Contrary to some common assumptions, Jesus is not the ultimate Answer Man, but more like the Great Questioner. In the Gospels Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, Jesus asks 307 questions. He is asked 183 of which he only answers 3. Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred. Jesus is the Question considers the questions Jesus asks—what they tell us about Jesus and, more important, what our responses might say about what it means to follow Him. Through Jesus’ questions, he modeled the struggle, the wondering, the thinking it through that helps us draw closer to God and better understand, not just the answer, but ourselves, our process and ultimately why questions are among Jesus’ most profound gifts for a life of faith. A game-changer of a book.
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About the Author
Martin B. Copenhaver, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ, has served churches in Westport, Connecticut; Burlington, Vermont; and Phoenix, Arizona. He is currently Senior Pastor of 1,000-member Wellesley Congregational Church, where he has served since 1994. He is the author (or co-author) of five books and has been published widely in national periodicals. He is an editor-at-large for The Christian Century and frequent speaker throughout the country. He currently resides in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
Jesus is the Question
The 307 Questions Jesus asked and the 3 He Answered
By Martin B. Copenhaver
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Martin B. Copenhaver
All rights reserved.
Questions About Longing
* * *
It is one of the few questions Jesus repeats. According to John's Gospel, Jesus asks this question repeatedly and in a variety of circumstances. John obviously thinks it is a key question because, in his narrative, Jesus asks it at such singular moments in his life. He asks it at the beginning of his ministry when people begin to follow him: "What are you looking for?" When a detachment of soldiers come to arrest him, Jesus twice asks a variation of that same question: "Who are you looking for?" Then, Jesus asks it again of the women who gather at the empty tomb: "Who are you looking for?" Obviously, Jesus thinks this is a question worth repeating, as if in some way it is the question.
"What are you looking for?" That question can be either straightforward or profound. It all depends on the context and who is asking the question. If you are gazing at a rack of suits in a clothing store and an employee of that store asks, "What are you looking for?" it's a rather simple question. But if the savior of the world asks, "What are you looking for?" that is another matter entirely. That question coming from that source is enough to make you pause and ponder.
"Who are you looking for?" Is that a straightforward question or a profound one? Once again, it all depends. If you are wandering the halls of an office, obviously lost, and someone asks, "Who are you looking for?" it's hardly a profound question. But when Jesus encounters his followers after the resurrection and asks the same question—"Who are you looking for?" —it's not nearly as straightforward or as easily answered.
In their current form and context, these questions Jesus asks are open-ended rather than closed-ended. There is a big difference.
A closed-ended question often implies an answer. For instance, if a loved one comes home from a shopping trip and asks, "How do I look in this outfit?" it would be a grave mistake to assume that is an open-ended question. After all, there is only one acceptable answer.
It is harder to ask open-ended questions than we might assume. It is more common for us to ask questions in a way that steers someone toward the answer we are looking for. For instance, if a member of your family has had a severe cold and you ask, "How do you feel today?" that is an open-ended question. But if you pose the question in a slightly different way, "Are you feeling better today?" that is no longer an open-ended question because it implies a preferred response. Either you are sympathetic enough to want the family member to feel better, or you are simply tired of hearing all of the complaints about being sick. Whatever the motivation, the question implies a desired response. By the way you ask the question, it is clear you want to hear that your family member is feeling better.
By contrast, an open-ended question does not seek to limit the responses. The answer to an open-ended question is not obvious or implied. For this reason, an open-ended question can expand our thinking. The answer to an open-ended question, such as those Jesus asks, can also change over time, so it helps to keep such a question continually before you.
Wayne Cordeiro shares this anecdote:
An old story tells of a rabbi living in a Russian city a century ago. Disappointed by his lack of direction and life purpose, he wandered in the chilly evening. With his hands thrust deep in his pockets, he aimlessly walked through the empty streets, questioning his faith in God, the Scriptures and his calling to ministry. The only thing colder than the Russian winter air was the chill within his soul. He felt so enshrouded by his own despair that he mistakenly wandered into a Russian military compound off limits to civilians.
