October 23, 2011

Jesus Asked Them This Question

Passage: Matthew 22:41-42

Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: ‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’

At a 2008 Washington D.C. dinner White house adviser Valerie Jarrett was seated at a table when Four-star Army General Peter Chairelli—then the No. 2 ranking general in the U.S. Army—walked behind her.  Jarrett, apparently only seeing Chiarelli’s stripped uniform pants, though that he was a waiter and asked him to get her a glass of wine.  Jarrett was said to be mortified when she realized her mistake; in good humour, the general went and poured her a glass of wine.

I was at a restaurant one evening and I saw a man at another table that I had not seen in years.  I went over and interrupted their conversation to say hello—it turned out that I was mistaken.  I apologized for the interruption—it takes a lot more than that for me to feel embarrassed—and I walked away thinking that either it was a twin of the man I knew or my memory was not as good as I thought.  I opted for the prior explanation.

Mistaken identity that only costs you some measure of embarrassment is not that important.  I once attended a lecture given by a very accomplished novelist named P.D. James; I had no idea of her stature as a novelist at the time I attended the lecture.  The title of the lecture was “The moral obligations of the novelist”; it was an interesting lecture.  I know now that I would have listened with a different set of ears had I known her status as a novelist prior to the lecture.

These Pharisees gathered together with Jesus that day; I wonder if they would have listened with a different set of ears had they known the identity of the One who questioned them.

1. All questions assume certain premises.  For example, one spouse asks the other, “Why are you being such a grump today?”  A premise of this question is that grumpiness is unacceptable behaviour.  Another premise is the standard for what constitutes “grumpiness”; the spouse asking the question has assumed their view of “grumpiness” as the measure to be used.  Event still, if your are the one being asked this question I do not recommend you answer with, “I don’t accept the premise of your question—this will only be read as behaviour confirming your grumpiness.

As a general rule, though, it is prudent to think about the premises of questions being asked.  I often find that when asked some questions I can’t answer then as posed because I think the premises flawed.  The question, for example, “do you believe in global warming” is loaded with an array of premises that need, in my view, further examination.  To answer such a question directly gives credence to the premises assumed.

In the gospel narratives Jesus does not often answer the questions put to him directly.  He often answers with a question of his own; I think because he does not think the premises of the question correct.  He readily changes the subject to something else—something he thinks gets at what our questions really ought to be about.  Jesus shows us what our questions ought to be.

The Sadducees asked a question of Jesus they thought proved there was no resurrection; it was about a woman who was married to a succession of seven brothers—each of the brothers dying childless.  (According to the law of Moses, “If any man dies childless, his brother shall marry the widow.)   These Sadducees question assumed certain premises about the nature of the next life in relationship to this one.  Jesus challenges these assumptions in response to their question—“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

It is the Monday following Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem.  There has been a line up of his opponents asking questions; mostly seeking to discredit Jesus.  The one question Jesus does answer directly is the question about which commandment in the law is the greatest.  Now Jesus asks them a question; it is not a question asked in response to one of their questions.  Jesus’ question points these Pharisees to consider something Jesus thinks important.  It isn’t just for them; it is a question Jesus considers important for every generation.

“What do you think of the Messiah”, asks Jesus, “Whose son is he?”  What are some of the premises of Jesus question?  Jesus presumes that the identity of Israel’s Messiah is crucial.  He also presumes that knowing the scriptures is bedrock—where questions he thinks crucial are answered.

The Pharisees give the scriptural answer that the Messiah is the son of David.  The Scripture indicates the Pharisees’ answer correct; Jeremiah (23:5) spoke of God’s promise to “raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king”.  Isaiah (11:1) speaks of Messiah that “a root shall come out of the stump of Jesse (Jesse is David’s father).

Then Jesus cites Psalm 110:1, a text considered to speak of the Messiah, “The Lord said to my Lord (Messiah), sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”  “How it then that David (author) by the Spirit calls him Lord; if David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?”  No one was able to answer.  The answer given by the Pharisees wasn’t wrong, but according to Jesus was too simple.  It does not account for all the scripture says nor the power of God.  How can both things be true—both David’s son and Lord?

Theologically speaking, this is a question about Christology—the identity of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ question to the Pharisees is to ask the same thing he asked his own disciples when he asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus considers it a crucial question for any generation and people.

I know that for most people in our world this question is not high on the list of answers sought.  It sounds like an in-house church question or one for debate in the seminary classroom.  But if, as the New Testament affirms, that Jesus is God come in the flesh, then, this is the Lord of the universe asking this question.  Jesus is calling us to consider reality that transcends the questions we typically find of great importance.

According to a 2011survey conducted by the United Church’s denominational magazine the Observer, only 76% of ministers responding to the survey answered “yes” to the question “Do you believe in God?”  The other 24% checked “depends what you mean by God” as their answer.

Overall the majority of United Church respondents said they understood Jesus primarily as a role model for living.  Our Presbytery recently crafted a mission/vision statement that viewed “God as our centre, and Jesus Christ as our guide”.  When this statement was first crafted we were invited to give input; I offered that the word guide with reference to Jesus fell short of the Biblical affirmation that he is Lord and head of the church.  The response I go back was that Jesus as guide was what most could agree to.

Is “guide” and “role model” the strongest affirmation concerning Jesus our church has to make? This falls abysmally short of who the apostles knew Jesus Christ to be, what they gladly confessed before the world regardless of cost to them: he is Son of God, Saviour, Lord, Messiah of Israel, Judge, and Sovereign over heaven and earth. “Guide” and “role model” can be found in all kinds of people.

