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Pilate Error
November 24, 1991

JOHN 18:33-38A

Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, of English literary fame, were good friends, but Boswell had a habit that rather annoyed Johnson and one day Johnson confronted him on it. "Bozzy," as Johnson affectionately called Boswell, "why is it you always answer my questions with a question of your own?" Boswell responded, "Do I now?"

In the Scripture lesson this morning where Jesus is on trial before Pilate, Jesus might be accused of the same thing. He answered questions with a question. But, Jesus was in a difficult spot, and Jesus was a master at asking questions, but Pilate was not.

In fact, Pilate's error is that he did not know how, or did not care to ask good questions. Pilate was not interested in asking questions to learn the truth; Pilate asked questions to indict and convict. Pilate's first question was a leading question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus wisely sidestepped the question by asking another question in return. Pilate tried again, "Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" This was a loaded question. What have you done that got you into trouble? What have you done that makes you guilty of the charges? Jesus again sidestepped this loaded question and told Pilate his kingdom is not from this world.

Then Pilate asked him a trick question, "So you are a king?" Pilate was still trying to trick Jesus into convicting himself, rather than trying to determine whether the charges were true. Jesus put the ball back in Pilate's court, "You say that I am a king." In other words, "King is your word not mine." Jesus explained, "For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth." In response Pilate asked a facetious question, smirking no doubt, "What is truth?" Pilate asked a leading question, a loaded question, a trick question, and a facetious question.

Pilate asked no open, learning, questions. His questions were closed. He already had made up his mind. He already had answered his own questions. Pilate was not interested in learning anything new. He was not answered in learning to know Jesus, in getting acquainted, in learning what Jesus was about, and Pilate certainly was not interested in exploring discipleship with Jesus, and ask how he might become a disciple. Pilate was not interested in learning about a new way of thinking, a new way of living, a new way of relating to people, a new world, a new kingdom. No way. His mind was made up. My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts. My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the truth.

I ran across a list called, "The World's Worst Questions."

Will you promise not to get mad if I ask you something?

You don't honestly expect me to believe that, do you?

Haven't you any sense of humor?

You don't remember me, do you?

Have I kept you waiting?

Now what's the matter?

Are you asleep?

When are you going to grow up?

How about adding when you answer the phone and the caller asks, "Who is this?" I'm in my house, I'm answering my phone, and the caller is rude enough to ask, "Who is this?" I think I'll answer next time, "This is Cliff, drop over some time!" Or, how about the caller who asks, "Oh, did I wake you up?" I asked that once. It was obvious the callee had been awakened, and in my embarrassment, asked, "Did I wake you up?" He said, "No, I had to get up to answer the phone anyway." Senator Gary Hart told about one of his law professors who had reduced the art of questioning to its bare essentials. He would put his head back, close his eyes, and announce, "I'm thinking of something. What is it?"

The asking of questions is an art. Some are more skilled at it than others. Socrates is called the father of heuristics, learning by discovery or inquiry. Rather than fill a student's mind with stuff, Socrates asked questions which helped the student not only do his own thinking, but explore new ideas, new ventures. When Albert Einstein returned home at the end of a school day, his mother did not ask him the usual question, "What did you learn today?" She asked him, "Albert, what good questions did you ask today?"

A whole new world opens up to you when you ask questions, the right kind of questions, questions that open you to new possibilities, new ideas, new people, and God. My son, Tim, who lives in South Pasadena, is a good conversationalist. He asks questions. Last summer, his questions led him into an adventure. He was playing golf with two friends. The fourth player, a fellow worker with one of the friends, was a stranger to Tim. Tim engaged in conversation, and not spending the entire time talking about himself as some people do, asked questions. The conversation went something like this.

Tim asked, "Where are you from?"


"Minnesota! I was born in Milaca, Minnesota. Where did you grow up?"


Tim replied, "What a coincidence! My mother is from Stillwater. You probably don't know her, but perhaps you know her family. Her name was Eleanor Smith."

"Oh, any relation of Sheldon Smith?"

Tim said, "Sheldon Smith was my grandfather."

The new acquaintance looked at Tim and said, "We're cousins!"

His grandfather and Tim's grandmother were brother and sister. What a thrill it was for Tim to meet his Minnesota cousin in southern California where how many millions live. Asking good questions opens the door to adventure.

Asking good questions is an art. What is a good question? A good question is a question that is open, not closed; a question that opens communication, that opens doors; a question that gets to the truth, that is open to the truth. When you ask questions, ask yourself if you really want to know the answer. Are you asking the question to really learn something, or to really get to know someone else? Or, is the question simply a form question, a question that is expected, filling in time. Or, do you ask questions that allow you to talk, to tell your story, tell about yourself; or do you want the opportunity to tell the other person what you think he/she needs to know. Or, is the question, like Pilate's questions, insidious? Are you trying to trick someone, or seduce the other into convicting him/herself?

Asking open questions requires humility; humbly admitting you don't know all the answers. Some are proud of their accomplishments and knowledge, and feel they have so much to share with other people, there is no time or opportunity to ask questions of them. If you are really eager to know, to grow, to develop, humility is required. To learn the truth requires you to admit you don't know all the truth, to admit you don't have all the answers. It takes a big person to humbly admit he/she does not know everything.

Asking open questions involves risk and vulnerability. Why? Because you can't control the answers. Controlling people, people who have to be in control of the situation, rarely ask good questions because they lose control. To some people, giving up control, even of a simple answer, is impossible to do.

What would have happened, I wonder, if Pilate had had a sense of humility, if Pilate had really been interested in the truth. I wonder what would have happened if Pilate, instead of asking Jesus leading, loaded, trick and facetious questions, had asked Jesus open questions? What if Pilate had asked Jesus, "Who are you? What do you teach and preach? What is important to you? What are you trying to accomplish?" What if Pilate had even gone further and asked personal faith and commitment questions like, "If I were to follow you, what difference would it make in my life?" What if Pilate had asked, "How might I become a disciple of yours?"

Yesterday, at the Church Conference, Peggy Goochey shared part of her faith journey. She said God had seen her through some very difficult times in her life, and one day in her prayer time, she acknowledged all that God had done for her. Perhaps she asked the questions we have just sung in the hymn, "Who defeats my fiercest foes? Who consoles my saddest woes? Who revives my fainting heart, healing all its hidden smart? Jesus Christ, the Crucified." Peggy expressed gratitude, thanksgiving to God, and then she asked, "What can I do for you, Lord?" The answer to that question led Peggy into the ministry. Asking the question, "What can I do for you, Lord?" requires humility, risk and vulnerability. Asking that question means you give up control, and give the control to God. Asking that question launches you on the greatest adventure of your life; a new world, a new kingdom opens up to you, as King Jesus leads you on a new journey.

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, when we remember, honor, and celebrate Christ the King, can you repudiate Pilate's error, ask open questions, especially ask in humility and gratitude, "Lord, what can I do for you?"

© 1991 Douglas I. Norris