The bark of a Russian soldier shattered the silence of the evening chill. "Who are you? And what are you doing here?"
"Excuse me?" replied the rabbi.
"I said, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?'"
After a brief moment, the rabbi, in a gracious tone so as not to provoke the soldier, said, "How much do you get paid every day?"
"What does that have to do with you?" the soldier retorted.
With the delight of someone making a new discovery, the rabbi said, "I will pay you the equal sum if you will ask me those same two questions every day: 'Who are you?' and 'What are you doing here?'"
The soldier in the story did not intend to ask open-ended questions, but the rabbi heard them—or chose to hear them—as open-ended. To the rabbi, they were profound questions about his identity as a person and the purpose of his life. Such open-ended questions are not easily answered and, thus, are worthy of further—even daily—reflection.
It can be helpful to have such open-ended questions before us on an ongoing basis. And, incidentally, the point of the story would be largely the same if the questions the rabbi asked to hear every day were the questions Jesus asked: What are you looking for? Who are you looking for? Both pairs of open-ended questions can lead us to consider the ultimate end and purpose of our lives.
Open-ended questions are particularly helpful in putting us in touch with our deepest desires. In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer tells about the Quaker practice of what is called a "clearness committee." Quite simply, that is a group that comes together to help an individual gain clarity ("clearness") about something of importance to him or her. The members of the group do not give advice but merely ask probing, open-ended questions. Palmer tells of the time he was offered the presidency of a small college, which represented a very different vocational direction in his life. So Palmer, a lifelong Quaker, sat with a clearness committee.
They began by asking open-ended questions related to Palmer's vision for the school's mission in the larger society. Then someone asked, "What would you like most about being the president?" Palmer responded, "Well, I would not like having to give up my writing and my teaching.... I would not like the politics of the presidency.... I would not like having to glad-hand people I do not respect.... I would not like ..."
The person who posed the original question interrupted Palmer: "May I remind you that I asked what you would most like?"
Palmer responded, "Yes, yes, I'm working my way toward an answer. I would not like having to give up my summer vacations.... I would not like having to wear a suit and tie all of the time.... I would not like ..."
Once again the questioner called him back to the original question. "Well," said Palmer in a small voice, "I guess what I'd like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it." There was a long Quaker silence. The questioner had one more question: "Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?"
Of course, this last question is not open-ended, but it was made possible by the clarity that came from the open-ended questions that preceded it.
What are you looking for? Who are you looking for? Those are questions that can stick with us our whole lives long, and largely because they are not so easily answered.
What are you looking for, anyway? We don't always know. And that can be disquieting. In U2's hit song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," lead singer Bono sings of a range of human experiences, both the highs and lows of life, but he always comes back to the refrain: "But I still haven't found what I'm looking for." The song is up-tempo, but Bono sings the refrain in a voice that expresses anguish, which is fitting. It can be difficult not to find what you are looking for. The song implies something more, however. As the refrain is repeated throughout the song, it becomes evident that the singer doesn't know what he is looking for-and that is more challenging still.
You pad into the kitchen, go directly to the refrigerator, open the door, and peer in. You are vaguely hungry, but you cannot tell exactly what you are hungry for. You survey the options. Cheese? No, that's not it. Cold sausage pizza? No, definitely not. Leftover salad? That's not quite it. You go so far as to take a bite of strawberry yogurt but put it back on the shelf.
The refrigerator is full enough, and your stomach is empty enough, but nothing seems exactly right. The cold air emerges and brings with it the remembered voice of your mother: "Don't leave the refrigerator door open." So you close the door and wait for the cold air to dissipate and the voice to fade. Then you open the refrigerator again, lean on the door, and stare blankly at the options, hoping that one will finally beckon and fully satisfy.
Many of us spend our lives like that, with indistinct longings we don't know how to satisfy. We yearn for something and know not what. We try a bit of this and that, for a time, or perhaps only in our imaginations, but nothing is quite right or enough to satisfy. You can never get enough of that which does not satisfy. So often we don't know what we want and then are disappointed when we don't get it.
