Asking Questions Few Want to Ask

November 13, 2014

Some questions should never be expressed, given their timing and content. The police pull you over and ask for your driver’s license. You do not say, “Oh? Why?” You give them your license. The boss says, “I need 20 copies of this in an hour.” You do not reply, “Can someone else do it?” You find a copy machine. When duty calls, duty expects an answer. That’s how life works. We don’t get to challenge authority very often without adverse consequences; and sometimes, a mere question crosses the line. Every parent understands. When we tell our kids, “Take out the garbage,” or, “Go to bed,” we expect compliance, not useful dialogue about ways, means, and rationales. In those situations, “Why?,” is an offensive response. Children should not search for reasons to disobey or construe their obligations as narrowly as possible—e.g., by going to bed without going to sleep or by setting the garbage outside the door instead of the dumpster.

So meet the lawyer of Luke 10:25-28, a man who asks an ill-timed and inappropriate question. He comes to Jesus with an ultimate worry, a concern shared by many in that day. He wants to know—or he thinks he wants to know—what an overachiever like him must do to inherit eternal life. There has to be a plan, he expects, some way of facing the judgment of God with exceptional confidence. Maybe this Jesus would know, if anyone does, given his miracles and teaching. At the very least, it could do no harm to hear the prophet’s answer. Which laws—among the Old Testament’s 613 options—really count? What are God’s priorities, if some matters of the Law are taken to be weightier than others?

From one angle, of course, even this first question would get it wrong, if “do” suggests a transactional pathway to eternal bliss, where enough merit makes the grade. In that case, we have no hope, not precious little. But the lawyer may innocently desire to know what it’s like to love God as he ought to do, given his place among the chosen people; and if so, we haven’t seen his dark side—not yet, anyway. The latter appears soon enough, however, as this conversation unfolds. When Jesus applies the right kind of pressure, the lawyer forgets himself and asks the exact wrong question, one that should never be voiced, given its content and intent.

At first, Jesus tests the lawyer’s interpretive skills: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (v. 25). In other words, he asks, ‘Which laws capture the essence of what Yahweh requires?,’ and the lawyer responds correctly with two answers. The righteous man loves the LORD with everything he’s got, as per Deuteronomy 6:5 (v. 27). But something else is needed, taken from Leviticus 19.18: he would love his neighbor as himself. Do these two things, Jesus confirms, “and you will live” (v. 28). But lawyer takes another step, this one too far, desiring to justify himself. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

On the surface, this question seems harmless. What’s wrong with knowing, in specific detail, who exactly one’s “neighbor” is? If Jesus would address this detail, the might examine himself more usefully, to see whether he is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the covenant. But Jesus sees through the question: in fact, the lawyer is playing a clever game. Once Jesus says, “Behold, your neighbor,” the lawyer will also learn who his neighbor is not. He will know who the strangers are, defined as people he doesn’t have to care about. Thus Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, thereby teaching simple but profound lesson. Draw in your mind a ‘circle of concern,’ and put yourself in the center of it. If you were the lawyer, you’d want to know, “Who is inside my circle, and who is outside?” But from Jesus, he gets this response: “The circle moves with you.” In other words, all kinds of people can and do fall within one’s circle of concern, given the usual patterns of daily life. The Samaritan understood this fact intuitively and acted upon it. The others did not; and the lawyer is expected to regard the conduct of these others as moral failures.

In the same way, we face similar temptations and may find ourselves asking Godless questions. Was that a knock on the door? A friend in need? We answer, “No, I guess not,” but some part of us really means, “I hope not.” Was that Fred from the church, back there by the roadside, struggling with a flat tire? We tell ourselves that it was not, while we secretly add, “Also, I hope not.” In our worst moments, we think of people not as friends and neighbors, but as transient liabilities, as problems we can do without. Someone else will come along. Someone else will do the right thing, if not us. But worse cases than these arise all the time, even here in America, where we need so little and want so much. In fact, worse cases come up especially in America, and they’ve done so ever since 1973.

Perhaps the most famous article ever written on abortion is also, in its own perverse way, the bravest. In 1971, while most Americans were still pro-life, Judith J. Thompson published an essay in which he stipulates what defenders of abortion typically do not: “the fetus is a person from the moment of conception.” But never mind, Thompson argues: the personhood of unborn children, even conceded, does not require us to ban abortion. It can be morally permissible to kill a baby, she argues, even when the mother’s very life is not threatened by ongoing pregnancy (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Fall 1971). Most abortion advocates, however, are not so candid. On the contrary, their strategy looks very much like the lawyer of Luke 10:25-28. If we can gerrymander the boundary between ‘my neighbor’ and ‘the stranger,’ we limit our bioethical liabilities. In this case, the categories are ‘persons’ and ‘non-persons,’ and one cannot help noticing the energy devoted to missing an obvious point about the unborn: they are living human beings and thus living human persons.

In debates about the beginning and end of life, modern societies expend great effort examining the personhood of what is to be killed. It’s either permissible or wicked to kill the unborn and infirm, depending on whether they are enough like the rest of us to count. Some argue that it’s actually good to kill here and there, rather than let live, though they still construe the resulting deaths as tragic. But if we get back to the lawyer’s question, a new worry arises, one that precedes any particular answer to the question of personhood, as clear as that answer actually is on both ends of life. That is, it should concern us greatly that lots of people in this country are asking nasty, ill-timed questions, two of them being, (1) Are human fetuses really unborn children?, and (2) Are desperately sick, elderly people really living?

On the surface, such questions seem harmless enough. They merely ask whether one has duties toward the unborn and elderly, given how they differ from regular people in certain respects. Yet they also serve a deeper, less admirable agenda, even perhaps a wicked one, depending on what responses they contemplate; for what accompanies the question is the unspoken thought, “I hope not,” as per our other examples. In other words, the questions themselves reduce the unborn and elderly to the status not of friends and neighbors, but of assets and liabilities. They are either in the way or out of the way, and thus the parable of the Good Samaritan finds its mark. We might have thought, “We’d be sinning, of course, if we were to mistreat actual persons.” But this parable implies that the wrong turn can happen even sooner. Some inquiries should never be engaged, especially when they seek to limit our moral exposure. From that perspective, the question, “Who is really human?,” can be a nasty one indeed.

Thor Madsen
Thor Madsen serves as Vice-President for Academic Development & Dean of the Faculty, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and College; Professor of New Testament, Ethics, and Philosophy.