Questions, Answers and the Stories in Between
Questions, we have them: identity questions, morality questions, existential questions, life questions. Perhaps that’s what consciousness is if you follow it all the winding way to it’s wellspring source: A question. A wondering. A searching, searching for something we struggle to name, naming a journey we’re compelled to take. A quest. For something.
Questions are the beginning of listening. Questions are the beginning of knowing. Questions are the beginning of finding life beyond the shallow surface skimming where we otherwise spend our days. But questions are just the beginning, not the end, they lead somewhere beyond themselves. They lead us somewhere beyond ourselves.
Our largest questions exist not so we can find answers, but so that we can discover who we are. Our deepest questions exist not so we can find answers, but so that we can discover who He is; The One who breathed wonder into us in the very genesis of our being (Genesis 2:7), making us a mystery to ourselves (Ecclesiastes 3:11), inviting us on an endless quest to know Him more.
God’s Word isn’t full of answers. Not in the ways we want them: easy. His intention has never been to relieve us of all our questions, or alleviate all our wonderings with easy answers on a silver spoon, polished platitudes all tidied up. Because answers end a journey, they don’t begin it. Answers kill a quest, they don’t ignite it. It’s when we think we have all the answers, that we stop growing, stop listening, stop learning. We just stop, stagnant in the self assurance that we know.
This man, this day, he thought he had the answers: easy. He was an expert in answers. But he was about to learn: God is in the questions.
‘On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”’ Luke 10:25
God, this day, God in leather sandals, He saw, He understood, that sometimes in our questions we are searching, seeking or asking, and sometimes in our questions we are hiding, rationalising and deflecting. Our questions themselves reveal other answers, answers we don’t tell ourselves, answers like: what we really care about beneath all the throbbing layers of our heart, what we’re truly living for underneath all the clever answers in our minds and what we are avoiding, in the darkest corners of our souls.
So Jesus, He responds to this man’s questions, with two more questions, inviting him on a quest.
‘“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”’ Luke 10:26
These two questions often have two very different answers, as different as the shape of a broken human heart is, to the beating heart of God: What is written in the inky lines of Scripture? And what is the lens through which you read it? The first question asks about the shape of God’s heart, revealed in His word, and is an invitation to embark on a quest to seek Him further. But the second question searches out the shape of a human heart, as it comes into the presence of God’s word, and is an invitation to embark on a quest to know oneself. To reveal oneself. Jesus is saying, ‘This is where God’s heart is. Where is yours? ‘Where are you?’.
In the first garden millennia ago, God had come looking for His children. And as He searched for them He called out the first recorded question in the Bible, ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). This is the question of God. The question God, in Jesus is asking with every action, every word, every parable He breathes. Everything is always this call, the good Shepherd’s call in search of His sheep… ‘Where are you?’ Where are your questions coming from? Are they authentic? From your beating heart centre, or are they a facade, motivated by something else? Are you stuck? Living in ponding stagnant ‘answers’ that drown your journey towards Me? Where are you. Really?
Jesus, God in leather sandals, is recorded in the Gospels as asking 307 questions. His first recorded words in the Gospels are two questions (Luke 2:49). He asked seven times more questions than He told parables, in fact many of His parables were drawn first from a question. And His parables themselves were usually subtly asking people the same question God is always asking: ‘Where are you?’.
And though it has often been said ‘Jesus is the answer’, He wasn’t. In Scripture He is asked 183 questions, and of these 183 questions, He answers three. And very often He answers a question with another question, or as in this case in Luke 10, two questions.
Questions are the beginning of listening. Questions are the beginning of knowing.
Questions are also the beginning of one person understanding another, and a person beginning to understand themselves, the revelation of their heart, breath by breath, word by word, answer by answer.
‘He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”’ Luke 10:27
He knew the right answer. He got it right the first time, the words inking out the lines in the Law, outlining the one thing that matters: Love God first, love God most, love God with every fibre of your being. This man is quoting from the ‘Shema’ prayer, a prayer devout Jews returned to daily, a prayer given them by Moses just before they entered the promised land (Deuteronomy 6:4). And he then adds a second part taken from Leviticus 19:18 connecting love for God with love for others.
Jesus agrees with Him…
‘“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied…’ Luke 10:28
…after all He has said the same Himself (Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30) because in the end it all boils down to this: the beating heart centre of a truly alive human being is the love of God. First. Without love for God at the core of human existence, human existence breaks down. Like a solar system without a sun, we are empty and broken without Him at the centre.
