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Matthew 22.15-22

Mark 10.2-5

Luke 6.6-11

John 8.2-11

Trick(y) Questions

Fourth Sunday in Lent

The Bridge of Death is a rickety narrow footbridge that spans the Gorge of Eternal Peril.  It is at the threshold of the Bridge of Death that we find King Arthur and his band of loyal knights in the movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Between them and the bridge stands the bridgekeeper, who is, as best as I can tell, a cross between a troll and an orange-haired gorilla.  The bridgekeeper has three questions each knight must answer before passing, and if even one question is answered incorrectly, the hapless victim is tossed into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.  “Who would cross the bridge of death must answer me these questions three, ’ere the other side he see...”  Lancelot volunteers to go first, and the troll asks the question:  “What is your name?”  “Sir Lancelot of Camelot.”  “What is your quest?”  “We seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is your favorite color?”  “Blue.”  “Very well, you may pass.”  Deciding this doesn’t look at all difficult, brave, brave Sir Robin goes next:  “What is your name?”  “Sir Robin of Camelot.”   “What is your quest?”  “We seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is the capital of Assyria?”  “What?  I don’t know that!”  And immediately Sir Robin is cast into the deadly Gorge.  The next knight nearly makes it across, but gets his favorite color wrong (this is Monty Python, after all).  Finally it is King Arthur’s turn:  “What is your name?”  “Arthur, King of the Britons.”  “What is your quest?”  “We seek the Holy Grail.”  “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”  Arthur thinks for a moment and asks, “African swallow or European swallow?”  With a puzzled look, the bridgekeeper replies, “I don’t know,” and is himself immediately cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.  As they cross, Arthur’s servant asks the king, “How do you know so much about swallows?” and Arthur replies, “You have to know these things when you’re a king!”

Jesus was teaching in the temple, and was saying things that were difficult for the temple officials to hear, because as the gospel reminds us, “Jesus taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes,” or to put it in plain English, Jesus spoke like someone who actually knows what he’s talking about.  So the Pharisees tried to trap him with clever questions.  First they asked Jesus, “By whose authority are you teaching these things?” and Jesus turned their question back on them:  “The baptism of John – was that human or divine?”  They knew that if they said, “divine,” then that would admit Jesus’ authority, because he was baptized by John; but if they said “human,” the crowd would have turned on them, because John was considered a prophet.  So the Pharisees said, “We don’t know.”  (So far as we know, none of them were cast into the Gorge of Eternal Peril.)  A little later on we find another trick question, and you can hear the unctuous smarminess in their question:  “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.  Tell us, then, what you think:  Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  You and I know how that one turned out:  Jesus once again turned the question back on the questioners:  “Whose image is on the coin?”  “The emperor’s.”  “Then give the emperor what is his, and give God what is God’s.”  Like Monty Python’s King Arthur, who answered the bridgekeeper’s question with a question of his own and thus found safe passage, so Jesus answered the Pharisees’ question with another, and thus demonstrated his authority.

It will be forty-two years ago this Spring that I stood at my Ecclesiastical Council, a gathering of clergy and lay people who came to hear me defend my ordination paper and ask questions about, well, really about just about anything anyone wanted to ask.  In the Central Association of the UCC’s Connecticut Conference, there was an elderly gentleman, a curmudgeonly congregational minister – retired - who not only predated the UCC but also looked as though he might have predated the puritans as well.  This minister had a reputation for asking obscure questions at ecclesiastical councils about arcane congregational history and polity as it developed in the 1600s & 1700s.  (Maybe he did predate the puritans after all!)  Of late, he had been asking candidates for ordination questions about the significance of the half-way covenant, a congregational policy with its roots in colonial New England that had to do with baptizing infants of parents who had not demonstrated clearly enough their own personal conversion experience.  Now, fortunately for me, I had an ally in a local pastor who warned me that this question was coming, and on the day of my council, that ally surprised me by rising to ask the very first question, the question about the half-way covenant, thus disarming the old curmudgeon and getting a laugh out of everyone else in the room, who it was clear had grown tired of listening to the elder clergy ask his gotcha questions every time out.  He had turned the questioner’s question on its head, I was able to answer it in a moment of genial humor, you could feel the pressure leave the room, and I forget how the rest of the Council went, but apparently, it was a success.