A television news report told the story of a group of men who spent years in the pursuit of a particular stash of treasure they knew was buried off the coast of Florida. One day they uncovered it; and it was everything they had hoped and imagined it would be-golden coins and priceless antique jewelry. Success at last. Of course, there was great jubilation at the discovery, but there was also a hint of something else. The report ended with a picture of one of the discoverers, looking at nothing in particular with an almost wistful expression. And while that picture was on the screen, the reporter closed by asking this question and letting it dangle in the air: "What do you do when you have found what you were looking for?"
Oscar Wilde may be right: "There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart's desire. The other is to gain it."
In an article entitled "Loved, but Abandoned and Sold," the New York Times reported on an auction of the contents of 960 abandoned safe-deposit boxes. In most cases the rent on the safe-deposit boxes had not been paid for years, and every attempt had been made to return the contents to the owners. When the banks discovered that the owner of a box had died, the items were turned over to that person's estate. So most of the safe-deposit boxes in the auction were owned and abandoned by people who were still alive. They just didn't want the stuff anymore. There was sterling silver flatware, antique coins, several gold watches, a pair of diamond earrings, and an engagement ring. And then there were items of sentimental value that were not included in the auction but merely discarded: old love letters and photographs, children's drawings, diplomas, and military citations.
Whether or not the items would command money at an auction, they represent the accomplishments and the longings in the lives of these people. They are the treasures. At one time they brought happiness. They are objects of such value—monetary, sentimental, or otherwise—that these folks put them in a safe deposit box to keep them secure, so that they would always know where these items are.
One day they bring these items to the bank, pay the bank for the safe-deposit box, carefully lay their treasures in the box, and then turn the key to keep them safe. And then on another day years later, they receive a letter from the bank saying that, because it has been a number of years since the rent on the box has been paid, the items must be claimed or they will be put up for auction. And that letter is simply put aside. Perhaps there are three tragedies in life: to lose one's heart's desire, to gain it, or simply, to walk away from it.
The longing that marks our lives is often mixed with nostalgia and can be mistaken for nostalgia. I tend to experience this longing at Christmas. As much as I revel in the season and drink it in, there is still what I can only call an unquenchable longing that stands near the center of the season. Sometimes that takes shape as longing for other Christmases, but it is more than mere nostalgia for some perfect Christmas of my past, because I cannot remember a Christmas that seemed complete. There was never a Christmas in my memory that did not bring with it a measure of this longing.
If asked to reconstruct a Christmas from my memories, here is what I would picture: My father and mother are there. My Aunt Tudy is there, as she was every year after her husband died. My grandmother is there, sitting quietly in the corner, taking so long to unwrap her gifts that the children can take naps before she is finished.
In addition to these four, who all died years ago, my brother and sister and their families, my wife, Karen, and I and our children are all somehow there in this Christmas of my memory. Aunt Tudy takes my daughter, Alanna, in her lap to tell her a story, even though she died before Alanna was born and Alanna is too old to crawl onto anyone's lap for a story anymore. My father shares a joke with his grandson, Todd, as surely as he would have if he had ever lived to see him. My grandmother's memory, which escaped her entirely during her last years, is restored at this Christmas, and she is once again able to tell the story about how my grandfather courted her for only ten days before proposing marriage. And, somehow, my grandfather himself is there as well, although he died several months before I was born. That is, in this Christmas of my memory, in this Christmas of my longing, all the broken and scattered pieces of life are gathered up and put together in ways that were never possible in any "real" Christmas.
This is something more than mere nostalgia, and more profound as well, because what we long for is not merely a Christmas from our past, but a gathering up of our past, present, and future into a harmony that is not achieved in the days of our lives. What we desire is not merely to be with those we love but to be united with them in a way that is not possible even when they are present. It is to be together in ways that are impossible in this life, and we can only barely approach in our dreams. What we long for is to have the broken and scattered pieces brought together in ways that we are unable to do. And that is why I have concluded that our longing-what can feel something like homesickness-is, in some way, a yearning for God.
