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2. Questions Designed to Last

As the Roman official governing unpredictable Palestine Pilate had met many unusual characters. But the person facing him now stood out from all the others. Pilate knew his reputation as a preacher and miracle worker. Now he stood there, silent, calm and dignified in spite of the insults and humiliations hurled at him. To Pilate he had the bearing of a king, infinitely more impressive than the scheming fanatics who kept pressing accusations against him (Jn 18,39; 19,19-22).

One moment it looked as if Pilate was really interested in Jesus as a teacher, a guide. Jesus responded by saying, "The reason why I have been born, why I have come into the world, is to give witness to the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me". Pilate let these words sink in. A cynical look came over his face. "Truth?!" he said. "And what is truth?" Then he turned away from Jesus (Jn 18,37-38).

Pilate's question, "What is truth?" disturbs us. Pilate did not even give Jesus a chance to reply. His question hangs as an unresolved problem over the passion narrative. The very fact that it remains unanswered makes us reflect on its deeper implications. What is the relation between Jesus' death and truth? Was it not Pilate's duty as judge to maintain truth at all costs? What is the truth Jesus came to testify to? Could I myself answer the question, what is truth? Do I clearly discern between truth and non-truth? The question thus haunts us, forcing us to even deeper reflections. A statement is closed; a question by its very nature open-ended.

And then as we sit back and see the scene again, it may suddenly dawn on us that John wants us to look even deeper. We ourselves are Pilate and Jesus stands on trial before us. Jesus is the question. As long as we feel secure of our Roman values - our own safety, our sense of superiority, our ambition, our material comfort, we will do what Pilate did: wash our hands and allow Jesus to die. But once we admit there is a question, that this person Jesus poses a new challenge, that it is not so clear where "the truth" lies, everything changes. We have become seekers.

It is this quality of the Gospel: to unsettle us, to raise awkward and stimulating questions that we will discuss in this chapter. The central role of 'seeking in our spiritual life can hardly be exaggerated. It is hunger and thirst not satiated glut that characterizes a truly religious person; readiness to learn not self-complacency. For awareness begins by admitting one does not know.

Riddles from the East

Although John's Gospel is full of testimonies, of professions of faith and instructions it is also the Gospel with most questions. All in all, there are 161 of them. They are such a distinctive feature of the Gospel that we would miss its very nature if we do not understand their purpose. Questions are often a literary device employed by authors to make the story move forward with greater clarity and dramatic tension. Conan Doyle invented the dull witted, inquisitive Dr. Watson for no other purpose than to give his master detective Sherlock Holmes the opportunity of giving witty and perspicacious answers. Do John's questions have more than a literary function?

The first reason for assuming that they have is the observation that Jesus himself handled questions as a means of bring people to insight. Even the brief Synoptic traditions preserve many instances in which Jesus counters one question by another. Challenged on what authority he cleansed the Temple, he replies, "I too will ask you a question. On what authority did John baptise? (Mk 11, 29-30). Urged to condemn or condone paying taxes to Rome, he retorts: "Bring me a silver coin. Whose face and name are inscribed here?" (Mk 12,15-16). The scribes were utterly nonplussed when Jesus, quoting Psalm 110,1 "The lord said to my lord", asked them, "David himself called him 'Lord'; so how can the Messiah be David's son?" (Mk 12,35-37). Such questions were pregnant questions. Somehow they carried the answer in themselves. Or, rather, they forced Jesus' listeners to think, to work out the deeper meaning he had intended. Jesus' questions to the scribes remained alive, even after his death. We can be sure that the early Christians kept repeating those questions in their controversy with the Jews, grateful as they were for their cogency and wisdom.(1)

The real force of Jesus' questions becomes clear in his instruction on neighbourly love. A scribe has asked him, "What must I do to receive eternal life?" On Jesus' promptings, the scribe correctly volunteers the opinion that love of God and of the neighbour are the most important duties prescribed by the Scriptures. When Jesus expresses agreement, the scribe then presses on with the question, "Who is my neighbour?" At this point Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then unexpectedly, ends up with the question, "Which one of these three acted like a neighbour towards the man who fell victim to the robbers?" (Lk 10.25-37). By presenting the image

of the Good Samaritan Jesus refuses to give a theoretical answer. The parable itself therefore poses the question, "Who is my neighbour?" In this way, many of Jesus' parables carry implicit and explicit questions. How does this apply to me? What lessons should I draw from this? The ancient oriental "mashal" was not only a comparison to clarify; it was also a riddle to point to deeper questions.

Wells without bottoms

In giving prominence to questions John has therefore preserved an integral element of Jesus' own teaching. But, no doubt, he was also influenced by the value attached to philosophical discursive argument in the Greek literature of his time. After Plato had published examples of Socrates' dialogues, the value of questions had been established once for ever. Socrates' method was simple. When someone had uttered a conviction as a rather definite pronouncement, Socrates would ply him with one question after the other until the person would come to acknowledge that the matter was not as clearcut as he had thought. Socrates did not attempt to formulate a perfect answer. He contented himself to vindicate the questions themselves, thus stimulating his partners in the dialogue to search further and deeper for the fulness of truth.

