From the Gospel according to John:
The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 1:35-38 (NRSV) – August 6, 2014)
Every time I read this tale from John’s gospel, I am caught up short by this apparently pointless question. It seems such a non-sequitur, a request for irrelevant information. What could it have mattered where Jesus was staying? John doesn’t bother to give us an answer. We don’t know where this event took place. John never tells us a town and though the two disciples are permitted to come and see where Jesus was staying, the information is never given to the reader. A useless, irrelevant question made important in the dialog but never resolved for the audience — my college writing instructors would have torn this story apart.
All this question does is give Jesus an opportunity to invite them to come with him and spend the rest of the day (and perhaps the night) talking with him, which is all that John wants it to do. The question itself and its answer really don’t matter. Except they do . . . to nitpicky detail freaks like me!
I’ve read a lot of exegeses of this verse. Some suggest that the dialog — “What are you looking for?” “Where are you staying?” “Come and see.” — is an encapsulated invitation to discipleship. That feels like an eisegesis (a reading-into) of the scripture to me. Others suggest that the two men’s question should be understood something like slang, such as we used to use back in the 1970’s — “Where are you at, Jesus?” “What’s happening with you, Jesus?” — but that seems even less likely than the first idea.
I’ve always been convinced that John is just using the question as a scene-setting device and it has no deeper meaning. But today I’m not so sure . . . today I’m thinking maybe John is suggesting that there are no useless, irrelevant questions. Not because this one is some sort of code for entering the discipled life, nor because it’s a colloquial way to make inquiry into the deeper meaning of Jesus teaching, but rather because we can never know what questions may be meaningful nor where the answers to seemingly innocuous questions may lead us.
I didn’t write my Daily Office thoughts this morning for a variety of reasons — computer failure being at the top of the list, but also because of early morning commitments to the veterinarian and to the intake nurse at my orthopedist’s office. I am having surgery on my knee next week, so I had to go first thing this morning to the doctor’s office and answer a bunch of questions. Later in the day, I had to go through almost the same litany of inquiries (and more) at the surgical center where the procedure will be done.
Many of the questions were relevant, but some seemed entirely pointless. I wondered why they were being asked. Apparently some legislators and judges believe that questions about firearm ownership are irrelevant to medical treatment. A recent Federal Appeals Court decision upheld a Florida state law prohibiting physicians from asking about that. I didn’t mind answering any of the questions and wouldn’t have minded answering about gun ownership (the answer would have been “No”). I might have wondered why the question, but the asking wouldn’t have bothered me. (On the other hand, state legislators second guessing my doctor and telling him what he can and can’t ask, that bothers me.)
One of the apparently pointless questions in the afternoon session, however, led to an extended inquiry into very relevant data, however. So I began to appreciate the breadth of the queries and to see why they were being asked. And as I thought about that on my drive back to my office, I made a connection with John’s tale of Andrew and his companion asking Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
It may seem like a pointless and irrelevant question. Maybe even John thought its substance was irrelevant (after all, he didn’t give us the answer), but the asking of it led to a life changing event in Andrew’s life, and then to a change in his brother’s life, and his brother’s life led to leadership in a new religious community, and that leadership led to the creation of the church and the spread of the Gospel . . . . One never knows where a question may lead.
Perhaps that is the point of John’s story. One never knows.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.