2014 Lent 36


Mark 11:27-33

Does the Pope wear a funny hat?

This question was introduced to me by one of the most significant women in my life, my stepmom.  I was probably something like fourteen years old at the time.  And she answered a question I had just asked with this question.  My question obviously had a “yes” answer, something like, “Are we going out for dinner tonight?”  Obviously yes to her, anyway, which is why she asked about the Pope’s choice of headwear.

But to me, naïve as I was then about matters of religion (and most other things, truth be told), the answer wasn’t obvious.  I’m not even sure I could have given the Pope’s name–John Paul II–let alone commented on his fashion sense.  Oh, I knew he was some important person in Europe, sure.  But what part of Europe, and as to why he was perceived by so many people as important, I did not.

So I saw my stepmom’s question, which answered my question, to be in fact a trick question.  Was she trying to trap me?  She was born and raised Catholic, I knew.  She’d even gone to Catholic University.  And now she was bringing her religion into my home!  So was she trying to trap me, trying to see if I would somehow dis her main holy man?

“Um,” I offered, “I don’t think it’s funny.”

“What?” she asked.

“His hat,” I explained after a moment’s reflection; “I don’t think his hat is funny.”

To which she responded with a great deal of laughter!  For she hadn’t been trying to trap me at all.  Rather, she thought I’d asked a rhetorical question; so she herself, in reply, asked what she thought was another rhetorical question.  But all this was lost on my yet-too-concrete mind.

In today’s reading from Mark, something similar occurs.  Except in this case people really are trying to trap someone: the religious leaders try to trap Jesus with the question, “By what authority are you doing these things?” i. e., these miracles on the Sabbath.  It was a trap because if Jesus answered, “By God’s,” he could be accused of blasphemy, for (to the religious leaders) God could not contradict his own law by healing on the day of rest.  But it was also a trap because if Jesus said, “By mine,” then he’d be equating himself with God–also blasphemy.  It must have seemed a double whammy to the religious leaders, for no matter how he answered, they had him!

But, does the Pope wear a funny hat?

Jesus answered his opponents’ question with a question.  “Was John’s baptism from heaven,” he asks, “or from human origin?”

Well, they couldn’t say from heaven, for they didn’t believe it themselves; doing so would be an obvious lie.  But neither could they say that it was of human origin, for the multitude believed it had been from heaven, and they were largely outnumbered by this multitude; they feared the crowd, in other words.  So they answered, “We don’t know,” which is really just another way of saying, “We’re not going to tell you.”

This was Jesus’s answer all along.  “I’m not gonna tell you,” he says–just not in so many words.

So, end of discussion, end of trap.  The religious leaders had no choice but to leave, dejected, like dogs walking away, ashamed, with their tails between their legs.

Turns out, answering a question with a question can be a good tactic.

In the end, then, I look back on my conversation with my stepmom as a time when she modeled Jesus to me.  I’m sure, though, she has no idea.  Thanks anyway.

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