Have you ever played “what if”? This was a favorite game of third and fourth grade theologians back in my grammar school, Our Lady Star of the Sea. As we threaded our way through the Baltimore Catechism we were very fond of asking the “what if” questions. My favorite what if went something like this: “What if you were on a desert island and you were starving to death and it was Good Friday and the only thing you had to eat was a hamburger with pickles and ketchup?” The Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill fielded a lot of these kinds of questions from us.
Now that the shoe is on the other foot and I’m in the teaching position I have to admit that I relish good questions from students – even if I don’t know the answer right away, and particularly when I really don’t know the answer! It’s a good thing to admit to students that one does not know! In my introduction to anthropology course I ask the students to read a book called Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography about Bedouin women in Egypt. Inevitably the students will construct scenarios of Bedouin life and ask me what Bedouins would do in a given circumstance. The “what if” types of questions we launched in Bayonne have made it all the way to Omaha! Sometimes I have to say “I don’t know” because a) my expertise is not in the region of the world, b) our available evidence is the ethnography we are reading, c) we have no cultural representatives in our class from that area, and d) human beings in any cultural situation can respond in a variety of ways. These are all good reasons to say “I don’t know.”
The book of Sirach tells us about wisdom. In this portion of the text we read today we hear about pursuing wisdom with all one’s being. This is a lifetime process. Wisdom brings peace but its pursuit can also bring torment. It is not instant—a feature more and more expected in our own culture.
In the gospel today the authorities are questioning the authority of Jesus, not particularly in the pursuit of wisdom and understanding but rather to unseat and devalue Jesus. Rather than listen to the wisdom Jesus offers, or rejoicing in the healings he performs and the forgiveness he dispenses, they simply ask a question to trap him and devalue all he has done and taught. Jesus turns the situation around by asking them the same question asked of him but about John the Baptist. Rather than seek wisdom through Jesus’ question, they simply evaluate the consequences of the possible replies and consequently become trapped by their own question.
While at times we simply want answers wisdom teaches us to ask better questions -- Jesus eludes the authorities not because he was hiding or did not know the answer to their question but because they were asking the wrong question and were not seeking wisdom but rather Jesus’ condemnation and dismissal of the truth. Good questions are as important as right answers.
My admission that I could not simply answer the question about what if a Bedouin woman did “x” or “y” helps my student to learn how to ask better questions based on the available evidence and the limits of using a single book as speculative evidence. It also shows that wisdom is a process, not a set of quick answers and admission of unknowing is also a way of knowing. Hopefully this admission will also lead them to pursue the truth beyond the ethnography they are reading – maybe perhaps even some of them will become anthropologists, go to these places they read about, and increase human understanding and tolerance – in essence, pursue wisdom.
Jesus invites the authorities, as he does us, to continue seeking wisdom, to learn to ask better questions, and to be willing to put down everything to follow God’s revealed wisdom who is Jesus the Christ.
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