A Question of Power… and the Power of Questions Matthew 21:23-32

Cat Goodrich
Faith Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD
September 30, 2023

A Question of Power… and the Power of Questions
Matthew 21:23-32

Senator Dianne Feinstein died on Friday, a lion of California politics and in the Democratic party.  She was 90 years old and had served in the US. Senate for more than thirty years, the first woman to serve as senator from California.  In her tenure through four Presidents (Biden was the fifth), Feinstein was a champion of gun control and green energy and women’s rights.  As chairperson of the intelligence committee, she oversaw the report that revealed the brutal interrogation techniques CIA operatives used on detainees at Guantanamo Bay in the early years of the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.  She called that oversight and censure of the CIA and the public release of the torture report (as it came to be known) the most important work of her career.[1]

In recent years, though, the Senator was in declining health, and she appeared to be relying more and more on her staff.  People began to question whether or not she was up to the job.  In the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Feinstein appeared detached and her questions meandered; she repeated herself more than once – not for emphasis, but because she apparently had forgotten she’d just asked the same question.

Feinstein leaves three octogenarians in the Senate, and 16 who are 75 or older.  I’m sure that these long-serving politicians are very good at their jobs.  But I also have to guess they find it difficult to part with power.  And so they refuse to relinquish it.

In this tense exchange between Jesus and the temple leaders, the leaders are finding it difficult to relinquish their power, too.  Jesus has just paraded into town (literally) and stormed into the temple, tossing tables and throwing out those who would profit from the piety of poor people – the money lenders and venders.  The religious leaders need to get him out of the temple – really, they need him out of the way completely.  Because they are in power, and they want to stay that way.  His antics are threatening.  He attracts the attention of Rome.  And he attracts the attention of the people – the crowds are growing by the day.  Now, if those crowds were all faithful, law abiding Jews, that might be okay, even a good thing.  The problem is that they aren’t upstanding, religious folk – they’re Gentiles and tax collectors, Roman soldiers and prostitutes.  Seriously problematic for the guys in charge to have all of this rabble, these unclean people in their holy space.

So they try to trap Jesus… by asking him a question.  But: Jesus refuses to answer.

Now, the religious leaders should have known better.  They should have known that Jesus was clever, a tricky person to deal with.  After all, he is asked 183 direct questions in the gospels, but he directly answers only 3 of them.  This isn’t one of them.  But he asks more than three hundred questions in his teaching.  In the only story we have of Jesus’s childhood, he has run off to the temple when his parents find him there, he is questioning the rabbis – and the text tells us, all who heard him were amazed.

Anyone who has spent time with a child recently can tell you that kids ask a lot of questions.  Why is the sky blue?  What is the sun made of?  How do birds fly?  What is gravity?  We are born open eyed with wonder, curious about the world around us, intensely interested in understanding how things work and why.  But over time, we stop asking so many questions.  We start to believe we’re supposed to have answers – that asking questions reveals weakness, because it means admitting we don’t know something.  But here is our lord and savior Jesus Christ asking hundreds of questions, and answering only three.

Some people believe that faith means certainty.  I’m not so sure.  Faith can bring knowledge of self, can bring us closer to God, can impart wisdom for living.  But it also brings a whole lot more questions.

Episcopal priest Rev. Paul Kingsley served a church in Towson for decades.  He was remembered for saying, “We go to church to have our questions answered.  Instead, we have our answers questioned.  That clears the decks for having our questions questioned!”

Religion professor Jonathan Malesic has taught college students for more than 20 years.  He wrote an op-ed in the NYTimes earlier this year describing an oft-overlooked quality that leads to academic success in higher education.[2]  Simply put, successful students are willing to learn.  That is, they are open to new ideas and knowledge. They ask questions, and pursue their curiosity.  They do this despite the social and cultural forces that expect us to present ourselves as competent and capable, “always already informed.” Malesic quotes philosopher Jonathan Lear, who calls this attitude knowingness: “a sickness that stands in the way of gaining genuine knowledge… as if there’s too much anxiety involved in simply asking a question and waiting for the world to answer.”[3]

I can’t help but think of Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet the advice, “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”[4]

Live the questions now, because that is how you live your way into answers.  That is, in part, what Jesus is doing in this story.  He throws out the money lenders to challenge to the status quo within the temple, where only the wealthy were allowed to worship properly – some were allowed in, but many others were kept out.  He questions the questions of the leaders because they can’t, they refuse to see God’s power – God’s power to heal and reconcile – at work in him and in the world!  Jesus doesn’t teach by sharing clear answers, he teaches by doing! He doesn’t just talk about the kingdom. He enacts it.  By questioning the leaders, by teaching and storytelling, Christ demonstrates his power, holy healing power.  Boundary breaking power.  When the people see Christ’s power, when they realize he’s acting by God’s authority, they are amazed. They’re also afraid.

Afraid, because holy power means that the world as it is is not how it will always be. God is at work, and change is coming -and change is hard. It can be scary. It means that the powers that be, won’t be forever. And people who have power don’t give it up easily.

Before Dianne Feinstein was elected to the Senate, she spent ten years as Mayor of San Francisco, having been appointed to office in the chaotic hours after the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk.  She proved herself to be a brilliant, driven leader, determined to get results to improve the city she loved.  I read that one mark of her leadership was that she cared about details, and spent time each day questioning the department heads about their work – following up on projects, tracking the nuts and bolts minutia of running a city.  Her questions made her a stronger leader.

Questions deepen and strengthen our faith.  It’s why we just spent an hour in the Forum exploring two of our congregation core values: curiosity and doubt.  And so I wonder: What questions do you have?  How can we live them together?

[1] I drew from the New York Times’ coverage of Sen. Feinstein’s life, her obituary, and political career.  Knight, Heather, “As Mayor, Feinstein Made San Francisco ‘Vibrant,’ City Leaders Say,” 9/29/23, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/14/us/dianne-feinstein-career.html?name=styln-dianne-feinstein&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=Article&variant=undefined

[2] Malesic, Jonathan, “The Key to Success in College is So Simple, It’s Almost Never Mentioned,” The New York Times, January 3, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/03/opinion/college-learning-students-success.html?searchResultPosition=2

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rilke, Rainer Maria, Letters to a Young Poet, excerpt accessed on https://www.awakin.org/v2/read/view.php?tid=747