In our last episode, we talked about the importance of honest, thoughtful questions that dig beneath the surface. These real questions can reveal truths that might be uncomfortable to face or difficult to admit. However, in order to grow and progress, we need to ask hard questions.
As we learned from the “gotcha” question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to the Roman Empire (click here if you missed that episode), insincere questions can be used as rhetorical weapons.
Today we are seeing agenda-based, artificial questions being asked with increased frequency. Instead of an honest inquiry, these questions are designed to be well-crafted statements that promote a predetermined stance. Instead of seeking the truth or an honest answer, they are intended to give an answer or force the person answering into a corner. Not only are these types of questions far from helpful, but they also prevent us from listening for an authentic answer. If every question becomes a statement in disguise, how can we ever have an opportunity to genuinely listen to someone who might have a differing perspective or new information?
This brings us to one of the most important questions ever asked.
An unnamed man approached Jesus with a question. In one version of this story, he is called a ruler. In another version, we learn that he is young and wealthy. Traditionally, we smash these descriptors together and call him the Rich Young Ruler (RYR for short). It’s not overly creative, but it does paint a picture.
His question for Jesus, which continues to echo throughout history, is:
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:16b)
Yep, that question. Like I said in the previous episode, this is a critical question for all of us. But, why was this question asked at that time and by that person? I wonder if this was the first time someone asked Jesus this question. I am sure a lot of folks thought about it. Maybe they were too afraid to ask and were waiting for someone else to have the courage. Regardless, the question has now been asked. And, I can just imagine that there were folks in the crowd that day expectantly leaning in to hear Jesus’ answer.
Before we continue, let’s take a closer look at his question. Notice that the RYR does not ask, “How do I get eternal life?” Instead, his question is much more specific. He asks about a specific action or “good deed” that will grant him access to eternal life. He is not asking about a collection of good deeds, or a pattern of behavior or even general good intentions. He is asking about a singular good deed. I even double checked the original language to be certain; it is singular.
Does he assume that there is one essential, catch-all, good deed that we can perform which gives us a fast-pass to the front of the line at the pearly gates? Is he checking to make sure that he didn’t miss something? What one thing is left for him to do?
From the sound of his question, there might be something more going on here, so Jesus re-centers the question. Instead of focusing on the “deed,” Jesus refocuses on the “good.”
And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. (Matthew 19:17)
What is good? How do you define it?
Why do you ask me about what is good?
Do you think I am good?
Do you trust that I will give you good advice about what is good?
“Why do you ask me about what is good?” It’s a great question, especially on a practical level. Throughout our lives, we are approached by people with questions. Sometimes those questions are real and honest. “What’s for dinner?” Followed closely by, “Do you know what time our favorite restaurant closes?”
Other times, we might be asked questions that are meant to involve us into an ongoing dispute or debate. Unfortunately, and far too often in my experience, the goal of this type of question is not to see where we stand on an issue, but to convince us that our stance is misguided. In these instances, the question is designed to justify a decision that has already been made.
In the case of the RYR, I think there is a little of both in his question. As we’ll see later in the story, the RYR is looking for an acknowledgement for all the good he has accomplished. In his opinion, he has led an exemplary religious life. But, at the same time, I also believe he is covering his bases to ensure that he hasn’t missed something. Either way, he is assuming that he is in control of his eternal destiny. As long as he follows the rules and does what is good, then he is good.
Jesus’ response is going to challenge his assumptions, “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus’ question is not philosophical or theological, it is personal.
Why do you ask…me?
When being drawn into a debate, this should be our first question. Asking why we have been chosen to be involved in this particular line of questioning helps reframe the ground rules and refocus the conversation.
Are you asking me because you value my opinion and insight, or do you want me to only value yours?
Do you think that my experience or education can be helpful to you, or are you looking to only educate me?
Are you open to changing your mind or actions based on my response, or am I here to simply reflect your opinion?
Do you honestly care about what I think or believe?
Why do you ask me?
This is also a question about our relationships. When we ask this question, must ask it honestly and with integrity. We should want to know why we, in particular, are being asked so we can provide a thoughtful answer. If we play games with our conversations, we devalue our relationships. Therefore, we need to take a moment, put the questions aside, and refocus on our relationship with the person we are engaging. In nearly every case, that relationship is ultimately far more important than the question being asked.
In our next article, we’ll continue exploring the question of the RYR and what good deed he must accomplish to jump to the front of the line.