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Foreword to 'The Questions of Jesus

by Richard Rohr

In the realm of soul and spirit, there are not really answers as much as there are answering persons.  The important thing is not to settle the dust and respond to the ego's need for closure and satisfaction, but in fact, to lead one into a vital relationship. The ego so demands immediate satisfaction that it will almost always settle for satisfying falsehood rather than remain on the search for often unsatisfying truth. Jesus keeps us on the necessary search.

I am told, for example, that Jesus only directly answers 3 of the 183 questions that he himself is asked in the four Gospels! (I will let you find them!) This is totally surprising to people who have grown up assuming that the very job description of religion is to give people answers and to resolve peoples' dilemmas. Apparently this is not Jesus' understanding of the function of religion because he operates very differently.  Jesus either keeps silent as with Pilate (John 19:9), returns with another question as with the coin of Caesar (Matthew 22:19), or gives an illustration, as with the Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:30f).

At other times he puts the question back inside the frame of reference of the inquirer, as if to make them critique it.  He does so with the rich young man:  "You know the commandments" (Mark 10:19).  Sometimes he can only weep, sigh, or lament because of the seeming ill-will or hostility represented in the question, as when the Pharisees ask for a sign from him (Mark 8:12). Here he out-rightly refuses to respond.  He has painfully learned, no doubt, that any attempt to interact with an entrenched position of resentment or ego-fortified suspicion will normally only be used to dig the trench deeper and further fortify the argument. Many times silence, quiet prayer and genuine love for the opponent are the only answers, even though you will be judged harshly in the moment and by any observers.  It must have taken immense humility and groundedness on his part.

If we can understand this basic dynamic, perhaps we can see what Jesus is doing in asking his own questions instead.  As John Dear will brilliantly illustrate in this book, Jesus' questions are to re-position you, make you own your unconscious biases, break you out of your dualistic mind, challenge your image of God or the world, or present new creative possibilities.  He himself does not usually wait for or expect specific answers.  He hopes to call forth an answering person.  He wants to be in relationship with a person, with the idea as it informs the person, and with the process of transformation itself.  Thus his questions are worth examining because they, along with the parables, reveal his basic style of encounter with the soul, or what we would call today, his style of "evangelization".  One wonders why no one has written such a book as this before!

In general, we can see that Jesus' style is almost exactly the opposite of modern televangelism or even the mainline church approach of "Dear Abby" bits of inspiring advice and workable solutions for daily living.  Jesus is too much the Jewish prophet to merely stabilize the status quo by platitudes or euphemisms.  He much more destabilizes the false assumptions on which the entire question or one's world view is built.  As Joseph Campbell said, speaking of the universal messages of myth, "In thinking, the majority is always wrong".  Jesus knows that his hearers will soon return to the dominant consciousness totally unprepared to deal with their own inner conflicts or the critique of others.  The unspoken assumptions are embedded in every aspect of the culture, and the message will quickly evaporate as impossible or irrelevant.  This is the normal pattern, in my experience.  The shelf life of a sermon is about twenty minutes. 

C.S. Lewis addresses this very issue in his essay on Christian Apologetics in God in the Dock.  He says, "We can make people attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so, but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted.  As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible".  This is the final anemia of any religion based primarily on sermons rather than relationships or lifestyle.

Instead, Jesus asks questions, good questions, unnerving questions, re-aligning questions, transforming questions.  He leads us into liminal, and therefore transformative space, much more than taking us into any moral high ground of immediate certitude or ego superiority. He subverts up front the cultural or theological assumptions that we are eventually going to have to face anyway.  He leaves us betwixt and between, where God and grace can get at us, and where we are not at all in control. It probably does not work for a large majority of people, at least in my experience.  They merely ignore you or fight you.  Maybe this is why we have paid so little attention to Jesus questions and emphasized instead his seeming answers. They give us more a feeling of success and closure. We made of Jesus a systematic theologian, who walked around teaching dogmas, instead of a peripatetic and engaging transformer of the soul.  Easy answers instead of hard questions allow us to try to change others instead of allowing God to change us.  At least, I know that is true in my life.

Jesus always reminds us that "God alone is good" (Mark 10:18) and we had best not try to concoct our own goodness by providing ourselves with pat or immediate answers about great and intentionally unanswerable questions.  Thus he merely lists the memorized commandments to a young inquiring man, while cleverly and compassionately slipping in "Do not defraud" second to the last.  He does not really answer his self-reassuring question about "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" but instead quietly reveals the likely sin of this rich young man. Jesus knows how he got rich, and that is why he dares to tell him that he must give it all away. This would-be "13th disciple" cannot bear the ego humiliation of this revelation.  "His face fell and he went away"  (Mark 10:22).  He wanted to think of himself as good instead of rejoicing in the goodness of God.  That is the problem with any religion based primarily on morality and satisfying answers, instead of questions.  As a result, he missed the primary call, the moment of sheer relationship, the ultimate questioning of the soul--when "Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him".  No where else is there such a line in the whole New Testament.

The rich young man wanted satisfying answers instead of an answering person, and as a result, he got neither. He wanted his question answered to reassure himself that he was in the in-crowd of the saved.  Jesus told him personally--on the spot-- that he was, but he did not have the freedom to hear any questions but his own.

Richard Rohr, O.F.M.
Center for Action and Contemplation
Albuquerque , New Mexico

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