Are You Asking the Right Questions?

She always knew the answer before she asked the question. Who tracked the mud in the kitchen? Who ate the last cookie and didn’t get rid of the wrapping? Who left their bookbag in the entry-way?

My mother had an uncanny way of knowing what I was up to even before I was up to anything. Don’t even think of doing that, she’d say, and the action never formed. She knew perfectly well who’d tracked the mud, who hadn’t tossed the package, who’d dropped the bookbag lazily in the front hall. She didn’t accuse; she didn’t have to. She wanted to hear the admission from me.

If I lied about anything, then she really had me. My lies were never fluent or well-thought-through; they were always spur-of-the-moment affairs meant to get me out of the immediate sticky situation. And when I lied, my mother would pounce. She knew where she had me then.

There’s a certain power in that, in putting someone in a corner and forcing them to tell you what you want to hear. It was fairly benign in my mother’s case—she was, after all, trying to raise me to be a thoughtful and tidy person—but it can very quickly get out of hand.

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests and elders are trying—yet again—to box Jesus into that corner. Who said you could do these things? Who told you that you could teach here? They’re not asking because they already know (although one or two of them must have had at least a glimmer of the truth by now) but because they want to trick him, to force him to say something they can use against him. There’s always a kind of Morton’s Fork at work when the authorities deal with Jesus, and they go into it thinking they’ve got him no matter how he answers… and then he delivers something they never saw coming.

He answers their question with a question, and bases his answer on their answer. For a man with minimal education—he was, after all, a carpenter, someone who worked with his hands—Jesus was thinking (to the minds of the elders, anyway) way above his pay-grade. And he had them in precisely the corner they’d tried to put him into. “Where was John’s baptism from?” he asks them. “Was it of heavenly or human origin?”

The authority figures go into a huddle. He’s got us, they admit. If we say John had heavenly authority, then Jesus has us, because we didn’t give John due respect. If we say John had earthly authority, we’ll be going against popular opinion and none of us wants that—who knows what could happen if the crowd gets riled up! Damn!

Remember, this encounter didn’t come out of the blue. Jesus was no stranger to controversy and conflict with the religious establishment. The priests and elders held a fixed view of how the Messiah should come, and when he doesn’t conform to their expectations, they demand to know the source of his authority… and he leaves them grappling emptily in their stubbornness of heart.

It’s worth noting that this exchange between Jesus indirectly emphasizes and elevates the stature of John the Baptist–and, in consequence, his prophecy about the One Who Is To Come. In today’s first reading, there’s a hint of the prophecy that would blossom with John: “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near. A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel.”

But where does that leave us? How often do we split hairs about religion, asking the questions we think will box others into a corner and show how “right” we are? Do we ask questions, not to get answers, but to show ourselves in a good light? If we put ourselves into this scene from Matthew’s Gospel, how do we respond? Do we try to ask questions that limit our faith and that of others, or do we leave ourselves open to divine possibility?

I’m hoping I can answer with the latter. I hope I can ask questions without knowing the answer in advance. I hope I try to accept the mystery without second-guessing it.

My mother was right, most of the time, when she pointed out my shortcomings. But we cannot treat the world as we would a recalcitrant child, and we cannot assume we always know better than others. At the heart of both of today’s readings swirls the incense of mystery, of tentative faith, of possibility.

It’s not a bad image with which to start the new liturgical year.

Contact the author

Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at