Year B Proper 20: all the questions you were afraid to ask

A typical conversation with a toddler turning from two to three might go a bit like this:

Let’s put on your shoes.   –   Why?

Because we need to go shopping for food.   –   Why?

So that we have food to eat.   –   Why?

Well, because it’s tasty, and it’s fun, and we need it to grow big and strong and healthy.   –   Why?

Because that’s how God made us.   –   Why?

{I’m beginning to wonder} Why don’t you ask God?   –   Why?

{Lord have mercy!} Ok. Never mind. Let’s just put on your shoes, shall we?    –   Why?


Jesus has gone from speaking “quite openly” about these things – about his impending betrayal, and arrest, and execution – he has gone from speaking openly to taking his disciples to one side, away from the crowds, and trying once more to explain things to them in ways that they might understand. But still they don’t understand, and worse, they refuse to ask questions, they resist explanation. They are not sure they want to hear the answers. They are anxious, and irritable, and argumentative, all because they are afraid to sit down and ask, “Jesus, what the devil are you talking about?” All because they refuse to ask, “Why?” (Mark 9:30-34)

James says,

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. (James 4:1-3,7-8a)

Wisdom dearly bought. It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the letter of James has traditionally been believed to be the work of James, a brother of Jesus, who did not travel with his brother in his lifetime, but was converted later by an encounter with the risen Christ, and became a strong leader in the church.*

This James knew what it was like to fail to ask his brother the important questions: “Who do you think you are? What do you think you are doing? Can I help?” He had failed to draw near to his brother while he was in this life, and that must have been a source of bitter regret to him. Yet his brother, Jesus, had drawn near to James in his resurrection, and James had drawn nearer to him, and had understood what it was to find God within him, through him, with him.

It is no accident that James became an arbiter in the Jerusalem council’s disputes over inclusion and exclusion, over circumcision and uncircumcision, over who might be invited into covenant with Christ and which commandments they must follow (Acts 15*). He had learned how to ask questions, how to seek understanding, how to submit his own soul for conversion.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?

If the disciples had asked Jesus a few more questions, they might have understood a few more things. They wouldn’t have embarrassed themselves into further silence debating who was the greatest. But they were afraid to ask about what they didn’t understand.

It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to ask questions that we already know the answers to, or to ask only about those things we already understand. Failing to stretch our understanding leads to all sorts of trouble and violence. Ask a fourteen-year-old in Texas how much effort was made to ask and to understand his intentions in bringing his invention to school, and what the fear of asking questions led to for him and his family.

We crave connection, but we want to stay as we are. We want to understand, but we don’t want to change. We want to draw near, but we do not want to be converted. So our cravings are at war within us; and we fail to draw near to God, and we fail to notice God sidling up to us.

To be fair, there is danger in asking questions, gaining understanding, undergoing conversion.

For James, there was the danger of death by martyrdom.* For most of us, the danger is having to change our minds about someone we thought we had pegged. Change our hearts about an issue we thought we had resolved. Change our spirits from one of fear to one of joy. Not easy; not comfortable; but worth a try.

I was converted to asking questions by the questions of others, who stretched me and called me to account for myself and the faith that is in me, and encouraged me, literally gave me the courage to reach out to others when I didn’t understand, when I felt disconnected or discouraged.

The person who came to me to ask straight out, “Do you have a problem with me?” gave me the gift of the opportunity to say, “What? No! I was just so struck by what you said and that I had never thought that way myself that I had to do a lot of hard thinking and that’s what the frowny face was all about. What did you mean, anyway?”

She gave me the gift of asking me to explain myself, so that our relationship could not only limp along with sideways glances but deepen to where we could walk together, and discuss our differences and ask our hard questions. She gave me the gift of allowing me to admit that I didn’t understand her. To submit myself to God and to my fellow Christian, in faith that we are all relying on the grace of God to skate over life’s thin ice.

Since then, I have become better at asking questions, of God, of people, of myself. When I stop asking questions, I notice myself becoming more fearful, more withdrawn, more disconnected from God, from people, from myself. And I become less open to the questions of others.

Submit to God. Resist the devil, the father of fear and lies. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

Part of our baptismal covenant asks that we seek and serve Christ in all persons. Seek Christ in the other. Ask the questions that the disciples were afraid to ask: Who are you? What do you mean? How can I help? And be prepared to answer for the faith that is in you. For the good of our community, our common life, for the good of our souls.

Draw near to Christ, and Christ will draw near to you.

You have heard that Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. To his silent and grumbling disciples, he said,

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me. (Mark 9:37)

And the child answered, “Why?”

*Rainer Riesner, ”James: Introduction,” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, John Barton and John Muddiman, eds (Oxford University Press, 2001), 1255-7

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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