Trick Questions

Heritage Presbyterian Church

November 6, 2022
22nd Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture readings: 2nd Thessalonians 2:1-5,13-17 and Luke 20:27-40

Once upon a time, the old-time comedian Groucho Marx was told that he could not use the pool in the hotel where he was staying because Jewish people were not allowed.  I know that type of prejudice existed – but it still surprises me whenever I read about it being so blatant.  However, Groucho was a very clever man and one who often refused to accept any slight directed his way.  So, he asked the desk clerk a trick question:

“Since my daughter is only half Jewish, can she go in the water up to her knees?”

Not all trick questions are wicked, as this humorous example reveals.  Sometimes they can be used to reveal the cleverness of the listener.  Other times, they can be done to make everyone stop become more aware that trick questions even exist.  Often, they are clever or bitingly sarcastic or intended to make the questioner uncomfortable.

Or sometimes they are just a waste of everyone’s time.

Did you ever notice how often Jesus was asked trick questions by the religious authorities of his day?  They were never asked for any of the reasons I just listed.  Instead, they were asked in an attempt to introduce “lawlessness” to the conversation and to convince anyone who was listening that Jesus did not know what he was talking about, was not to be trusted, and was not any kind of righteous prophet sent by the Lord God.

Funny that those same questioners – those VERY SAME QUESTIONERS – didn’t treat John the Baptist the same way. 

According to all four Gospels, the Baptist was asked questions like:

  • “Who are you?”
  • “Why are you here?”
  • “Are you Elijah?”
  • “Are you one of the prophets?”
  • “Why are you baptizing the people?”

All of those questions are completely logical.  All would have been asked by anyone encountering the Baptist in his time.  All were worthy of being asked by any religious authority, especially those from Jerusalem.  And none – not a single one – could count as a trick question. 

John the Baptist could become impatient with their questions.

He could become impatient with those who asked the questions.

He could denounce them the second he laid eyes on them, calling them a “brood of vipers.”  (What a great put-down!)

But John the Baptist was not given a single reason to become annoyed, angered, or enraged by any of the questions he was asked.

It would seem that the authorities saved that attitude and those questions for Jesus only.

Let me start by pointing out the various questions that Jesus was asked by the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the elders, and the teachers of the Law:

  • “Why don’t you give a sign that will prove who you are?”

(Matthew 12:38-42, Mark 8:11-12, Luke 11:29-32)

  • “What is your opinion of a man giving his wife a divorce?”

(Matthew 19:3-9, Mark 10:2-9)

  • “What is the greatest Commandment?” 

(Matthew 22:34-40, Mark 12:28-34)

  • “The Law of Moses commanded us to stone this woman who was caught in the act of adultery.  What do you say?” (John 8:3-11)
  • “Should anyone be healed on the Sabbath?” 

(Matthew 12:9-14, Mark 3:1-6, Luke 6:6-11 and 14:1-6)

  • “Do your followers pluck grains on the Sabbath?” 

(Matthew 12:1-2, Mark 2:23-24, Luke 6:1-2)

  • “Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

(Matthew 9:10-13, Mark 2:15-17, Luke 5:29-32)

  • “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

(Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26)

  • And of course, the absolutely ridiculous question from today’s reading about resurrection and the woman who had seven husbands following the Law of Moses!  (Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40)

See what I mean?  Jesus seemed to be asked ONLY trick questions by those authorities.  The only time this didn’t happen was when Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night and actually asked questions seeking explanations and clarifications; by the way, he didn’t seem to get either…

So, Jesus was clever and certainly up to the task of taking on any and all questions from anyone.  He was much smarter and much wiser that any of us can ever hope to be.

Yet, we are left with at least two cautionary messages today:

The first is that the Lord warns his believers to “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.”  That would seem to be a loaded statement, to say the least.  Yet those very words contain instruction for any believer to take to heart.

Does Jesus tell us to “be as wise as serpents” in reference to the Old Testament story in Genesis when the serpent tricked Eve into trying the apple from the forbidden tree?  Could this possibly be what Jesus had in mind?  Not exactly…

Jesus was using a figure of speech to remind his followers of how they needed to act in the world in which they lived.  Christianity was not accepted in the days following the amazing earthly life of Jesus, and the Lord knew his followers would have great difficulty.  Often times, they needed to be “crafty” and “shrewd” and even “sly” when they went about their lives.  

These are all qualities the serpent in the Genesis story had, but Jesus meant with the wickedness that also accompanied that same serpent.  Paul surely used all these qualities in his own travels and work.

If not, Paul’s missions might not have been so successful.

The second part reminds believers to be as “innocent as doves.”  The image of the dove has been used for centuries to represent the Holy Spirit – a part of the Trinity that is certainly not seen by ANY believer as something soft and gentle and easy to defeat.  Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the power that all believers receive that makes us go forward when common sense tells us to stop, tells us to stand up when our own bodies tell us to sit down and let someone else take the lead, tells us that the Lord needs each of us when we are too quick to murmur “Not me, Lord, not me” when the opportunity to serve arises.

  • Innocent, yes…meaning without guile or wicked intent or a hidden agenda.
  • Innocent, yes…meaning without pride or arrogance or the sure and certain knowledge that we must be right.
  • Innocent, yes…meaning that we have nothing in our heart except for a servant’s intent to follow and do work worthy of being called in the first place.

One last thing about trick questions, and this is a final cautionary note: We should avoid at all costs asking our own trick questions of the Lord.  Now when I say that, perhaps I hurt your feelings or wounded your pride when I suggested that thing might even be possible.  If so, that was not my intention.

Instead, I am cautioning all of us – and myself included – to avoid “making deals” with the Lord when we pray.

This past week has been an exercise in this that I thought was long forgotten.  It has been many years since this temptation arose in my own heart because I have been blessed with an abundantly good life and by few crushing or heart-breaking situations that would test my own faith.

This past week had me down in two different ways: first of all, I have developed yet another condition that makes me cough even harder than usual.  And second, while this is going on, my beautiful, healthy, wonderful daughter was forced to undergo two separate major operations in order to bring her second child into the world.  Little Coco Gino is still in NICU at St. David’s Hospital in Austin.  She was connected to breathing machines much of last week in pictures that were gut-wrenching to even look at using my phone.  I could not drop everything and drive to Austin and join the vigil at her side.  I could not touch her or hug my daughter or son-in-law and pray with them.  In short, I couldn’t do ANYTHING AT ALL.  

As of three days ago, I couldn’t be counted on to bring a message any of you would be able to hear because I had no voice at all.

In times like those, it was so tempting – so very, very tempting – to ask my own trick questions of the Lord:

  • “Why would you do this to an innocent baby?”
  • “Why am I sick again and can’t even go to help babysit my grandson who misses his parents?”
  • “Lord, if I can bring my own family to church more often, will you spare Coco?”
  • “What do I need to do in order for this situation to resolve itself so Coco can come and begin to thrive?”
  • “Are you there, Lord?  ARE YOU THERE?”

All of these are and were my own trick questions.  I may not have had the intentions of the Pharisees and the others by asking them, but they are there anyway.

I was forced to do something I can’t stand to do: sit and wait quietly on the Lord for everything to be done in His good time, in His loving way, with His mighty grace, and without His annoying, sometimes loud preacher who hopes to be nothing more than His servant.

Watch those trick questions, Christians.

Be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

And if you can’t do either of those things, just sit and wait on the Lord to provide.