2.  Why does Jesus want us to answer his question?  Because everything with respect to salvation hinges on who he is.  The answer to Jesus question of how the Messiah can be both David’s son and the Lord is the incarnation—God taking on flesh in Jesus.  Admittedly hard to conceive and nothing we would expect from our common experience of life.  Jesus is more than human-yet fully human; his agenda greater than anything we can imagine.  These Pharisees who are questioned by Jesus cannot conceive Jesus’ agenda.  Many of them think that Jesus is riding his popularity as pretence for a power grab—they can only conceive of the kind of aspirations common to humanity.

Our Lord himself frequently declared his agenda. He never said it more starkly than the day he declared, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." This one sentence from Mark's testimony is as simple, as unadorned a declaration of the gospel as we'll ever hear. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is upon you; repent -- now!, and abandon yourself to God's deliverance." Jesus announces, "God has brought his patient yet anguished involvement with a wayward people to a climax; he has brought it all to a climax in me. The kingdom of God is here. It's the new reality. Give yourself up to it, and never look back!"

The English word "gospel" translates a Greek word that means "good news." In the Hebrew bible (which Jesus knew rather well), "good news" always has to do with deliverance at God's hand. The good news of Jesus, the good news of the kingdom, is God's definitive deliverance. God's ultimate deliverance is deliverance from sin, judgement, condemnation, death (so far as individuals are concerned); and deliverance from evil in all its manifestations, subtleties and repercussions (so far as the creation is concerned.)

God made you and me to be glad and grateful covenant-partners with him. Instead he finds us wayward, defiant, disobedient. Finally, however, there appears one human covenant-partner who renders the Father the glad and grateful obedience the Father is owed.

God is frustrated and saddened over and over as humankind succumbs to temptation as readily as a bear eats garbage. Finally, however, there is given to the world one human being upon whom temptation is concentrated and yet who does not yield.

God is shaken at the way evil scourges his creation, disfiguring people and warping nature. At a point in history chosen inscrutably by him he appoints his Son to be that agent by which the ironfast grip of evil on the entire creation is broken. In his Son God has established a beachhead where evil concentrates its assault yet doesn't triumph, a beachhead from which the conquering one moves inland undoing evil's disfigurements, exposing evil's subtlety, besting evil's persistence. Everything has changed now that someone greater than our cosmic foe has taken the field on our behalf.

What is the fate of humankind in view of the fact that sin is endemic in humankind, sin is a contradiction of God's holiness, and God finally won't tolerate it? What is the fate of humankind in view of the fact that were God to wink at sin or ignore it or overlook it he would possess a character no different from Paul Barnardo's? Of his incomprehensible mercy God has identified himself fully with the one whom he has given to us. God has so identified himself with the Nazarene that when that one bears in himself the Father's just judgement on sin, the Father himself is bearing in himself his own judgement on sin.

It all adds up to something huge: in Jesus Christ a wholly new sphere has been forged for us. In him a new environment has been fashioned. Nothing less than a new world, a new creation, surrounds us. The kingdom of God has come in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God occurs wherever God's will is done perfectly. In Jesus Christ the Father's will for his creation is done. Then in Jesus Christ new "living room" has been fashioned where sin doesn't pollute and evil doesn't disfigure and hopelessness doesn't dispirit and defeat itself is defeated. No wonder our Lord announces good news. Deliverance is now the sphere, the environment in which life unfolds -- or at least in which it may. All we need do is enter the new sphere, enter the new environment, that now surrounds us.

The premise of Jesus question is this great agenda of God’s to save.  When Jesus asks us who we say he is salvation is at stake.  To receive him is to receive all that his is.  It is the very reason we baptize in his name.

3. Listen again to how the story concludes: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”  Jesus’ interpretation of scripture—on this day of Psalm 110:1—indicates an unusual ability to pay attention to detail.  He reads a text and thinks of questions posed by the text that no one else could see.  It flows out of a razor sharp intellect.  Do people stop asking Jesus questions because they are intimidated by his ability to think?

My thesis advisor Dr. Victor Shepherd has great intellectual skill—some are intimidated by his mind.  I recall one day when we were talking of the outline for my thesis.  He sat there and rattled off a series of questions he though arose from my thesis topic; I was madly trying to write them down and keep up.  At the end I asked him, “How do you do that?”  “Do what?” he responded quizzically.  “How do you think up those questions?” I continued, “I want to know how to do that.”  I firmly believe that just as some have unusual athletic gifts for a particular sport some have intellectual gifts.  But I do not think this is the prime reason people asked Jesus no more questions.

Is it because they thought Jesus asked trick questions just to silence his enemies by showing their stupidity?  Our saviour is not given to such outbursts of malice.  What is sad is they didn’t ask more questions—it is like they didn’t want to know the answer to Jesus’ question.  It was indeed hard to think about and completely outside the realm of what was considered possible.  Many balk when confronted with the identity of Jesus Christ—fully God and yet fully human.  It comes up every year when we talk of a young woman named Mary who is mysteriously pregnant.

I think that Jesus is inviting them to himself if they would—but no one dared ask.  Their minds were made up about Jesus.  He invites us to embrace him still today—let us be those who dare to ask.  A gracious reception await all who come.

‘What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?’