We see it on the news quite frequently. Someone is walking or driving somewhere and is stopped and asked personal questions, like “Who are you?” “What are you doing here?” It is an uncomfortable situation and one that quite often escalates very quickly, sometimes with the horrible finale being the death of an innocent person because that person did not answer quickly enough, or perhaps did not answer to the question in a way the authority thought that they should. It is a tragic consequence, and there have been so many over the past few years.
The Eucharistic gospel reading for today is a little bit of the same story. Jesus was in Jerusalem with his disciples, and as he walked in the temple, authority figures, namely the chief priests, scribes, and elders came up to him, and questioned him: “By whose authority do you do these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus had simply been doing what he was supposed to do, but here was a group of people questioning his right to exercise the gifts God had given him.
Jesus was a fast thinker, and he had played this kind of mental chess game before. His advantage was having nothing to hide. Usually, we think of fast thinkers as people who are getting trapped in situations using words and questions, and they don’t always have the right answer. So, instead of answering truthfully or directly, they sometimes to try to prevaricate, which is like trying to do it two things at once: remembering what was just said and remembering what the truth was.
Jesus used the tactic of answering a question with another question, asking if the baptism of John came from heaven, or was it of human origin? And then he demanded an answer. I can just see the powerful group moving back just a little, huddling together to try to come up with the right answer. If they said that the baptism of John came from heaven, they would be asked why they did not believe him. But if they said the baptism was of human origin, they would be forced to acknowledge that John was a prophet, which is what many people believed him to be. Either way they were stuck, and being stuck in a situation like that is never a good thing. So, they answered in the only way they knew, and probably felt shame and anger as they were forced to say, “We don’t know.” That one statement sealed their defeat; they lost face with the crowd, just by saying those four little words.
Sometimes those facing authorities don’t really understand how to answer questions flung at them. Everybody wants an answer, they want it now, and they want one that they expect. People who are being questioned are afraid to say that they don’t know because that could indicate that they could be guilty of doing or saying something for which they are being questioned.
We are ashamed to say we don’t have an answer to a question, whether it is at work, facing authorities in a delicate situation, or even trying to answer the question of a four-year-old who wants to know why there are all those stars in the sky. We have answers that we could use. We could use a scientific reply, such as stars are in the sky because they are individual planets, satellites, and galaxies that have moved from the center of a gigantic explosion billions and billions of years ago, or we could say that God liked pretty lights so God sprinkled some in the sky, so we wouldn’t be so afraid at night. The one thing you don’t want to say to your kid is “I don’t know.” It is as if by saying those words we will lose credibility, especially with the people we most want to be truthful with, to be trusted by, and to be accepted as someone with knowledge to share.
It is difficult to say, “I don’t know.” Somehow it would make it a little easier if we could say “I don’t know, but I’ll be glad to go and look it up and report back.” In a stressful situation, though, we don’t often think of doing that, especially if we are stopped by authority figures when we are walking down the street or driving in an unfamiliar neighborhood, and we are stopped by somebody wanting to know who we are and what we are doing there. It is very easy to say “I’m sorry. I got lost and could you please give me directions.” Or we could say “I am taking a walk. I live several blocks over and I’m on my way home.” Of course, we could be there for a nefarious reason, sizing up who is at home and who is not, who leaves expensive items lying around outside like a bicycle or a car. We could be an assassin or a burglar, or we could just be a person taking a walk. The authority doesn’t know what we are doing, hence the question. In the light of that, they don’t take kindly to perceived prevarications and the situation can escalate from there.
Jesus himself, at one point at least, used pretty much that same phrase when questioned about when God would come to restore Israel. This takes place in Matthew, and in that query, Jesus replies by saying no one knows, even the angels in heaven, or the Son, but only God has the answer. If Jesus could admit something that he didn’t know, why should we be so embarrassed about saying it? Granted, the circumstances are a lot different, but still, there are times when it would be so much better to just admit to not knowing then to try to come up with some sort of plausible or implausible answer to a question.
None of us likes to look like we are lacking in total possession of information that others might want. Parents and teachers especially get this, because someone is always asking them questions. Sometimes they are not prepared the question, but they feel it creates problems for the for the person asking if they don’t get an answer. It is a tough situation, whether it is life-threatening or not. No one wants to feel like they are uneducated or lacking in knowledge, but if an answer is given that isn’t correct and the person who originally asked finds out, wouldn’t that be the same as losing credibility by saying, “I don’t know?” So, what is a person to do?
Some people never reach the point where they’re comfortable saying that they don’t know something. Others, quite often older folks, reach a point where they feel comfortable saying that they don’t know. I find it is really a rather freeing thing to be able to admit to another person that I don’t know everything. I can offer perhaps an example of what I have found in a similar situation, but many times I just don’t have an answer. What I’ve also learned is that I don’t necessarily always have to have an answer. Sometimes just listening attentively to the questions is enough. That’s when wisdom kicks in.
I’m practicing the “I don’t know” response more often these days. Perhaps there are times when that is the most Jesus-like thing I can do.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.