It is a desire and a yearning for a special kind of homecoming, not just to be home with loved ones, but to find home with God, the one the psalmist calls "our dwelling place in all generations" (Psalm 90:1).
Elsewhere, the psalmist cries, "As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Psalm 42:1). I am convinced that we all long for the presence of God with a deep, aching hunger, a hunger as sure as the hunger for food, but with this difference-we do not always know how to fill it. We do not always know what we are looking for.
Saint Augustine observed that our hearts are restless until they find the rest that is found only in God. Philosopher Blaise Pascal made a similar point by saying that each of us is born with an empty place in our hearts-a void-that is in the shape of God, and that means that nothing and no one else can entirely or ultimately fill it. This empty space is not a square hole or anything as simple as that, but a complex, hungering, God-shaped space where only God fits and only God can fill. We can try to fill that space with other things-human relationships, careers, or other earthly pursuits-but they will sooner or later leave us unsatisfied. Which means that our task is to learn what we are looking for and whom we are looking for.
After all, if that empty space implanted in our soul is in the shape of God, then our attempts to fill it with anything else will leave empty corners that will ache.
So Jesus asks at critical junctures in his life and ministry, "What are you looking for?" and "Who are you looking for?"
And even in the afterglow of Easter it is still his question: "Who are you looking for?"
Obviously, Jesus thinks this is a question worth repeating, as if in some way it is the question.CHAPTER 2
A Question About Compassion
* * *
A minister I work with frequently reminds me that everyone has a basic human need to be seen, that is, to be understood and valued. So she articulates that one of her primary goals in working with the youth of our church is to make them feel truly seen. If someone in the congregation is particularly grumpy, my colleague will say, "She just wants to be seen in her unhappiness." If someone else has drifted away from the church, she will offer this explanation: "I don't think he felt seen here." My colleague goes on to conclude, "You can't fake truly seeing another person. People know if you really see them or not. When you truly see them, you find their note, their vibration, their connection with God, and you dance with them right there."
But it is not always easy to see another person. Sometimes we can observe someone and still not see him or her. To see someone in the fullest sense requires a receptivity and openness to the other—just who that person is, as he or she is—which often are beyond us.
Excerpted from Jesus is the Question by Martin B. Copenhaver. Copyright © 2014 Martin B. Copenhaver. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Lauren F. Winner xi
Introduction: So Many Questions xvii
Chapter 1 Questions About Longing 1
"What are you looking for?"
"Who are you looking for?"
Chapter 2 A Question About Compassion 13
"Do you see this woman?"
Chapter 3 A Question About Identity 25
"What is your name?"
Chapter 4 Questions About Faith and Doubt 35
"Where is your faith?"
"Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"
"You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
Chapter 5 Questions About Worry 45
"Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?"
"Why do you worry about clothing?"
"If God so clothes the grass of the field, will be not much more clothe you-you of little faith?"
Chapter 6 Questions About the Reach of Love 55
"Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?"
"If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?"
"'If you do good only to those who do good to you what credit is that to you?"
Chapter 7 Questions About Healing 65
"Do you want to get well?"
"What do you want me to do for you?
"How long has this been going on?"
Chapter 8 A Question About Abundance 75
"How much bread do you have?"
Chapter 9 The Questions Jesus Answers 87
Chapter 10 Questions About Who Jesus Is 99
"Who do people say that I am?"
"Who do you say that I am?"
Chapter 11 A Question from the Cross 109
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Chapter 12 Questions from the Risen Christ 119
"What are you talking about as you walk along?"
"Children, have you caught anything to eat?"
"Do you have anything to eat?"
"Simon son of John, do you love me more than these? Do you love me? Do you love me?"
"Who are you looking for?"
Chapter 13 All Those Questions 129
Readers Guide 145
For Further Readme 161