"The Wonderful Whys" – Mark 9: 30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."
You are likely familiar with a notorious stage of childhood development – a part of life that is a standard gag reel on sitcoms – where a cute child spends the entire episode asking, “Why?”
That’s the territory my wife and I have traversed with both our boys. Here’s a typical exchange..
“Please eat your broccoli.”
“So that you can grow big and strong.”
“Because broccoli has vitamins that make your bones and muscles strong.”
“Just eat it please.”
Truth be told, exchanges like these are only really annoying when it’s clear the kids have zoned out and are only saying it because they’re in auto-pilot mode.
The other times, when kids are really engaged and curious, their whys are wonderful. Their questions demonstrate a willingness and eagerness to learn new things. Kids intuitively knows that the best way to learn is by asking questions.
Learning by asking questions is a simple and fundamental concept, which unfortunately tends to fade away in most people as we grow older.
I’m not sure at what point this typically occurs, but most of us have crossed a threshold where we now think that asking questions is less a sign of being willing to learn, and more a mark of ignorance or incompetence. After all, people who ask questions are people who don’t have the answers. That’s not a trait people generally want to be known by.
And yet, the world’s top innovators, scientists, software developers, economists, journalists, teachers, engineers, and artists are all guided by the same question: “Why?”
As Albert Einstein said, “It is not that I'm so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer....The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”
In today’s Gospel account, Jesus is teaching his disciples. He teaches them that the Messiah they have been waiting for will be so radically different from what they expected that he will actually be killed by the very people he came to lead. It’s not new news, Jesus has already told the disciples all this before. But still, the disciples do not understand. And, as scripture points out, they were “afraid to ask him.”
It would have been perfectly acceptable for the disciples to say to Jesus, “Why?”…
Why is the Messiah going to be so different from what everyone has expected?
Why will the Messiah allow himself to be killed?
Why will he rise three days after being killed?
Why should we believe you?
But instead they remained silent and afraid…
afraid Jesus would get annoyed with their questions;
afraid asking questions would be seen as a lack of faith or trust;
afraid asking questions would make them appear weak or stupid in front of the other disciples;
or maybe even afraid that asking questions will prompt Jesus to talk even more about the suffering that he and the disciples would soon endure – a topic they probably didn’t want to think about.
They didn’t understand what Jesus was teaching them, and out of fear they did not ask questions. They missed an opportunity to engage in fruitful and meaningful conversation with Jesus; and instead they turned to arguing with one another about a topic of no real importance–the topic of who among them was the greatest.
Imagine the scene of a teacher who has lost control of the classroom. What do students do when they are not engaged, not learning, and not asking questions? Theydoodle, stare out the windows, run around the room, pull out their cell phones; and then there are those who, instead of asking and learning, fight with each other about things that are ultimately of no real significance
So, here’s my question: Has God lost control of his classroom?
Are God’s beloved people engaged, curious and eager to learn? Or are God’s beloved people distracted, aloof, afraid to ask questions, and too preoccupied arguing about things that are of no real significance?
The darkest time in my life was when I had tough, serious questions about my faith; but I was too afraid to bring my questions before my friends, family, and, especially, God.
I assumed I would be rejected for asking my questions aloud.
I assumed I was already rejected by God for having the questions to begin with.
I thought I, as a Christian, was supposed to have answers. And when those answers I learned in church suddenly seemed inadequate, I felt ashamed and did not know where to turn.
Fortunately, while working at a summer camp later that year I finally took the risk of being honest and public about my questions. My peers didn’t attempt to correct me with pat answers; nor did they didn’t shame me for doubting. A few even said they had the same questions.
The response of my friends and co-workers was one of patient listening, unconditional acceptance, empathy, and support. It was their response that helped me take that first step down the path of faith once more.
People of faith are called to be guardians of the great questions. We encourage people to ask questions about God; and we ask questions ourselves. Tugging at Jesus’ robe asking “Why?” indicates that we are engaged in the world and wrestling with difficult issues. And asking questions opens us up to new insights we would have otherwise missed.
Each one of us has questions we’ve never asked. Maybe it’s because we don’t really want to know the answer, or we are afraid what others would think of us, or we think asking questions betrays faith.
But I will remind you of something most of us probably heard from a teacher at least once in our lifetime: “The only stupid question is the one that…[is not asked].”
So, today, I want you to take the time to ask questions.
Find somewhere to write down a question about your faith, God, the church, or the Bible. Just as we give God our time, talents, and resources, we also gratefully give God our questions, challenges, and doubts. It’s a sign we’re actively engaged and that we take this complex faith seriously.
My hope for you is that you would practice asking difficult questions, not just of God, church or your pastor; but also questions about your life, your identity, your job, your priorities, your values.
Meditate on the questions. Keep these questions in the forefront of your mind during the week, and let these questions lead you in new, unexpected, and wonderful directions.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Mary Doria Russell in her work, The Sparrow:
“The Jewish sages...tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions...are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more...and we shall dance with God.”