When we fully love God first, we are then freed to fully love others. One is the wellspring of the other; our first love is the source of our second.
‘“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”’ Luke 10:28
Do this. Do this kind of love, this wholehearted love for God spilling out into wholehearted love for others and you will live. You will breathe life, produce life. Live this and it will be as lifeblood in your veins thriving and flourishing the whole of your existence. Don’t just think this, memorise this, say this, speak this, letting it line your lips, and puff up your intellect. Do this! Do this. And you will live! Live this, and you will have done all you need to do.
Jesus’ “Do this” is not just an affirmation, a bit of advice or a rabbinic instruction: It is a test. The same test His second question was (“How do you read it?”) the same test God is always calling us into, the testing question of a heart: “Where are you?”. The first question in the Bible may be ‘Where are you?’ but the second was ‘Where is your brother?’ (addressed to Cain), and this second is the measure of the first.
You see, this man, this expert in the law, he knew the ‘right’ answer, he got it ‘right’ the first time, but only in the words, the letters of the law inked out, the lines in the Torah outlining the one thing that matters: Love God first. But there is one small problem, and Jesus words ‘do this’ reveal it like light shining into a dusty corner of a soul: ‘Do this and you will live’. This expert in the law, expert in the answers, he preferred ‘know this’, ‘read this’, ‘talk about this’, ‘become an expert in this’… but ‘do this’? This is the difference between answers on paper and answers lived out breath by breath.
The problem is this: Jesus lived the words He spoke, all His words line His actions and every line He spoke actioned a Kingdom of love. And He calls every one of us to do the same, to live in His Kingdom, to live His words: “Do this”.
But this man, while having all the right answers, hadn’t lived with the questions long enough to let them shape his life. The right words he spoke were just words to him, devoted as he was to them. Just ink. Just lines in the law. He was dedicated to the words. Alone. He wasn’t dedicated to living them, to letting them live in him. In fact part of him was dedicated to avoiding them altogether, to reshaping them to fit his comfortable assumptions about how life should be.
‘But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbour?”’ Luke 10:29
The words we speak out aloud don’t necessarily speak the shape of our soul, but the space between the words, the spirit beneath them, the motivation behind them, the story within them, does.
This expert’s answer to Jesus first question had looked good… at first. His words were polished with theological precision, but he also revealed his answer to the second question (“How do you read it?”) in his response to Jesus “Do this”.
“How do you read it?”, he read it through a lens shaped like a loop hole in the law, He read it through eyes searching for the escape clause in the word of God, fine print justifying his attitudes and rationalising his life position.
And though he had talked of loving God first, he scrambled for reasons why he needn’t love others next. If we are looking for a loop hole in ‘love your neighbour’ our heart isn’t right with ‘Love the Lord your God…’ (Luke 10:27); because truly loving God with all we are (heart, soul, strength and mind) fills us up so much that there remains no room for selfish avoidance or blind prejudice, and that love always spills over to others.
How did he read it? He read ‘love’ with conditional clauses and mitigating circumstances, he read ‘neighbour’ through filtering lenses skewing ‘Love your neighbour’ into ‘love those who you are comfortable with, love ‘good’ people, love people like you’.
He was not alone in his perceptions, ancient Jewish writings taught Jews not to help sinners (Sirach 12:1-4) and to love Jews alone, and only ‘good’ Jews at that. And the world they lived in was full of ‘neighbours’ that didn’t fit this bill: Romans, Hellenists, Libertines, Sadducees, Samaritans, Zealots, and everyday people who buckled under the weight of the law this man was an expert in.
This man, with his heart forged through these traditions, had no understanding of the love of God. The love that stretches over every boundary, every wall, through every culture, every nation; this love that reaches out to every wandering wondering human being, of all shades of goodness, all shapes of difference. God’s love welcomes everyone.
Every one of us.
This expert in the law wanted a loop hole to thread his prejudices through…
…So, Jesus gave him a story to find himself within.
‘In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…’ Luke 10:30a
Jesus tells a story that is subtly also a question, another invitation to embark on a quest for ‘those who have ears to hear’. Jesus stories are usually invitations to a quest, they invite the listener into a narrative and ask them to find themselves within it; Where are you? Where are you really? Behind all your neat and tidy answers, behind all your rationalisations dressed up as religion, where are you?
Because God is not interested in our rhetoric, He’s interested in our hearts. And He is always searching us out, calling us out, calling us forward into growth and full life, calling to our souls, ‘Where are you?’. What story are you living out that is not My Breath in you, what story are you living in that is not My Kingdom come?
