Asking the Right Questions

Asking the Right Questions

You’d think the blind man who received his sight from the miraculous intervention of Jesus had been plopped down at Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay. Everywhere he turns, he—and the people all around him—are being vigorously interrogated. You can see this in some of the questions. They are posed to get the answers the questioners want, or to trigger a confrontation that the questioner thinks can be won.

This can happen whenever an interrogator or interviewer isn’t being objective, but instead is seeking to arrive at some foregone conclusion. If you question someone vigorously enough, sometimes you get the answers you want; sometimes you get the truth. But too often, you don’t get both at the same time.

Whether in journalism or in gathering intelligence, there are great risks that lead to the eventual downfall of using such a methodology.

Chapter 9 of St. John’s account of the gospel, much of which we heard as our third scripture reading for today, is full of questions, many of them pushing hard to get to the right answer. It’s like a game of twenty questions, and coincidentally enough, that’s exactly how many questions I counted in reading the entirety of chapter 9: Twenty. Twenty questions in only 41 verses.

The entire Bible, of course, is full of questions and answers, from the beginning to the end: God asking man questions, and man asking God questions, and people questioning each other. Questions aren’t in themselves a bad thing, of course. It’s in questioning and getting the answers to our questions that we learn.

But there is sometimes risk in asking the wrong questions, or asking questions in the wrong way. What’s even worse, however, is in questioning someone we have no business questioning, at least in terms of His judgment. God wants us to ask and to pray, but He doesn’t want us to question Him in a doubtful, skeptical way. He never wants us to question His goodness, His mercy, His love, or His Word. When Jesus said in praying to His Father, “Thy word is truth,” we should be able to accept it as that. We can ask for the purposes of understanding His word better, but we should always tread lightly when we step onto the slippery slope of questioning its truth or its purpose. Doing that is not only dangerous, it’s sinful.

After all, what do you think was the first question in the Bible, and who do you think asked it? Go ahead, think about it. I’ll even give you a hint: It’s at the beginning of chapter three in the book of Genesis.

Yes, I see the light bulbs going off all over the pews out there. That’s right; it was Satan who asked the first question in the Bible. He approached Eve and said, “Did God actually say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The very first question in the Bible, the one that began the destruction of God’s perfect creation, came from the devil, and it cast doubt upon the word of God.

You all know what happened right after that, too. The very first interrogation, conducted by God. But he didn’t have to resort to pressure tactics, just simple questions that got to the truth. It began with the Lord God seeking His beloved creatures, and asking, “Where are you?” He knew full well, of course, because He’s God. The questions proceeded from there, and even though He knew what the answers were going to be, He gave Adam and Eve the opportunity to speak the truth, to admit their sin. They do admit it, even with their finger-pointing at God, each other, and the serpent along the way.

And, in the consequences handed out by God, there is severity and difficulty, but there is also a note of absolution, and a hope of the eventual Savior.

The interrogation in chapter 9 of John doesn’t carry the same divine weight as that in the story of The Fall from Genesis 3. In fact, of the 20 questions asked in John 9, only one of them is asked by Jesus, and one by the disciples. The townspeople ask three, the man born blind asks three, and the ones we Christians love to hate—the Pharisees—ask an even dozen.

The progression of the questions is informative. If we trace the pattern through this entire gospel narrative, we find that in many ways, the investigations and interviews parallel the journey of the entire human race in relationship to God. The disciples ask the first question, whether the man’s blindness was due to his own sin, or that of his parents. It was a prevailing thought in the day that all suffering and death was the result of some specific sin, committed by some specific individual.

The Jews had perhaps forgotten the words of their own King David, who wrote that he was not just a sinner, but that he was sinful, even from his own conception. It wasn’t a given sin that caused the man’s blindness, but rather his own fallen nature, inherited from one generation to the next.

Jesus first clears up that misunderstanding about actual sin and original sin, and then heals the man’s blindness with spit and soil. From earth and water, the very substances from which God’s infinitely complex creation sprang at His word, the uncreated Son of God makes a simple mud pie. Then the light of the world spoke to the man who lived in darkness: “Go. Be sent to Siloam. Be washed. And ‘let there be light,’—for you.” “So the man went and washed,” we are told, “and came home seeing.”

This causes quite a stir around the neighborhood, as you might imagine. This man, who many of them had known as the blind beggar for their entire lifetimes, could now see. It doesn’t register with many, for the same reason we often can’t accept the unexpected. “This can’t be him,” some of them scoffed. “It’s just a look-alike.” But the man himself, along with many others, insists that it is. Their story is later backed up by the man’s parents, who tell the Pharisees that the man is, indeed, their previously blind son.

Ah, yes, the Pharisees. A blind man receives his sight, and their first concern, after finding out that it did indeed happen and how, is whether or not any of their precious Sabbath laws were broken. “Not a good thing this Jesus did for the blind man,” some of them mutter. “Nope, not at all. Healed on the Sabbath, he did. That’s a violation. That’s not righteous. That’s not godly.”

Others aren’t so sure, knowing that such power over the forces of nature can’t be the work of someone who doesn’t have the power of the Lord of nature with him. Like the townspeople, the Pharisees are a house divided, and we know that such houses can’t stand.

