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Jesus the Questioner

Jesus was a controversial figure. The message he preached had rich roots in the soil of Judean spirituality, but the specifics of his challenge ran against the grain of several party dogmas that were already in place. As a result he dealt often with questions—questions from listeners, from committed disciples, and from those who presented themselves as his opponents. As has been often observed, he had a habit of answering such questions somewhat elusively, and often with a question.

Jesus’ opponents often challenged him with a loaded question. Modern rhetoric recognizes the formal category of the “loaded question,” which is defined as a question that incorporates within it certain presuppositions that are not necessarily shared by the person asked. The example often give is, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” The question is framed as a yes-or-no question, but if I answered simply either yes or no I would be admitting that I was a wife-beater, whether in the past or in the present. A proper answer (unless in fact the question did match my circumstances as a wife-beater) would back up to a critical distance, and incorporate a recasting of the question itself into a response. For instance one could say, “I have never beaten my wife.” Or one could ask, “What makes you think I have ever beaten my wife?” A deeper kind of response would probe the motive behind such a loaded question: “You just enjoy making trouble, don’t you?” This kind of response, the rhetorical question, turns the challenge around and takes it into the motives and character of the questioner. It is this sort of rhetorical question that Jesus often employed in debate with his harshest opponents.

In Mark 8:11-13, we hear of Pharisees who arrive “to test him.” This is ominous language, not least because the only other one who has “tested” Jesus thus far was Satan himself in the wilderness just after his baptism (1:13). They come asking for a “sign from heaven”—a somewhat unpropitious request since the Gospel has just recounted Jesus’ feeding of 4000. The reader of Mark suspects that Jesus would be well capable of such a sign; but instead Jesus responds with a question: “Why does this generation ask for a sign?” The response is a brilliant recasting of the initial question, since (as is generally acknowledged by students of the Gospels) Jesus’ language evokes the “generation” of Israelites who perished in the wilderness their lack of faith, despite the many signs and miracles of provision worked for the by the Lord. It thus deflects the challenge by disclosing them as “the spiritual heirs of the disobedient wilderness generation who rejected Moses by demanding signs even after they had seen astounding ones in Egypt and on the Reed Sea.”1 But it also reverses the challenge, by characterizing the Pharisees as hostile towards God and therefore unworthy of a sign, unworthy then too of the spiritual leadership to which they aspire.

So we see Jesus recognizing the “load” in the question: that they have the right to ask a sign (while ignoring other signs) and that he has an obligation to produce one. He “hears” this in them, and his rhetorical question subverts that reality,2 implying that they are not in a position to ask or expect such a sign. If we dig deeper on this point, we find that in a related passage Jesus does in fact grant “this evil and adulterous generation” one sign, which he describes as “the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matt. 12:38-42; Luke 11:16, 29-32): his death, and resurrection after three days.3 Only that final Messianic work, and not the more ambiguous signs of healing or exorcism, will provide what these questioners will finally need of God’s mercy and grace. Thus his response has in fact a three-fold brilliance to it: (1) it is the right rhetorical strategy given his correct “hearing” of the moment and of the loaded question; (2) he undergirds the strategy with burning content in his evocation of the tradition of the lost generation; and (3) his wit is not mere show but is anchored in a central theme of his Messianic call. It is (1) effective, (2) telling, and (3) deep.

Another prime example is the account in Mark 11:27-33. Jesus is teaching in the Temple in the final week before his crucifixion, at the heart of religious Judaism. In this setting “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” come with a question: “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds with a question, which he requires them to answer before he gives his reply: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” They find they are unable to come up with an answer to their advantage, and so they reply, “We do not know.” Jesus’ final word: “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

Here again we hear a loaded question, begging the presupposition that these men have the right arbitrate divine authority. Jesus’ question exposes the flaw in that position: they are unable to take the matter seriously, being unwilling to acknowledge an activity of God—in John’s baptismal ministry—that lies outside the narrow bounds of their own self-promotion. Again Jesus is (1) effective, hearing the challenge correctly but refusing to take the question at face value; and (2) telling, exposing the falsity of their position; and (3) deep, touching on the reality of God’s call at the heart of Jesus’ (and John’s) ministry.

There are many other examples that can be adduced. All point to this same multi-purpose result. By answering questions with questions, Jesus (1) deflects the “testing” without disengaging his opponents from debate; (2) challenges or subverts the reality they are representing, and (3) uses the opportunity to bring home essential truths about his ministry and message. Answering questions with questions is another pointer to the Messianic attributes of Jesus; it demonstrates his wit and proficiency in this very demanding method, as he uses it not merely to best or manipulate an interlocutor, but to expose the darkness to light and to bring revelation.

Are there implications for Christian leadership today? One would wish to be able to assert that Jesus’ consummate skill in debate could be learned by everyone who desired to emulate it. Jesus’ care with questions put to him may induce in us a similar caution, to good effect. The particular events of his astonishing wit most of us can only admire. Perhaps each of us, though, can consider (1) how well we listen effectively to the questions of others, and to the questions behind the questions; (2) whether answers that carry with them the telling reality of the Gospel can be cultivated over time; and (3) how we might be more and more ready to represent the urgency and depth of the Gospel in any given situation.

1 Joel Markus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible Commentary. New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 503.

2 “Jesus seizes the initiative in the testing situation;” Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark (Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Firtress, 2007), p. 539, n. 6, citing R. C. Tannehill.

3 W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 8-18 (ICC. London: T & T Clark, 1991), p. 355.