Because Stories: We live them. Identity stories, morality stories, existential stories, life stories. Perhaps that’s what culture is, if you follow it all the winding way to it’s wellspring source: A story. A wandering through words lived out. A living in the lines lining our assumptions.
In all his answered questions the ‘expert in the law’ didn’t question the stories he lived. And so Jesus tells this story for him to find new life within; to find himself within; to find God with-in. Because Jesus’ stories not only ask ‘Where are you?’, they also whisper, ‘Here I AM’. Here I am, here’s my heart, here’s my nature, here’s my Kingdom… right here in the space between the questions and the answers.
And so often this is the space we rush away from, the space we avoid, the space we fill with superficial answers, empty platitudes and only ankle deep questions, living in ponding stagnant answers that drown our journey towards God.
This story this day that Jesus told, it was a strange new story; it wasn’t the story this man was living in. It wasn’t the story many people were living in. It was the counter-cultural story of a Kingdom being born and it was explosive, the kind of explosive that rips and tears at historical scars and shines light into the darkest assumptions of a soul.
And this story this day that Jesus told, it wasn’t just for this one man. It was for all who were listening, and all who still hear. Because we, all of us, still live in stories that dwell between the lines of our scar tissue attitudes and script line assumptions. We live in stories we don’t question enough, perpetuating cycles of brokenness and pain all around us and within us. In all our questions we don’t question the stories we live. We question everything else, but we don’t question the shape of our very own soul. We just live it. Unquestioned.
This story Jesus told, it confronted layer upon layer of a long history of pain, prejudice and pride. Samaritans and Jews had lived with mutual disdain for centuries, the seething hate of tension unresolved, battle lines drawn in the sands of time. Samaritans reminded Jews of their fallen glory, their broken inheritance, broken by their own unfaithfulness to God leading to their own exile. In their forced absence imposters had moved in, mingling with their ancestors left behind. Samaritans were a mixed-race remnant of them; a cracked mirror reminding them that they were the ones who broke. These skewed script lines became lines of hate, they drew the battle lines down and rehearsed their lines by heart, cultural lines, family lines, the lines Jews have been hurling across the chasm of hate for 500 long years, ”half breeds”, “Mongrels”, “Dogs”. The lines Samaritans returned in flinching pain-filled rage.
They, on both sides of this line, lived the story of hate. Unquestioned. The scarred and scarring fault line between beautiful human beings all made in the image of God.
It is into this fault-line Jesus speaks this new Kingdom story, a new story line, challenging the script lines of the past…
‘In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.’ Luke 10:30
These ‘robber’ bad guys in this story, were just bit-players and extras. Setting the stage for the true ‘bad guys’ to emerge… (every one of us)
‘A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.’ Luke 10:31
‘..When he saw the man’ he didn’t see the man, he didn’t see a human being beaten, vulnerable and dying; he saw the inconvenience, the ritual uncleanness, the time wasted, the expense, the effort required. But he didn’t see the man, a human being made in the image of God. He was too busy serving God to see the child of God before him. Suffering. Sick.
‘So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.’ Luke 10:32
Both the Priest and the Levite were religious leaders, representing and serving God. The listeners to this story would initially have been convinced that these men were the ‘good guys’, the heroes of the story, the ones who succeed; the ones with the right answers. Easy.
However in this new Kingdom story Jesus is telling, the Priest and the Levite were being asked the same questions Jesus was asking the expert in the law (the same questions every hearer is being asked, including us), the ‘Where are you’ question God is always asking, the ‘How do you read it?’ question revealing the lens of our soul, and the ‘Do this’ challenge highlighting our human apathy as we are called forward into a quest.
And the Priest and the Levite in this story become a powerful illustration in knowing the right answer, but living the wrong. They showed their answer by what they did (or failed to do). They refused to cross the line between apathy and love. And in so doing revealed the state of their heart towards both God and humankind.
They pass by on the other side, and they let the opportunity to “Do this” pass them by.
The listeners, who might first have assumed that these men were the ‘good guys’, find now that in the space between the ‘where are you?” and the ‘do this’ that they become the bad, and the person the listeners might first have assumed was the ‘bad guy’ in the story (perhaps even more so than the thieves) becomes the good…
‘But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Luke 10:33-35
“and when he saw him…” When he saw him, he saw Him; the image of God within a human being.The child of God before him, suffering, sick; ‘…he took pity on him’. He didn’t see an inconvenience, the ritual uncleanness, the time wasted, the expense, the effort required; and he didn’t look for a loop hole to fit his prejudices through. And the space between his seeing and his doing is tissue paper thin. Ten active verbs describe the “do this” response of this Samaritan, beginning with.. ‘he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him..’ He crossed the line.
