Conversation with a Wonderful Visitor at church:
WV: Why did John the Baptist ask if Jesus was the one that they were looking for? I mean, if he was preparing the way, shouldn’t he have known the answer to that question?
Me: [Excitedly] That’s a great question! Why do you think it was?
WV: Well… I don’t know. That’s why I asked you. You’re the minister! You’re supposed to have all the answers.
Me: Oh. Oh yeah.
That’s when I remembered, some people are excited by the questions and some people just want to know the answers.
When she asked me, a hundred questions popped in my mind. Why was she wondering about this? Did she hear a sermon on it? Does it make ever make sense to people in the pew that these strange John the Baptist texts always pop up in Advent? Did it bother her that John might have lost his faith in Jesus? Did she think he lost his faith in himself as well? What was worse for John, losing his faith in Jesus, or losing his faith in himself? Was he worried that his life was a complete waste?
Why did the gospel writers include this bit? Why was it important to keep it in the story? Why’s John considered to be the man who made the paths straight for Jesus, when he questioned Jesus in the end?
How would she have felt if she were in the jail cell? Is there something about confinement that hinders faith? Why does it seem that some people are called to die untimely deaths? Why do prophets so often die early?
Why does a young woman have so much power in this situation? Why was Herod willing to give her half his kingdom? Was there that much power in the art of seduction? Was this sort of thing common in the King’s court? Did women have more power than we think they did? Was seduction the only way they could get it?
And what about prophets? How much did prophets actually know? How much do they know today? Are there any alive today? Who are they? Could an early death make someone a prophet, who would have never been one if s/he lived to a ripe old age? Is there some power in the death, in the martyrdom?
We could have talked for hours. The discussion had endless possibilities and I could have learned a great deal. But, she just wanted an answer and I was running to teach a class, so I gave her one.
I explained that I don’t know why John the Baptist asked that question. I can imagine what it might have been. I figure that John was sitting behind bars, knowing that he was about to get his head chopped off at the bequest of some floozy dancer. Even as a great prophet, he certainly didn’t predict that ridiculous ending. So, he started questioning himself, his message, Jesus. I mean, if we sit beside John in that dirty cell, while he’s eating his final meal of locusts and wild honey, he’s probably thinking that the Kingdom of God was not supposed to turn out with his head on a platter.
I eventually give her that answer…because I’m the minister. But I would have much rather had the discussion. I know a lot of stuff because I’ve studied this passage for years. But I don’t know the important things. I don’t know John’s feelings or motivations. I don’t know how the WV was interacting with the text, what it was doing inside of her, why she needed to ask the question. I hadn’t really thought about what the words were doing inside of me. When she asked the question about John’s question, I realized that a lot of things were shifting internally.
But it did remind me of an important shift in our roles and people’s expectations. A good pastor used to be the one with all the answers about the text. He would expound upon them, definitively, in the pulpit. Now, most pastors are good because they understand how to ask the questions.
So what you think? How do you answer these questions? You may answer with a question.