“Could God make a square triangle?”
“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”
Let’s be honest, questions like this often end up being kind of useless. If we offer (or debate) an answer, neither we nor the other participants in the discussion really learn anything useful that changes how we live.
Now, God’s omnipotence and the nature of angels are perfectly legitimate topics of honest discussion. If we use these abstract questions as a springboard to more important conversations, they can have value. Having said that, questions like this are often asked in order to cause trouble. What better assault on someone else (especially someone who thinks about things differently from you) than to ask them a question that makes them stammer or admit that they don’t have a good answer?
We continue this series on “Quotes from the Pharisees” with a question from the Pharisees, which the gospel writer clearly recognized as a trap:
Some Pharisees came and tried to trap him with this question: “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife for just any reason?”
Matthew 19:3 NLT
My understanding of first-century rabbinical teaching styles is that they often involved asking and answering questions. Honest questions aren’t bad, but this one was clearly meant to get Jesus into trouble. This question is similar in style to the question about paying taxes to Caesar (see Matthew 22:15-22), where one of two political groups would be offended if Jesus gave either a “yes” or “no” answer. In the passage above, If Jesus says that divorce is OK for any cause, this would assault the institution of marriage, set up by God from the start. It might also be refuted by passages like Malachi 2:13-16. If He says no, He could be construed into contradicting the law of Moses (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4).
What did Jesus do? We can read the details in Matthew 19:4-12, but Jesus didn’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no”. Instead, he responded with an explanation of what marriage was created to be, quoting from multiple places in the book of Genesis. He also explained why it was important. When the Pharisees pressed for an explanation of why the law of Moses permitted divorce, Jesus explained it in the context of God’s ideal and mankind’s fallen state. At this point, even Jesus’ disciples suggested that God’s standards were pretty high (which is true), and Jesus reminded them that, in order to accomplish some things, we need God’s help.
So, what lessons can we learn for ourselves? I suggest the following, at least to get us started:
- Learn and use Scripture (i.e., the Bible) to answer a lot of questions. Whether or not the hearers accept it, the Bible has truth to speak. Often, a wise answer can be found in the Bible, and even if we don’t immediately cite it as God’s word, others can still see the truth in it. Jesus was able to refute multiple temptations by Satan with Scripture. Surely we can do the same. If we learn what the Bible says, we can pause and think through what it says when considering a reply to others who try to trap us.
- Ask for guidance. If you follow Jesus, and have accepted Him as your Lord and Savior, you have access to the Holy Spirit’s leading. Being asked a tough question is a great time to ask for divine insight. We marvel at great comebacks (whether from Jesus, or even in movies), but those are usually generated by someone who is all-knowing about the situation (whether God, or a scriptwriter). Why not ask for God’s perfect help when we need it? If you need some encouragement, remember that we have access to the same God who spoke the words of Matthew 10:16-20.
- Ask polite questions. Sometimes, the question that is asked is not the question that needs to be answered. Is this someone seeking an honest solution to a problem that is bothering them, or just a heckler looking to get a quick laugh by mocking Jesus Christ or His disciples? Now, this is not a matter of trying to embarrass the person asking the questions, or proving that you are so witty that you can trap them, too. Repaying evil for evil isn’t Jesus’ way. Still, every question like this comes with context, and starting at the beginning might be easier than jumping into the middle of the audience’s preconceptions.
- See it as an opportunity. Remember, those of us who follow Jesus serve a God who makes great things out of problems (see Genesis 50:16-21, for example). Jesus took a question meant to be a trap and taught important lessons: to the Pharisees, to His disciples, and probably to bystanders as well. Never waste an opportunity to help someone draw closer to God, when He prompts you to do so.
- Study basic logic. Boolean (i.e., “yes or no”) questions are often a classic logical fallacy known as a false dichotomies. Sometimes, neither “yes” nor “no” is a true statement. In a world of shouting and raging emotions, not everyone these days knowns how to draw logical conclusions. To avoid being like this, read a book on logical fallacies (a good author makes this really entertaining), and first make sure that your own rationale isn’t based on them. Then, be ready to politely build a case (starting from the agreed-upon facts) for your answers when you are asked a question whose premise is incorrect.
- Know when to move on. Not every question needs to be answered. Sometimes the bully or the Internet troll just needs to vent, letting them spend their energy like a fish on the line, so that rational conversation can take place among others who are ready to have a calm conversation. We have to be careful to not quote Matthew 7:6 out of context, but my understanding of that verse is that Jesus is saying there are times when we shouldn’t waste good things on those who aren’t ready for them.
In the end, I would like for all questions to be opportunities for the recipients (including us) to consider what the audience needs most right at that moment, and to share hope and help. May we be ready for “no-win questions” today, and let God turn them into a victory for all those who hear our answers to them.
Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.