Text: Matthew 18:21-35
“There is no such thing as a dumb question.” How many times have you heard that line in your life? Teachers, especially, are fond of using this phrase but it has a shelf life way beyond the classroom. The quote comes from Carl Sagan’s work, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. The full quote goes like this: “There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.”
It seems that this quote has divided people into two camps: those that truly believe there is no such thing as a dumb question and those who challenge that thinking and say that, indeed, there are dumb questions. The latter group suggests that there are three types of questions that fall into the category of dumb questions.
- Those questions that have already been answered, but the asker wasn’t listening or paying attention.
- Questions that can be answered with a scant amount of research and less than a minute of time.
- Questions of which the answer should be painfully obvious to any person with a pulse who has lived on this earth for more than a decade.
(Mandy Feder, Ink Out Loud)
There are some great examples of this last category: questions of which the answer should be painfully obvious. Like: When it’s raining and someone notices you going out and they ask: Are you going out in this rain? To which the reply might be: No, in the next one. Or your friend calls your home phone: Where are you? Answer: At the bus stop. Or this one: You are standing right in front of the elevator on the ground floor and the person standing beside you asks: Going up? No, no, I am waiting for my apartment to come down and get me.
These are all light-hearted questions, and all of us have asked similar ones. As I thought of Peter’s question to Jesus, “How many times do I have to forgive someone?” and all the other questions the disciples asked Jesus, I wondered which camp Jesus would be in. The camp that says, “there is no such thing as a dumb question” or the other group that says, “yep, there are some dumb questions out in the world.” By all indications and a lot of evidence, I’m betting that Jesus would take the third option Sagan notes and agree that “every question is a cry to understand the world.” Which is what I think of Peter’s question to Jesus on forgiveness. But let me widen the lens just a bit on this topic of Jesus and our questions before I get, specifically, to Peter and his question.
Throughout his three-year ministry, Jesus was asked a lot of questions. Some were naïve, some tedious, and some ill-phrased. Some were intended to trick him and others were posed in order to harm him. And some, probably most, were asked, as Carl Sagan has suggested, as a cry to understand the world and to understand faith in the world.
While Jesus was asked many questions, he, too, enjoyed asking a question. It wasn’t unusual at all for Jesus to respond to a question with a question. One could say it was his brand. Listen to a few of these exchanges.
- Matthew 15:1-3: Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of tradition?”
- A little later in that same chapter, Jesus became concerned for the crowd that was following him because they had not eaten in three days and he asked the disciples to help him feed the crowd. The disciples said to Jesus, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?”
- In the gospel of Luke we read the story of Jesus and his disciples walking through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples began to pick some heads of grain and rub them in their hand and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?”
- There are many other examples: Who is my neighbor? Whose face is on the coin? When did I see you hungry?
With each question, Jesus had a way of turning the question upside down and inside out and getting to the question behind the question by asking his own questions. He taught us what we often say here at Pullen, “The question is more important than the answer.” He knew that a good question at the right time could create a learning experience. Like all good teachers, he knew that a question opens the mind and invites curiosity. It creates a needle-point of light even as it suggests darkness. And so Jesus was known for answering questions with questions.
The questions we ask, and how we ask them reveal something about us and about how we think. Take Peter’s question. Peter asks a religiously legalistic question. He is trying to figure out the right answer so he can check off the box of having done what he is suppose to do according to the law. Peter’s thinking and questioning has him stuck in six feet of religious mud. Peter is asking, “What do I have to do?” Anybody feeling like Peter today? Trying to discern religiously what at a minimum we have to do to fulfill our duty as Christians, as a neighbor, as citizens, as a country. Anybody feeling like Peter? Trying to figure out what at a minimum you have to do to check off the box that says love your neighbor as yourself. Or “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Yes, our questions reveal something about us and how we think.
In response to Peter’s question, Jesus tells a story—another one of his brands. He tells a story about forgiveness, and while on the outside it may seem like it is a story of forgiving another, if we look closely we see the heartbeat of humanity’s struggle with forgiveness. Simply put, our inability to accept forgiveness.