John, we can be sure, was also influenced by the mystical trends that pervaded the Hellenistic thinking in his time. Jewish philosophers in Alexandria had begun to submit the old revelation to a new mystical scrutiny. Philo was one of them, and so was the author of the book of Wisdom. They began to ask questions about existence and the deeper meaning of the ancient texts. Pondering existential questions has always been part of mystical schooling. The impossible questions, "koans", of Zen Buddhism are a well-known example.

"How can you enter the non-gate of charity?" "What sound do you hear if you clap with one hand?"38 We find similar examples with the Sufis 39 and the teachers of the Upanishads.40 Though given expression in many different forms, questioning itself seems a natural ingredient of the mystical search, perhaps because in the final analysis it is not the content of the questions that matters, but the search itself.

All this should make us suspect hidden dimensions in John's questions. (2) That such dimensions are truly there can best be illustrated, I believe, by lifting the questions out of their context. It is often seen that not only do they retain their basic quality; they even gain in strength. The real intentions of John may suddenly become more apparent.

Let us analyse a few examples. When Jesus has stated that he will go where his opponents will not be able to come, alluding to his death and ascent to heaven, someone exclaims in utter derision, "What?! Does he intend to go off to the Diaspora among the Hellenists to teach the Hellenists?" The remark must have been greeted with shrieks of laughter! The idea seemed so absurd. No more than a witticism in a heated discussion, we might think. Not so for John. His readers were Greek Christians living in the Diaspora. Jesus' statement, "I shall go where you cannot come", had suddenly a new perspective in the light of that question. Jesus was to go beyond the geographical and cultural borders of Judaism. In a way not thought possible by his original audience, Jesus would become the teacher of the Greek speaking people, establishing a new, Greek, form of Christianity. And through this cultural transcendence the question has unsuspected implications for Chinese, African, perhaps even Muslim and Marxist Christianities.

Some commentators attribute John's innuendo to a "sense of irony". It is that, but much more. When Caiaphas says, "Don't you realise that it is better to let one man die than to have the whole nation destroyed?", John himself remarks that he put this question as a prophet, because he was High Priest that year (Jn 11,49-52). There is no irony here, but seeing an intended meaning deeper than was foreseen in the original context. This is an almost constant feature of the questions John reports. When the scribes challenged the cured blind man, "Since it was your eyes he opened, what is your verdict about him?" (Jn 9,17), John thinks of unbelievers in his own time. Instead of rejecting Christ outright, why don't they ask Christians, who have experienced what Christ can do for them? Such questions keep their validity. They last.

The mystery round Jesus

Once we realise the staying power of John's questions, we cannot fail to discover certain patterns in them. Some questions return again and again as the theme of a well-known melody. Others cluster round one or two central issues. And of them the person of Jesus is the greatest.

Who really was this Palestinian Jew who, after such a short spell of preaching managed to inspire such a large following even among Greek speaking people?

"This man who told you to pick up your mat and walk, who is he?" (5,18)

"Well then, who are you?" (Jn8,25)

"Surely, you don't claim to be greater than our ancestor Jacob?" (Jn4,12)

"Surely you don't claim to be greater than our father Abraham, or the prophets?"Jn 8,53)

"Are you the king of the Jews?" (Jn18,33)

"So then you are a king?" (Jn 8,37)

To understand who Jesus is, we must grasp his paradoxical origins.Through the veil of his humanity we have to see the eternal beginning he had with the Father. We cannot accept Jesus as the Word if we do not come to terms with the scandal of Nazareth.

"Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1,46)

"Isn't this Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don't we we know his father and mother? How can he say now he has come down from heaven?" (Jn 6,42)

"What? The Messiah coming from Galilee?! Doesn't Scripture say that the Messiah will descend from David and will be born in Bethlehem, the village where David lived?" (Jn 7,41-42)

"How does this fellow know so much when he had no teacher?" (Jn 7,15)

"Where do you come from?" (Jn 19,9)

Even when we have accepted Jesus, there is much we need to learn. Confidently we turn to our master, requesting him to elucidate our problems and doubts. And even while we ask the questions, we realise that we will only gradually discover the mysteries they refer to. Also here our questions retain their validity throughout our Christian life.

"What do you mean by saying, 'You will be free'?" (Jn 8,33)

"Where is your 'father'?" (Jn 8,19)

"How can he give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6,52)

"How can a grown up person be born again?" (Jn 3,4)

"Teacher, who committed the sin that caused this man to be born blind, he or his parents?" (Jn 9,2)

Spotlight on ourselves

But we are not the only ones to ask questions. In John's Gospel Jesus often turns to us and addresses us directly. The questions he puts are very penetrating and often call for a generous response. They cannot be evaded. Jesus' questions addressed to us truly spell out an option between life or death.

"Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?" (Jn 20,15)

"Do you want to be cured?" (Jn 5,6)

"Do you understand what I have done to you?" (Jn13,12)

"Do you believe in the Son of Man?" (Jn9,35)

"I am the resurrection and the life .... Do you believe this?" (Jn11,25-26)

"Here I am with you all this time and you still don't know me?" (Jn14,9)

"Do you love me?" (Jn21,16)

"Who is it you are looking for?" (Jn18,4)

Here we are touching the heart of the Gospel. John's overriding concern is to present us Jesus. He knows the questions we have about him and he encourages us to explore these questions further. He wants us to meet this mysterious figure who can give a totally new meaning to our life.(3) John reminds us too of the questions we need to answer. "Just who are you? What have you to say about yourself?" (addressed to John the Baptist, 1,22). Mostly, he wants us to face up to the radical questions Jesus himself is putting us. Will we have the honesty and the openness of mind to bring this search to a fruitful end? "These signs have been written down so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this faith in his name you may have life" (20,31). Then, when we shall be living in the daily experience of his presence, the anxious questioning of our early days will be over. "On that day you will have no more questions to put to me" (16,23). Not because the old questions will have lost their validity; but because now we will discover their meaning ever deeper day by day.(4)

Most of us instinctively distrust people who are always sure of themselves, who pretend to know everything. We distrust them because we feel so vulnerable ourselves; and we know, or suspect, their self-assurance is based on presumption anyway. We know it is human to err and that it was the greatest human leaders who were ready to listen and learn new things. In fact, admitting one's human limitations is not a sign of weakness; it is the beginning of growth and true greatness.

This general principle which we know so well from everyday experlence. applies in a special way to the realm of religion. We cannot be open to the wider dimensions of existence if we do not possess a questioning mind and a heart full of wonder. Every meditation is a reaching out into the unknowable; every prayer an expression of feelings too deep for words. Not as if certainties are entirely lacking in the area of religion. There are certainties but each of them leads on to further exploration and further wonder. By its very nature religion means search.

Some Christians think the firmness of revelation has put an end to the search.... {t is not so. Yes, God has acted. He has spoken in clear terms. He has set out signposts along which we can safely walk. But by doing so he has not destroyed our search, the heart of our religious response. Rather he has elevated it and put it on a higher plane. He has helped us formulate the right questions. He has pointed out what we should be looking for. He has shown us how to seek more intensely, more effectively, with greater longing and with more confident hope.

It is a dreadful mistake not to recognise the value of a continuous religious search in our Christian commitment. "Seek and you shall find". The ultimate purpose of the questioning in St. John's Gospel is to inculcate this attitude. It is as if John tells us: "Do not presume to understand revelation fully. Do not think you already know Christ as you should. Do not imagine you live already the extent of love God expects from you. Remain a seeker. Be prepared for days or years of darkness and groping. Be ready to make new discoveries, to understand more fully what Jesus meant by what his Spirit will tell you. Let my questions remain with you and challenge you" .

For reflection. The two disciples

John the Baptist told his disciples that Jesus was the real Messiah whose coming he had only helped to prepare. Two of John's disciples decided to follow up John's recommendation. When Jesus passed by, they followed him from afar, looking for an opportunity to approach him (please read 1,29-39). Jesus turned round and asked, "What are you looking for?" With these simple words Jesus asks us to reflect on the ultimate meaning of our life. What is it we want? What is it we search for?

Am I still a seeker or am I under the impression I have found it all? What does my self assurance rest on? Is the slackening of my quest due to real conquest and fulfilment, or to distraction and tiredness?

I have searched, perhaps, for higher things in different stages of my life. What were these efforts? How did I follow them up? How would I sum up the meaning of this search? Who were the people who helped me most in pursuing my search?

I am able to do many things now, but what would happen if through an accident or sickness my health were to be reduced? I have friends and relations, but what would remain of my life if they were to die? Is the meaning of my life entirely built on health, material comfort, my family and friends, success? Can I cope with loss, suffering and death?

What are the priorities in my life? What are the things or people I think of most? If all my wishes would be granted by a miraculous benefactor, what would I request of him? What do I want most in life?

Foot Notes

1. D. A. CARSON, "Understanding Misunderstandings in the Fourth Gospel", Tyndale Bulletin 33 (1982) 59-91.

2. John's questions often do have a literary function too. They often serve as a link between a revelation by Jesus and a word of clarification (see J. M. REESE, "Literary Structure of Jn 13:13 - 14:31; 16:5-6. 16.33", Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34 (1972) 321-331), But the questions exceed this function. They possess a deeper inner validity of their own. A. VANHOYE, "Interrogation johannique et exegese de Cana (Jn 2,4)", Biblica 55 (1974) 157-167.

3. R. F. COLLINS, "The Search for Jesus. Reflections on the Fourth Gospel",Laval Theologique et Philosophique 34 (1978) 27-48.

4. Nicodemus is a man who illustrates the stages from search to commitment. He asks questions (3,1 - 21), defends Jesus (7,50-52), assists in his burial (19, 39-42); K STASIAK "The Man who came by night", The Bible Today 20 (1982) 84-89.


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