Jesus was a wily one.  Again and again, he was able to finesse these tricky questions, not by avoiding them, but by challenging their very premises and turning the question back on the questioner:  “Whose image is on the coin?”  “Was the baptism of John human or divine?”  “Is that an African swallow or a European swallow?”  In this morning’s reading from Mark, the Pharisees came with, yes, another question, and were actually prepared for Jesus’ return volley with a riposte of their own.  “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” they asked.  Jesus replied with a question:  “What does the law of Moses say?”  And the Pharisees were ready - “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and then to divorce her.”  Or as we used to say when we were children, “Moses said we could.”  Jesus replied, “Moses allowed it because of the hardness of your own hearts...”  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus was about to heal a man on the Sabbath when he felt the icy stare of the temple leadership just waiting for him to transgress tradition, so this time he didn’t even wait for their question; he turned and asked them, “Is it lawful to do good, or to do harm, on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it?”  And the resultant silence was all that needed to be heard.

Finally, from John, Claudia shared the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery.  Presumably so was the man, since the Bible says they were caught in the act, but somehow the Pharisees neglected to bring him to Jesus for judgment.   This time Jesus did not answer their question with another question, but he may as well have:  “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such as this.  What do you say?”  We remember Jesus’ reply:  “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her;” and they all left, one by one, until only the woman herself remained.  Every time Jesus was asked a trick question, he simply turned it back on his questioners, and in his question was their answer.

I have shared this quotation with you before, because I believe it holds an important key to Bible study.  They are the words of 20th century theologian Karl Barth who gives us a window into Jesus’ larger intent.  Barth wrote, “If the congregation brings to church the great question of human life and seeks an answer for it, the Bible contrariwise brings an answer, and seeks the question corresponding to this answer.”  (I love that “contrariwise” – it’s not a word you get to use every day.)  But to place Barth’s words into the context of this morning’s lessons, sometimes the answers to our questions are not so much to be found in the answers, but rather in the questions themselves.  What leads us to ask the questions we do?  What are their presuppositions?  And in what ways can we turn our questions back around on themselves, and on ourselves, and in them find our answers?

You’ll have noticed that this morning’s readings come from each of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  However, John Dominic Crossan, a former Catholic priest who is a member of the Jesus Seminar and professor emeritus at DePaul University, has written, “There is really only one gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What we have in the Bible are the ‘according to’s’ – according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John.”  It is a thought that makes me wonder, If there is only one gospel, and the evangelists are simply four different interpreters of it, then what is that same gospel for us?  What is the gospel according to Alan?  I’m sure there is one, and you can probably tell me what it is after listening to it for nearly five years now… What is the gospel according to Claudia?  I would wager it has an anti-racist component to it, because it is something you are passionate about.  What is the gospel according to Diane?  I bet it has a distinct interfaith flavor to it.  What is the gospel according to [names]?  Because in a way we each have a gospel, we each have a personal manner of understanding and following Jesus, and these ways and manners shift as our own faith grows and develops.  What I believe about Jesus today is not the same thing I believed about him forty–two years ago, and it is not the same thing I will believe about him tomorrow.  One of the things we have learned from our own gospel readings this morning is that some of what we believe is found, not in the answers we seek, but in the questions we bring.  Some of us want to know about death and dying; some of us want to know about life and living; some of us want to know about love and loving; some of us want to know about doing; some of us want to know about belonging; some of us want to know about believing.  The things we most want to know about are often the things that inscribe our own gospel, our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ:  the gospel according to us.  These are the key times that the answer is not in the answer; these are the times the answer is in the asking.  And if we sit with our questions long enough, they will tell us as much about ourselves, and our quest, as their answers will.

You have to know these things when you’re a king.

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