Of Questions and Questioning
by Rev. Paul Scalia
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Written to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, "Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law? How do you read it?" He said in reply, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." He replied to him, "You have answered correctly; do this and you will live."
But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn, and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, 'Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.' Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers' victim?" He answered, "The one who treated him with mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Thus a “scholar of the law” asks Our Lord (cf. Luke 10:25-37). It is not only a good question – it is perhaps the only question. The answer determines one’s entire way of living. And yet it is not asked well. This lawyer asks not out of genuine, unfeigned desire to live rightly and attain eternal life. He asks “to test Jesus,” as Luke tells us. In short, it is a great question poorly asked. We should, then, take one thing away from this man’s example and leave the other.
What we should learn from his example is, first, the importance of the question itself: What must I do to inherit eternal life? His question is a matter of final causality. He sets eternal life as his ultimate goal…and now wants to know how to get there. If we do not know where we are going, we will not know how to live. So, this man has at least half of the problem solved: He knows where he wants to go. Now he asks Our Lord how to get there. We should all be so interested in our final end. We should begin asking that question now, while we still can, not waiting until the question becomes “What should I have done to inherit eternal life?”
But aside from the particular question, the whole scene highlights the importance of asking right questions in general. The greater part of wisdom lies not in knowing everything (know-it-alls typically lack wisdom) but in asking the right questions. Unfortunately, most of us would ask a more banal question, directed not to eternity but to worldly comfort and convenience. We are curious about superficial, trivial and selfish matters (hence our penchant for gossip that parades as news). We desire to know only worldly things – how to get more money, get the perfect body, get ahead in business, etc. Spiritual progress begins when we redirect our minds from curiosity about mundane matters to genuine interest in eternal truths.
The tragedy of this scene lies in the lawyer’s motive. And that is what we ought not imitate. He desires to test (literally, “tempt”) Our Lord. He asks not to gain the answer but to put Jesus on the spot. His insincerity becomes even more apparent when he asks another question – “Because he wished to justify himself.” Again, not for truth or conversion, but for an ignoble reason.
“Moral posturing is part and parcel of temptation.” Pope Benedict once wrote. His observation is counterintuitive. We typically think of the tempter as simply evil and trying to lead us to evil. But it is not that cut and dry. Whatever position the tempter takes is designed to make us doubt our moral judgment – to make us feel too rigid or too lax. Either extreme will do, so far as the tempter makes us falter and justifies himself.
Many fall into this today, flinging questions at the church, Our Lord’s body. Jesus continues today as Teacher through His Church, whose doctrine nourishes and saves but also requires a change of life. Faced with that challenge many ask question – but cynically, seeking to test the church and/or to justify themselves. Contrary to popular belief, the church does not avoid questions. Rather, she welcomes the genuine seeker, one who asks rightly, with the disposition to receive and respond to the truth she bears.
Despite himself, therefore, the lawyer teaches us two essentials: to ask the right questions and to ask them in the right way. Our interest should be directed not to the things of but to the realities of God and eternity. Further, the right questions must be asked with a sincere desire to know what is true and conform our lives to it. Yes, we should ask things of God (check the psalms; they are full of questions). We should ask, however, not to put Him to the test or to prove ourselves right, but to receive truth from Him. If we were less curious about the things of this world and more intent on the things of heaven, we would be happy even in the asking of questions.
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