Jesus, the Inquisitor Supreme

Malcolm Muggeridge, the renowned 20th-century social critic and British journalist, was an unlikely convert to Christianity. For most of his life, he was an agnostic; faith for him was “infinitely unattainable.” But attain it he did, late in life, and in 1975 he wrote, “The coming of Jesus into the world is the most stupendous event in human history.”

Twenty centuries after his birth, Jesus still holds a revered place in the hearts of billions of people. I am among them. I imagine that it has influenced almost every area of my life, like food coloring dropped in water.

Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him.

Martin Copenhaver, a retired president of Andover Newton Theological School, claims in his book “Jesus Is the Question” that Jesus was more than 40 times as likely to ask a question as answer one directly, and he was 20 times as likely to offer an indirect answer as a direct one. “Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Rock.” “Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.”

Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Jesus liked to turn the tables on his interlocutors, especially those who were in the business of asking questions themselves. In Luke, an expert in the law asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” His reply took the form of not one question but two: “What is written in the law?” and “How do you read it?” But that’s hardly the end of the exchange. We’re told that this person wanted to justify himself; Jesus moved the conversation to a very different plane, from the abstract to the personal. When the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked what it meant to him to be a good neighbor. By the end of this cross-examination, Jesus had led his interlocutor — first through his questioning and then via the parable of the good Samaritan — to acknowledge that the person who is a good neighbor is the one who shows mercy. It is an astonishing interaction.

As for his use of parables, in “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” the theologian Kenneth Bailey wrote, Jesus “created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than like a philosopher.” The author refers to Jesus as a “metaphorical theologian” whose “primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning.”

Jesus, when asked by his disciples in Matthew 13 why he spoke in parables, indicated that it was to reveal the truth to some and to hide the truth from others. He was willing to disclose the truth to those who were sincere but wanted to conceal it from people not willing to honestly wrestle with its meaning. Jesus also clearly understood the power of stories to make his words more memorable by making them more personal.

“Arguments may form our opinions, but stories form our loves,” Cherie Harder, the president of the Trinity Forum, told me. She added, “Stories ask us to enter another world — which usually has the result of broadening or disrupting our own.”

P. Wehner

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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