Such simple words to say. But these words were hard for these first hearers to hear. To stomach. Because had the roles been reversed, had it been a Samaritan lying half dead on the road, they would almost certainly have crossed over to the other side, crossing the line from apathy to hate. This story was shining a light in uncomfortable places for every one of it’s hearers. It was personal. What the Samaritan did for the injured man would have felt like sandpaper friction against the skin of every Jewish listener, every Jew who knew their lines by heart, who lived their lines by hate.
He’d crossed the line, this Samaritan. He didn’t stick to his lines laid out, the historic lines of hate passed down, the script lines of prejudice and fear. And in doing so, in the space between the ‘where are you?” and the ‘do this’ this Samaritan becomes the representative of God on earth, doing His will on earth (as the Priest and the Levite should have done, as every listening Jew should have done).
This Samaritan, he lives the story of a Kingdom come.
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
And did these Jewish listeners hear as they listened to this story, did they sense God’s questioning gaze in the shadows of their souls? Did they hear between each line, the whispering of His Kingdom closing in?
‘“Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”’ Luke 10:36
Where are you?
Silence can be so loud, we want to fill the space with words. But easy words and answers didn’t know their way around this new Kingdom story. Jesus question probably hung on the air a while before the expert in the answers could clear his throat to speak. A question suspended in silence; the silence of centuries of prejudice and hate meeting the beating heart of God; the silence of light exposing the dark corners of the human psyche.
‘The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”’ Luke 10:37
The expert in the answers could not bring himself to answer this fully, to name the assumed enemy in the story that acted like the truest friend, to name that in this story his life-long enemy represented God more fully, than those who were vocationally called to do so. Than himself.
‘Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”’ Luke 10:37
Go and do likewise. Do this. Do this kind of love, this wholehearted love for God spilling out into wholehearted love for others and you will live. Live this and it will be as lifeblood in your veins thriving and flourishing the whole of your existence. Don’t just think this, memorise this, say this, speak this, letting it line your lips, and puff up your intellect. Do this! Do this. And you will live! Live this, and you will have done all you need to do. Just love.
Our answer to the first question in the Bible ‘Where are you?’ is measured by our answer to the second ‘Where is your brother?’. We are our brothers keepers. Our neighbour’s helpers.
Jesus story reached right through cultural and historical mores straight into the human heart of the matter. History is no excuse. Prejudice is no excuse. We are our brother’s keepers, and every person with the breath of God within their lungs is our neighbour, our family, our friend. Every refugee, every foreigner, every black person, every white, every person of every orientation, every religion and every outlook on the world that is different to our own. They are our neighbour. Every one. Jesus draws the circle wide, enveloping this whole spinning earth, these are our neighbour. We are not called to judge them, avoid them or treat them with suspicion. We are called to love them.
Because every child of God we meet asks us a question. The question God is always asking; How do you see them? Where are you?
With all His questions, God is challenging us to question the stories we live. To choose to live His story, rather than the script line stories of our past, the scar-line stories of our history.
Jesus lived the words He spoke, all His words lined His actions and every line He spoke actioned a Kingdom of love. And He calls every one of us to do the same, to live His Kingdom story, to live His words: “Do this”. His Kingdom story is an identity story, a morality story, an existential story, a story that produces life.
That’s what His Kingdom is, if we follow it all the winding way to it’s wellspring source: A story. About love. A love story to live in and live out. A living in the lines actioning a Kingdom of love.
A Kingdom where every question is answered with love, every answer is challenged in love and every story is rewritten by love.
What friendships have you formed that you have to cross a line to get to? The line between apathy and love?
If the answer is none, what does ‘do this’ require of you?
References, Notes and Credits
‘Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered ‘ by Martin B. Copenhaver, Abingdon Press (2014)
John Dear, ‘The Questions of Jesus’ New York: Doubleday (2004)
Eric Burtness, ‘Lenten Journey: Beyond Question’ Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, (2012),
Matthew 11:15,13:9,43; Mark 4:9, 23; Luke 8:8, 14:35; Revelation 2:7,11, 17, 29. 3:6, 13, 22 and 13:9.
Darrell L. Bock ‘The NIV Application Commentary: Luke’ Zondervan 1996, page 300