe we should push back on the answers, maybe we should have discussions with Jesus and with others a lot more than we do. But all too often, especially recently, we’ve just taken to say, “well because Jesus says so, end of the discussion. The Bible says, I believe it, that settles it.” But that doesn’t seem to be what Jesus wants to happen when the Bible says something.
And we recognize this in our daily lives. We recognize that the teachers that teach with story, the teachers to teach with questions are better teachers than the ones that teach just with direct answers. We want more Master Po, with his grasshoppers. We want more Master Yoda with riddles. We want less dictators, less lectures. In fact one of the primary criticisms you will hear first is that something sounds too “lecture-y,” or to “preachy.” We don’t want that from most of our teachers, so why do we seem to want that from Jesus? If we recognize that other teachers teach better in story, teach better in parables, teach better with questions; why wouldn’t Jesus teach better that same way as well?
Often we want Jesus to just tell us what to do because it’s easier, but Jesus makes very clear he doesn’t want that. Even some of the direct answers are preceded or followed by parables to get you to think. He wants to be a friend, a mentor; he doesn’t want to be a dictator to our lives, he doesn’t want to just provide us a checklist of things to do and mark off. That was already present in the Law. He came to do something new; a new covenant that looks different than the rulebook, the list of things to do and not to do. That was the Law; he wants to us to think for ourselves. Rather than to think “what would Jesus do,” he wants us to think “how do I love my neighbor as Jesus loved me in the situation?” And come up with that answer of what we think Jesus would do ourselves.
Sometimes people can get frustrated with the amount that theologians answer “we cannot know,” or “it’s a mystery,” or “I don’t know.” Yet theologians throughout history have done exactly that. They give non-answers. I do the same thing, from time to time at least, perhaps not enough. Of course that makes us squirm, we don’t like that. It makes us think, it puts the work back on us when someone says “well what do you think?” It’s uncomfortable when that happens. And so recently we’ve had more, and more, and more movements were people are trying to provide answers. Movements where people are trying to provide all the answers. And these people are very popular, but I think that they provide an oversimplification, and a false gospel; or at the very least a shallow gospel that does not get us to live into this life the way that Jesus was trying to get us to live into this life. That’s why I don’t sit up here and try and provide all the answers, because I don’t think were meant to have all the answers, were meant to think, to explore; for it is in the exploration of life where we find both ourselves and God.
Jesus only answered eight questions. If we only look at the answers that Jesus gives us, we’d miss most of the Gospel. If we only looked at the answers Jesus gives us, we’d miss most of the Gospel. So this week I want you to live in the unknown, I want to live in the questions, I want you to invite Jesus to help you think for yourself through these things. For that I believe that is what Jesus would really do in our situations. Amen.