So often Jesus answers a question with a question of his own. He is on the receiving end of many questions in the gospels, from scribes and Pharisees, from chief priests and elders, from teachers of the Law and from disciples. The fact that he so often replies with a question is not just a clever strategy on his part. It is because part of the meaning of a question is the interest the questioner has in the answer. Why does that person ask that question? What is it he or she is wanting in asking that question of Jesus? So Jesus’ replies, in the form of questions, are aimed at bringing to light also – and sometimes this needs to be done in the first place – the interest or motivation that explains the question.
Today’s first reading is one of the passages in which we read about the quest for wisdom, for truth. It tells of a person’s eager desire for knowledge, understanding and meaning, and how that desire has stayed with him all his life. In the course of his life he has learned not just about the object of his desire – he has gained knowledge, wisdom and truth – but he has learned also about himself and particularly about his own motivation in the search for wisdom.
‘My very core yearned to discover her’, says one translation. Another says ‘my soul was tormented in seeking her’. ‘I have directed my soul towards her’, he says, ‘and in purity have found her’. This is the point, to understand and to purify my motivations in my desire for knowledge and wisdom. Why do I pray? Why do I want to know? What do I plan to do with the knowledge I am seeking? Julian of Norwich speaks of ‘the purification of the motive in the ground of our beseeching’. Our beseeching is our quest, our prayer, our life’s search. The motivation of that quest needs to be known and purified.
The replies of Jesus, usually as in today’s gospel in the form of a question back, are meant to bring people into that further depth of seeking where they are obliged to think also about their reasons for asking the questions they ask. What is the interest of the chief priests, scribes and elders in the questions they put to him today? It is not that Jesus is resistant or closed to their questioning when he asks them a question in reply. It is because he knows that their interest, their motivation for asking, is not pure. They are out to trap him, to corner him and to use whatever he says against him.
He is Wisdom itself, God’s Word, knowing what is in human beings. His replies are always helpful, always supportive. If he seems to be clever and evasive in not answering some questions directly we can be sure that it is for the good of the questioner that he does this. There is also a moral and spiritual dimension to asking questions, to seeking truth and wisdom. The mind and heart must be properly disposed. A significant part of growing in wisdom in the course of a lifetime is accepting our motivation in seeking and asking – that it is not always pure or innocent, that it is sometimes self-interested and partial.
The questions of Jesus oblige us to think again about our own questions. They oblige us to enter into this broader and deeper context in which our questions emerge: what is it you want to know? And why do you want to know this? Only by continually searching the depths of our hearts with these questions can we hope to enter into the light of truth, the purity, in which Wisdom will be found.