Pantocrator in Black and Brown by Brian Behm, from the exhibition De-colonizing Christ being held at St Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral in Harrisburg USA.
This week’s blog takes its starting-point from the lectionary Gospel reading for the coming Sunday,
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe, firstname.lastname@example.org
At heart I think I am an educationalist. I very much enjoy teaching, and I am grateful to one of the trainee Readers in our Diocese, who ‘interviewed’ me recently and invited me to think about the difference between teaching and preaching. They are, I think, not quite the same.
Perhaps that is why I particularly appreciate reflecting on Jesus as a teacher. He may have been – indeed Christians believe that he was – many other things as well. However he was also a stellar teacher. It wasn’t simply the content. It was also the methodology. Often he taught by asking people questions – rather than giving them ready answers. It is what I think of as an inductive rather than deductive method of education. Such a methodology is profoundly incarnational and deeply respectful of our humanity.
This week’s lectionary Gospel reading Mark 8.27-38 takes us to the central core of the Gospel of Mark, when the disciples, and especially Peter, realise something about Jesus’ key identity (that he is the Messiah) which they don’t seem to have quite understood previously – though there have been enough clues scattered through the pages of the Gospel, at least from chapter 4. By now Jesus must have got rather fed up with their obtuseness; certainly that is implied by the questions asked by Jesus himself during the sea-crossing of Mark 8.14-20.
It is I think really important however that the disciples discover who Jesus is ultimately through him asking them questions, rather than offering a ready made answer. They work it out for themselves in response to his questions:
- Who do people say that I am?
- Who do YOU say that I am?
Reflecting on this started me thinking. I was interested to discover how many other questions Jesus asks those he meets. So taking the Gospel of Mark as the focus for this exercise I went through the Gospel and made a list. Almost all of Jesus’ questions in Mark are therefore listed below (I have omitted one or two when Jesus asks a very similar second question almost immediately after a first. If anyone spots a question that I accidentally left out I would be grateful to hear!)
- Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier to say…? (Mark 2.8-9)
- Have you never read what David did? (Mark 2.25)
- Is it lawful to do good or do harm on the Sabbath? (Mark 3.4)
- How can Satan cast out Satan? (Mark 3.23)
- Who are my mother and my brothers? (Mark 3.33)
- Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all parables? (Mark 4.13)
- With what can we compare the Kingdom of God or what parable shall we use for it? (Mark 4.30)
- Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith? (Mark 4.40)
- What is your name? (Mark 5.9)
- Who touched my clothes? (Mark 5.30)
- Why do you make such a commotion and weep? (Mark 5.39)
- How many loaves have you? (Mark 6.38)
- Do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that what goes into a person from outside cannot defile? (Mark 7.18)
- How many loaves do you have? (Mark 8.5)
- And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ (Mark 8.17-21)
- Can you see anything? (Mark 8.23)
- Who do people say that I am? (Mark 8.28)
- Who do you say that I am? (Mark 8.29)
- What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8.36)
- What can they give in return for their life? (Mark 8.37)
- How then is it written about the Son of Man that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? (Mark 9.13)
- What are you arguing about with them? (Mark 9.16)
- You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? (Mark 9.19)
- What were you arguing about on the way? (Mark 9.33)
- What did Moses command you? (Mark 10.3)
- Why do you call me good? (Mark 10.18)
- What is it you want me to do for you? (Mark 10.36)
- Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with? (Mark 10.38)
- What do you want me to do for you? (Mark 10.51)
- ‘I will ask you one question?…Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? (Mark 11.29)
- What then will the owner of the vineyard do? … Have you not read this scripture? (Mark 12.9)
- Why are you putting me to the test? …Whose head is this and whose title? (Mark 12.15-16)
- Is not the reason that you are wrong that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? (Mark 12.24)
- Have you not read in the Book of Moses… how God said I am the God of the living? (Mark 12.26)
- How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the Son of David? (Mark 12.35)
- Do you see these great buildings? (Mark 13.2)
- Why do you trouble her? (Mark 14.6)
- The Teacher asks, where is my guest room? (Mark 14.14)
- Could you not keep awake one hour? …Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? (Mark 14.37, 41)
- Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? (Mark 14.48)
- My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15.34)
Sometime I would like to repeat the exercise using the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – though my instinct is that ‘questions’ are somehow particularly characteristic of the style and theology of the Gospel of Mark.
