From the Gospel of Mark:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 9:30-32 (NRSV) – April 7, 2014.)
As a parish priest, part of my ministry is teaching. I’ve also been a teacher in the more formal sense as an adjunct college instructor, and as a practicing attorney I mentored young lawyers just entering practice. In every setting I have found, as Jesus experiences here, that students are reluctant to ask questions. Mark ascribes their hesitancy to fear, but there are other reasons the disciples might not have asked questions. It seems to me that there are at least three possible reasons why students don’t ask questions:
- They understand everything so completely that questions aren’t necessary. Mark tells us that isn’t the case here and the witness of the gospel accounts, his and the others, makes it pretty clear that the disciples are often “clueless.” In my own experience, especially in church settings, this is seldom the reason students fail to seek further instruction.
- They are so utterly lost that they don’t even know where to begin asking, what to ask first. If this were a formal educational setting and this were the case, the student would be in a lot of trouble. Once someone has gotten thoroughly lost with regard to the subject of instruction, it’s virtually impossible to catch up with the rest of the class. But it’s probably not the reason in this case; the disciples have been with Jesus for a long time now and they at least have some idea what’s going on.
- They don’t want to embarrass themselves. This is probably the most common reason students fail to seek clarification; they don’t want to look silly or stupid before their peers, or they don’t want to disappoint the instructor. No matter how often I have told my students that “there are no stupid questions,” they still won’t ask. The sensitive ego afraid of embarrassment gets in the way of learning. I suspect that this is the source of the disciples fear in this story.
That question-fearing sensitive ego is a particularly adult problem.
Anyone who has ever spent time with a 4-year-old knows that it is not a problem for them; children that age ask questions. Lots of them.
- “Why does the dog do that?”
- “What makes the sun stay up?”
- “Why is the sky blue?”
- “Where is the moon in the daytime?”
- “How did God make birds?”
And every answer leads to another question. Many an adult dealing with a curious toddler knows that this can get pretty annoying, but we also know that this is how children learn — it’s how adults learn, too — by asking questions.
Immediately after this episode the disciples began an argument about which of them was the greatest. In response to that argument, Jesus told them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he set a child among them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mk 9:35-37) A short while later, as people were bringing children to him for a blessing, he said, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15)
These admonitions are usually thought to refer to leadership, but I think we can also hear them as responses to the disciples’ fearful failure to ask questions when they lacked understanding. Children ask questions. Be like a child. Ask questions.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.