What He Wanted to Know
by Conrad Gempf
In the year 2000 at a conference in Grand Rapids, MI, Ray Vander Laan, chair of biblical cultural studies and a religion instructor at Holland Christian Schools in Holland, Michigan, said something like this, “Many people think of Jesus as “The Answer Man.” If you read through the gospels, though, you will see that a more accurate description would be “Jesus, The Question Man.” Conrad Gempf, author of Jesus Asked.: What He Wanted to Know, would wholeheartedly agree.
In Jesus Asked, first published by Zondervan in 2003, then published in an ePub Edition in 2009, Gempf writes: “Jesus was a bit different from other religious teachers. Moses wanted to tell you the Law of God. Prophets were always telling you what the Lord was saying. But apparently if you met Jesus on the street, he was more likely to ask you something than to tell you something. Even when other people asked him a question, he often replied with one of his own.
“This habit of asking questions appears to have stayed with Jesus all his life. In the first gospel to have been written, the gospel of Mark, there are 67 episodes in which there is any sort of conversation at all. Even when you are careful to count double questions as one — “Whose face is that on the coin? Whose inscription is it printed with?” — we have 50 questions of Jesus in those 67 episodes. And the pattern seems to hold throughout the gospels.”
Gempf, Director of Research and Lecturer in New Testament at London School of Theology, first became intrigued by Jesus’ teaching style after a gentleman at one of his lectures pushed back when Gempf referred to Jesus as “one of the greatest teachers who ever lived.” The fellow in a leather jacket explained, ” Well… there really isn’t that much that he[Jesus] taught us, is there? And in the end he didn’t convince that many people — only about a dozen.” Gempf, stunned, came up with a suitable answer for the man in the leather jacket, but the challenge to Jesus’ ranking as a master teacher stayed in the forefront of Gempf’s mind.
Intrigued by this query, Gempf began to read through the gospels to investigate what kind of teacher Jesus truly was. In Jesus Asked, Gempf presents several questions: Could Jesus have been a better communicator? How was it that his closest friends and followers misunderstood him? Why did he ask so many questions? What are these story-like riddles we call parables?
Gempf divides his approach to investigating Jesus’ teaching style into seven chapters about the various types of questions Jesus asked: “Riddles,” “Questions Easily Answered,” “Ducking Questions with Questions,” “Questions That Cut to the Center,” “Rebuke by Question,” “Questions with No Obvious Answer,” and “How Not to Answer Jesus’ Questions”. One chapter not directly related to questions, but with the intriguing title, “Jesus Pretends,” is about the story of the two disciples traveling to the town of Emmaus. The final chapter sums things up with “What Jesus Wanted to Know.”
Gempf begins with a comment on parables. He suggests that most people, rather than associating questions with Jesus’ style of instruction, would consider parables as Jesus’ primary approach to teaching. But what is a parable? Is it related to a question? Or is it simply a story with a message?
Parables are more like riddles than stories, Gempf states. Parables call for “lateral thinking.” “[Parables] are told to make a point — to teach — but they might do so in this roundabout side-ways thinking way.” What Gempf objects to is the idea that parables were told to make complicated issues easy to understand. He believes that parables were meant to upset the status quo, to make the hearers wake up and shake up their preconceived ideas by thinking deeply; that is, they are meant to introduce mystery. “With a secret, you’re on the outside; with mystery, you’re in the thick of it, like those sidekicks trailing after the master detective…[In teaching parables] Jesus was not giving a cryptogram to decode as much as a story to be taken to heart — a mystery or a riddle to ponder.”
The chapter called “Jesus Pretends” points out an interesting aspect of the Bible story called The Road to Emmaus, which is found in the gospel of Luke, Chapter 24. In this post-Resurrection story, two of Jesus’ disciples have had it with their small group in Jerusalem, and are leaving to go to their hometown of Emmaus. They are extremely disappointed, in fact, they are emotionally devastated. Their hopes for Jesus as the Jewish Messiah have been crushed. Their leader and friend Jesus has been humiliated; he has been betrayed by the high priest in their Temple, declared a criminal by Rome and crucified. How could this happen? How did this go so wrong? Who screwed up? The two disciples are arguing about these things when they are interrupted in their mutual rant by another traveler, Jesus, who asks what they are talking about. The two from Emmaus don’t recognize Jesus, and are incredulous that this man doesn’t know anything about current events. They ask him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what things have taken place here in the last few days?” Then, Gempf says, Jesus pretends he doesn’t know anything and responds to the question with his own question, asking, “What things?”
Gempf continues, “Jesus’ pretense is not primarily intended to give an occasion for him to teach the disciples, though he does take advantage of the opportunity. He asks, ‘What things?’ and they inform the stranger, giving a rough account of what had been going on… They say, ‘but we had hoped that he was the one,’ as if it was clear to them now that he was not who they had thought. Yet they recount the mounting evidence for the resurrection as if they don’t know what to make of it. That ‘ the Lord is alive again’ looms as a mysterious possibility in their retelling.
“Jesus rebukes them, gently. Then he asks them another question: ‘Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?’ Probably without leaving them an opening big enough to say, ‘um…’ he explains to them how, from start to finish, the scriptures declare that it was necessary.”
Gempf goes on to say that if you and I were writing the text, this would be where the disciples would recognize the Master, their teacher, their friend, Jesus. But instead, “One of the biggest surprises in the whole story is what doesn’t happen after Jesus’ teaching.” Gempf’s explanation of the rest of the Emmaus Road story is marvelous, as is his account of the Good Samaritan, the Rich Young Man, and many other scripture narratives. In Jesus Asked, Gempf has produced a book that exemplifies Leonard Sweet’s definition of “best in”: “The best in film criticism sends you excitedly back to the films. The best in biblical criticism should send you back to the Bible, not to start another critique, but to reenter the story on a wider, deeper level of comprehension.”
Jesus Asked.: What He Wanted to Know accomplishes an amazing feat: it presents a witty, joyful pursuit of a subject that merits serious attention. Gempf’s familiarity with the stories of Jesus, his ability to look at them with both first and twenty-first century sensibilities using some “lateral thinking” of his own and with a fully intact sense of humor makes Jesus Asked thoroughly enjoyable. When you open this book, be ready to think, laugh and learn why we can legitimately consider Jesus “The Question Man.”
 Leonard Sweet. From Tablet To Table – Where Community Is Found and Identity Is Formed (Colorado Springs, NavPress, 2014), 21