Martin B. Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and coauthor of This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.
The following sermon, on Luke 7:36-50, was originally published in the Advent 2012 issue of Journal for Preachers. It is reprinted here with permission.
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Jesus asks a lot of questions in the gospels — 307 different questions, to be exact. (No, I did not count them myself, but someone did.) I am told Jesus only directly answers three questions of the 183 questions he is asked in the four gospels. Instead of answering a lot questions, Jesus responds in other ways. In some instances, Jesus simply keeps silent, as when Pilate questions him after his arrest. Or, Jesus responds to a question with another question. When asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Jesus responds, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?” And then, pointing to a coin, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” (It reminds me of the old Jewish joke, “Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?” Answer: “Why shouldn’t a Jew always answer a question with a question?”) Or, sometimes Jesus responds to questions indirectly. For example, when Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” he responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan. Obviously, Jesus prefers to ask questions rather than to provide answers. For every question he answers directly, he asks a hundred questions. He is not the ultimate answer man, but more like the Great Questioner. Does that surprise you?
Catholic author Richard Rohr writes, “In general, we can see that Jesus’ style is almost exactly the opposite of modern televangelism or even the mainline church approach of ‘Dear Abby’ bits of inspiring advice and workable solutions for daily living. Jesus is too much the Jewish prophet to merely stabilize the status quo with platitudes.”
Jesus is not a giver of advice. He doesn’t give us a neat list of ten ways we can be closer to God. He doesn’t offer spiritual tips. He does not provide easy answers. Instead he asks hard questions. In that he is more like the Zen master who asks questions to take us beyond the obvious to something deeper. He is like Socrates who taught the people simply by asking probing questions. He is like the prophets, who railed against the ruling authorities and sought justice by asking challenging questions.
So why have we paid so little attention to the Jesus who asks questions and instead have focused on his seeming answers? Here is Richard Rohr’s response to that question: “[Answers] give us more of a feeling of success and closure. . . . Easy answers instead of hard questions allow us to try to change others instead of allowing God to change us.”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is having dinner at the home of a Pharisee. A woman, who is described only as a sinner, crashes the party, falls at Jesus’ feet and begins to “bathe his feet with her tears.” Because this woman is known as a sinner, she is an outcast. People in polite company would have nothing to do with her. She would be overlooked. Upright people would act as if she doesn’t exist.
So when Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” it is a probing and challenging question. The woman may be right in front of them, but that does not mean that they see her. Sometimes people choose not to see. That’s because there is a cost to seeing. After all, if you see this woman, actually see this woman, you may need to move beyond the stereotypes and the preconceptions and the condemnations. You might have to relate to her as a person, as one soul to another soul. You might have to respond to her with compassion. “Do you see this woman?” Do you even want to see this woman? No, in some ways, it is easier not to see.