Better Questions

Sermon for Sunday, November 25, 2018 || Reign of Christ B || John 18:33-37(38)

One enduring characteristic of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we have received it is this: Jesus almost never answers a question directly. If you examine the way he responds to questions, you realize he answers the questions he wished people would ask him, not the ones they actually do. For example, when a legal expert asks him, “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus could have responded: “Everyone! Next question.” Instead, he tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, which answers the question he wished had been asked: “How can I be a neighbor?” The answer to that is by showing mercy to those in need, no matter how different from you they might be. This happens over and over in the Gospel – Jesus answering deeper questions than the ones that were asked.

In today’s Gospel lesson, this pattern holds true in Jesus’ conversation with Pontius Pilate. We are right in the middle of the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. In between a pair of back-and-forths with the high priests and crowd, Pilate calls Jesus into his headquarters for the private chat we heard this morning. Pilate asks Jesus three questions (actually four, but the fourth mysteriously didn’t make it into the assigned reading). For each question, Jesus’ pattern holds true: he does not answer the questions Pilate asks. So this morning, I’d like to reconstruct with you what questions Jesus wished Pilate had asked, based on the answers Jesus gives.

We’re engaging in this thought experiment this morning because of this: In our walks with God, receiving answers to questions is often less helpful than coming up with better questions. Remember, we could ask, “Who is my neighbor?” But the answer to that is easy, so the better, deeper question is, “How can I be a neighbor?”

Pilate comes out the gate swinging: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Now this is a “Yes or No” question. At this moment, Pilate is simply litigating, and he’s treating Jesus as a hostile witness. Jesus answers, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Here, Jesus is probing Pontius Pilate and trying to determine what Pilate’s motives are. Is Pilate really trying to get to the bottom of the accusers’ complaint? Or is he making small talk inside to keep those outside sweating? Or is he being sincere? Jesus is wondering what Pilate has heard about him, wondering what preconceptions this governor of the Roman occupation has of him.

I think the question Jesus wished Pilate had asked would have been more open-ended. Not “Are you the King of the Jews,” not a “Yes/No” question, but a simple, “Who are you?” And if Pilate had asked Jesus that, Jesus could have responded the way he has been the whole Gospel. “Who are you?” I AM. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the vine, and you, Pontius Pilate, yes, even you, could be one of the branches.

But Pilate didn’t ask that, and the conversation keeps going. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” In other words, “Why did they arrest you?” But Jesus responds with a sort of diplomatic immunity: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

You can see the pattern, for this in no way answers Pilate’s question. So what question does Jesus wish Pilate had asked. I think there are two embedded in Jesus’ response. First, “Where are you from?” The Gospel sheds light on this one: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God…And the word became flesh and lived among us.”

Second, “Why is no one fighting for you?” This answer is more complicated, and Jesus isn’t sure Pilate could ever understand, not someone who is so ensconced in the Roman war machine. No one is fighting for me, says Jesus, because meeting violence with violence is not the way. My kingdom is not one of violence, but one of love and truth.

In these first two exchanges, we see Jesus inviting Pilate to change his worldview and ask different questions in different ways than the ones he has always asked. How hard is this for all of us? We get so confirmed in our viewpoints and defending them at all costs somehow becomes our priority. We tend to saturate ourselves with information that solidifies what we already think when we could be seeking out new input to broaden our understanding. This is what Jesus is trying to get Pilate to do.

Jesus’ response to Pilate’s third question shows this broadening agenda of Jesus. Pilate asks, “So you are a king?” In this query, we can perhaps hear a bit of genuine confusion, which is a great place to begin the process of broadening. Jesus sees the opening and pounces. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Whoa. Here the question Jesus wishes Pilate had asked is: “Why did you come to this world?” And Jesus responds: “to bear witness to the truth.” Why? Jesus answered this one earlier in the Gospel: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus brings the truth and the truth brings freedom.

And Jesus speaks this word directly to the face of his people’s oppressor. In just one short conversation, Jesus tries to move Pontius Pilate away from the litigation of his office and toward the greater freedom of one embracing the truth of God’s reign. This greater truth invites Pilate to see in the Roman occupation his own complicity in the oppression of Jesus’ people.

Does Pilate go there? Almost. He asks Jesus one more question, which our reading today skipped. After Jesus speaks about testifying to the truth, Pilate asks what I think is the most honest and broadening question in the entire Gospel: “What is truth?”

Jesus doesn’t have a chance to respond to this one in words, but the mere fact that Pilate asks it is telling. Pilate began with a closed, “Yes/No” question and ended with a question of such weight and depth, he probably surprised himself. That’s what conversations with Jesus do for people in the Gospel. They always end up asking better, broader questions than the ones they start with. Somehow, Jesus is able to stretch them past their ensconced viewpoints, past their biases. And Jesus does the same for us when we truly engage his life in the Gospel and his Way in our own lives. Jesus breaks us from our biases and teaches us to ask deeper, broader, better questions, and then to listen for the truth that will set the whole creation free.


Banner: a still of the live Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend as Jesus, which aired on NBC on Easter Sunday 2018. Here Jesus and Pontius Pilate are singing.

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