What are my reflections having gathered together this list? First that there really are a lot of questions – it does seem to have been a characteristic method of engagement on the part of Jesus with both his disciples and his opponents.
Second, that his use of questions draws into the discussion those he is questioning and helps to make them participants in their own learning. It makes them think! It is also interesting to see the range of contexts in which Jesus uses questions: for challenge, for confrontation, for care, for compassion and for concern. One thing that this ‘questioning’ methodology seems to do quite frequently is to encourage people to ‘question’ what they have accepted as received wisdom, sometimes from scripture, or from tradition, or from society’s norms.
I was fascinated to be reminded of the way that Jesus asks the identical question ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ first of James and John in Mark 10.31 and then fifteen verses later of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10.46. It throws into sharp relief their very different responses (prime seats in heaven versus sight to follow Jesus on the way). I was also interested to be reminded of how Jesus’ sense of frustration with the obtuseness of his disciples in Mark 8.17-21 is framed in a series of questions – several of which allude back to earlier incidents in the Gospel.
But perhaps above all I realised more acutely than I had done previously the striking way that, according to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus dies with a question on his lips. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There have in fact been no questions from Jesus in the passion narrative between the moment of his arrest and this question as he hangs on the cross. I had a powerful sense of realisation of the deep link between the question that is at the heart of this week’s lectionary reading ‘Who do you say that I am?’ and that question on the cross. One had led almost inexorably to the other. Did Jesus realise as he asked that earlier question where the answer would ultimately lead to? And if so, would it not have been so much more comfortable for him not to have asked it?
One more thing. Some of you are aware that I have a particular passion for the book of Genesis. So I could not resist interrogating Genesis in a similar way and discovering the questions that God (or a divine/angelic messenger) asks in the Book of Genesis. I think they are as follows (though I might not have spotted one or two)
- Where are you? (Genesis 3.9)
- Who told you that you were naked? (Genesis 3.11)
- What is this that you have done (Genesis 3.13)
- Why are you angry? (Genesis 4.6)
- Where is your brother Abel? (Genesis 4.9)
- Where have you come from and where are you going? (Genesis 16.8)
- Why did Sarah laugh? (Genesis 18.13)
- Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? (Genesis 18.17)
- What troubles you Hagar? (Genesis 21.17)
- What is your name? (Genesis 32.27)
- Why is it that you ask my name? (Genesis 32.29)
Again there are several things to notice. Not least of course the powerful link between God’s first question of all – to Adam – ‘Where are you?’ and the question in the following chapter to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
But I was also intrigued to realise that the last ‘divine’ question in the Book of Genesis – asked of Jacob by his divine assailant at the fords of Penuel in Genesis 32.29, is ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’. Given the importance of the divine name in the Bible, and especially the Old Testament that is surely significant. There is of course a deep Old Testament tradition of reticence about the name. in Genesis it is withheld from Jacob, and in Exodus it will only be revealed to Moses with caveats about its misuse. It is intriguing therefore that the question that Jesus asks of his disciples in Mark 8. ‘Who do you say that I am?’ is in a deep sense a response to that earlier question of Genesis, as he prompts his disciples to discover for themselves his nature and his name.
Charles Wesley wrote a powerful hymn, ‘Come thou traveller unknown’ about Jacob’s experience at the fords of Penuel. It is not often sung these days. But its final line pulls together the experience of wrestling Jacob and that of Jesus’ disciples as they seek to wrestle with the question of his identity. The answer is simple: ‘Thy nature and Thy name is Love’.