The story Jesus tells perplexes us. We cannot phantom how the man who was forgiven such enormous debt cannot forgive his debtor a much smaller debt. It seems unimaginable. It doesn’t make any sense. He has been forgiven a debt he could never, ever repay. And yet, he cannot extend forgiveness for a lesser debt owed to him. The only explanation that I can think of for such a response is that the man who was forgiven the debt he could have never repaid did not allow himself to be forgiven. He couldn’t see his way to accept the forgiveness extended to him. It’s hard to know why we have such a hard time accepting forgiveness. Maybe because the acceptance of such grace and forgiveness makes us feel weak. Maybe we believe those old tapes we heard in Sunday school or from the pulpits of our Baptist churches that we really don’t deserve forgiveness and grace. Anybody feeling like this man in Jesus’ story who couldn’t accept forgiveness? Anybody feeling like they would be weak to accept a little grace? Anybody feeling like they don’t deserve grace and forgiveness? Not a cheap grace or forgiveness. But a life-changing kind of forgiveness that steadies us in God’s unconditional love.
Like most of Jesus’ questions, this forgiveness story Jesus tells gets at the question behind the question. It takes Peter’s religious question and all of his religiosity and transforms it into a morally compassionate and faithful question. Jesus says to Peter, and these are my words, “Peter, forgiveness is not about what you have to do. Forgiveness is about what is in your heart. It’s about how you live with yourself and others. Forgiveness is saying “yes” to God’s grace and love and mercy and compassion for yourself because that’s the only path to forgiving others. The question of forgiveness is about accepting God’s love and loving our neighbor as ourselves.
Peter’s question was not a bad question. Maybe ill-phrased. But Peter, I want to believe, somewhere in his heart, was crying out and trying to understand the world and his place in the world.
I have been thinking this week about Jesus and our questions—the questions we are asking in our world today. I have wondered how Jesus would respond to some of the pressing questions we are asking. Questions like: Who deserves to be in our country and make a life here? Who deserves healthcare? Who deserves to make a living wage? How do I make sure I have enough for my family—enough food, enough money, enough of the latest gadgets?
These are some of the questions that we are voicing out loud. But what are the questions beneath our questions of today? Maybe the questions we are asking are more like Peter’s question on how much forgiveness he is required to offer. “What do I have to do when I know others are being persecuted? How much is enough for me and my family? If I text my Congress representative, is that enough? If I march, is that enough? If I wear a t-shirt that says, “United States of Immigrants” to show my solidarity, is that enough? What, oh Lord, is enough?
If we look back on how Jesus responded to the questions of his followers in their day, maybe we will rethink our questions. Maybe we can begin to ask different questions. Instead of: What do I have to do? We can ask, “What is the compassionate thing to do?” What is the compassionate thing to do when I know others are being persecuted? Instead of asking: How much is enough? We can begin asking: How and with whom can I share what I have—my food, my money, my clothes, my home, my church? Instead of asking: Who deserves to live in our country, we can ask: When was I stranger or stranded and someone helped me?
There are no easy answers. We can assume Jesus would stick to his brand, and either ask us a question, or tell us a story. Maybe it would end along the lines of, “just as you did it to one of the least of these you did it to me.” And still we would be left with our own struggle to know what is asked of us. But of this I feel certain: Jesus—Mary and Joseph’s boy, Jesus—the baby in the manger, Jesus—the revolutionary, Jesus—the one who died on a cross because he challenged power and greed and privilege, Jesus—the non-violent prophet who chose love over hate, is calling us out of our religiosity and out of our legalism and out of our minimalist thinking and inviting us to have the patience to live with the questions. He is inviting us to look for the question behind the question. He is inviting us to ask the compassionate, loving, heart-centered questions that all too often reside in the shadows of our fear and fragility.
Jesus’ questions are forever calling us out of the shadows and into the light. May we have the courage to search out and linger in the questions of truth and light and love and compassion, for that is what Jesus did and it is what he calls us to do.
Maybe you are wondering: Is this a sermon on forgiveness or about Jesus and our questions? To which I say: In the spirit of how Jesus taught, it’s up to you to decide your takeaway. If you need forgiveness, it’s about forgiveness. If you need help with the questions you are asking in today’s world, then it is about Jesus and our questions. Either way, I hope you leave with this affirmation: God’s love and grace and forgiveness is for all. And whatever you are trying to understand in this world, God hears your questions and your cries.