Some of the most memorable words of Jesus from the gospels come in the form of questions.
- “What are you looking for?” (Jesus to his first disciples in John 1:38).
- “Who do you say that I am?” (Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 16:15).
- “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (After the calming of the storm in Matthew 14:31).
- “Do you love me?” (Jesus to Peter three times in John 21:15-17).
According to one count, Jesus asks 135 questions in the gospels. They are among some of the most striking moments in the gospels, including the Passion, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. Many parables contain puzzling questions. And Jesus often scolds His disciples and followers for their lack of faith in the form of a question, such as the above example from the calming of the storm.
I propose that what Jesus is saying in these moments maybe almost as important as how He is saying it. The form of His sentences has significance itself.
Here, I am extending the insight of the celebrated twentieth century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who famously declared that the “medium is the message.” (McLuhan, incidentally, was Catholic.) What McLuhan meant was that the medium through which we receive information affects the message and even becomes the message. McLuhan was talking about the differences between media such as print newspapers and television, but we can see how the same principle applies even on the microscopic level of grammar.
When Jesus asks the woman accused of adultery where her accusers had gone (John 8:10), He could have just as easily delivered that information in the form of a statement. By asking her a question, He makes her respond to Him and participate in her redemptive moment. She is not a passive bystander, or a victim immobilized as Jesus sends her accusers scattering. She becomes part of the story.
But such questions also change the way that Jesus participates in the story. Think, for a moment, about the three main types of gospels narratives prior to the Passion: there are speeches or sayings in the form of sermons and parables, there are healings, and there are also miraculous interventions in the order of nature, such as the calming of the storm, the multiplication of the loaves, and the turning of the water into wine.
Punctuating these narratives with questions personalizes Jesus. He uttered divine sayings, He healed, and He performed miracles. But He did more than all this. He was more than an oracle, more than a divine doctor, more than a performer. He personally interacted with those He taught, healed, and saved. Questions are a sign of His personal presence and engagement with those he encounters in the gospels.
In everyday interaction questions are how we make sure that people are really listening to us—that they are ‘really there.’ Questions are how teachers make sure students are paying attention and how all of us really know that a close friend, a mentor, or a significant other has been truly listening to our story or our particular problem. So also in the gospels.
The questions of Jesus put the lie to the Docetist heresy that He was merely some sort of fleshly automaton operated by God. We could perhaps imagine a fleshly phantasm declaring divine words like some kind of possessed oracle. We can imagine such a thing being a conduit for healing powers. But it’s harder to reconcile this heretical distortion of Jesus with the gospel account of the questions He asked. Jesus was really there and the questions He asked confirm it.
The questions actually have a twofold effect. Not only do they affirm the presence of Christ, they draw His interlocutors, and, by extension us as readers, into a personal relationship with Him. Recall the story of the woman accused of adultery. She participates in the event by answering Jesus’ question and, by so doing, she is no longer a passive recipient of forgiveness but someone who acts in the story. Indeed, this small act leads directly to a larger one: after she recognizes no one stands to accuse her, Jesus commands her to go and sin no more (John 8:12).
Today, Jesus’ questions reach across the centuries and draw us into the gospel. He asks who do we say that He is? Do we love Him? Why do we doubt? As challenging as these questions can sometimes be for us, we ought to be grateful that we have a personal God who cares enough to ask them in the first place.
(Note: For more on how questions engender a personal encounter, consult I and Thou, a book by Martin Buber, a twentieth century Jewish philosopher who influenced popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I credit Buber with helping me to understand the significance of these questions.)