The formerly blind man, asked his opinion about his healer, gives an emphatic endorsement: “He’s a prophet.” And indeed he is, for a prophet is not necessarily one who speaks of the future and predicts it, but rather one who speaks on behalf of God. This isn’t what the Pharisees want to hear, of course, so they summon the man’s parents to provide further information.

First, they want to establish that this newly-sighted man is indeed the one who was born blind. Perhaps they’re hoping that Jesus pulled a fast one, a little “switcheroo” with another person—a seeing person—now posing in place of the blind beggar. If they can establish that, then he’ll be discredited for the miracle, as well as guilty of violating the Sabbath.

It would be interesting to know, wouldn’t it, if all of this investigation and interrogation was also taking place on the Sabbath? Nothing like a little hypocrisy to add another layer of complexity to the story. But we don’t know for certain; it may have been the next day or some time later.

Nevertheless, the Pharisees’ questioning of the man’s parents gains them nothing, so they turn back to him. They try to get him to confess that Jesus, the man who had apparently made him see, was a sinner. Whether they mean that he had sinned in this instance by healing on the Sabbath, or was just someone they wanted labeled as unrighteous in general, it’s hard to say. But you can see their creeping desperation; their desire to get the answer they want to hear. The healed man, however, doesn’t take the bait: “It’s not for me to judge whether he’s a sinner or not,” he tells them. “All I know for sure is that I can see, and that’s good enough for me.”

Now they’re on the verge of panic: “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” you can almost hear them shouting. At this point, the man has perhaps concluded that the Pharisees are a little dense, because he reminds them they’ve already heard the story, and the story isn’t going to change. “Maybe they need to hear it again so that they can become his followers, too,” he reasons aloud. And that inference, that they wanted to have anything to do with Jesus in a positive sense, sends them over the edge. In a statement that drips with theological overtones, they yell at the man: “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! We don’t even know where this man comes from!”

In this, the Pharisees make clear two facts: First, that they were captive to the Law and were not open to hearing the good news of the kingdom of God which Jesus preached. Second, that they were conducting their investigation with a great deal of ignorance about their ultimate objective.

They were hard-hearted, and they were foolish, and they were frustrated. After the healed man gives them a brief lecture on how God listens to the righteous but not the sinful, they close their ears as well as their hearts, and throw him out of their synagogue.

Can you see yourself in this Gospel lesson? I certainly can. Sometimes I ask silly, ignorant questions of God. Sometimes I want to investigate something to find out whose fault it is that things went wrong. Sometimes I want to know exactly how God did something, does things, or will do them in the future. Sometimes I want to know not only why bad things can happen to people who try to live right, but even why good things happen to very, very bad people. I’ll bet you probably do the same.

Our inquisitiveness is certainly among the many, many gifts our heavenly Father has given us, but often we ask the wrong questions, or we ask questions of God when we should simply be looking and listening for His answers, without our interrogation.

In this, we should all repent. We’ve got no more right or righteousness to question God and His Word than did the serpent in Genesis 3, or Job when he was facing his afflictions. In questioning God’s fairness and wisdom, Job set himself up for a withering barrage of questions from the Lord: “How dare you question me, mortal? Were you there when I created this world in all its beauty and complexity?” Yes, if you ever need a dose of humility after questioning God, give chapters 38-40 of Job a read. You’ll find yourself set in your proper place pretty quickly.

And that proper place is this: You and I, and the blind man, and the Pharisees, and all the townspeople, and even the disciples, are all sinners. We not only have no business questioning God, we don’t have any business even standing there silently in His presence. We, too, should be thrown out of the synagogue—for all our questions, all our doubts, all our evil thoughts, our cruel and slanderous and blasphemous words—and for just being, by nature, sinful and unclean, blind and stubborn.

Yet when we are outside the synagogue—put there for succumbing to the question, “Did God really say?”—Jesus seeks us out. He finds us, blind and begging, and first of all He does a miraculous thing for us. He washes us in the pool of the Sent ones, and takes away our inability to see Him, trust Him, and worship Him. And later, whenever He finds us on the outside again, he repeatedly approaches and asks us the most important question we can hear: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

Because He found us first, because He washed us and removed our blindness, we can say in all truthfulness, “Lord, I believe.”

There’s another important question in John, chapter 9, too—one that doesn’t appear in the verses we heard read today. It’s asked when the Pharisees are questioning the man a second time. Even though they’re resistant to the man’s story, they have a need and a desire to hear how he had been healed by Jesus. They want the details. The man reminds them that they hadn’t listened the first time, but he’s willing to tell them once more if they insist. In the same breath, he adds, “Do you want to become His disciples, too?”

They don’t, of course, and they get even angrier and more resistance to the good news of Jesus. That’s normal behavior for those who think they can save themselves, or don’t need a Savior.

But you and I are called to continue to ask both Jesus’ question and the man’s question of those whose sacred days and sacred houses and, yes, even sacred cows come into conflict with God’s answers. We are to fulfill our own discipleship in finding others and asking, “Do you believe in the Son of Man? Do you want to become His disciples, too?”

As people of the Great Commission, don’t be physically blind to the spiritually blind, spiritually begging sinners all around you. Tell them the good news of Jesus. Bring them to this place of washing, where all our human handicaps are stripped away. Where we are nourished with miraculous, divine food and have the truly essential questions answered by God’s own Word. Help everyone you can to join in the throng of those whose voices join the formerly blind man—voices that echo evermore, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshipped Him. Amen.