Ask a Better Question

Ask a Better Question

Did anyone here find today’s readings uncomfortable?

There seems to be a common theme calling us to repentance, as we would expect in Lent, but the part I find problematic is what appears to be a choice between repenting or perishing?

It makes me wonder if God is going to turn away from me unless I turn away from my sins and repent.

And yet I don’t believe that this is who God is. A parent does not turn away from a naughty child and a loving God certainly does not turn away from his children, no matter how sinful we are.

So, if God really is generous, merciful and full of love, how do we understand the passages we heard today? What is going on?

As I was asking these questions, I came across a brilliant essay by a minister called Debie Thomas, which I am going to quote extensively today!

The first point is that we need to understand that sin is not linked to suffering – this can be thought obvious – and yet it was a common view in Jesus times and is even found today – how often do we hear the words – “they brought it on themselves”, “what did you expect”, or even “God will refine you through this”?

Jesus has disconnected sin and suffering in response to the question about Why? – Why do people suffer? The people who ask Jesus the “why?” question already have an answer in mind.  They show up hoping to confirm what they already believe… that people suffer because they’re sinful.  That folks get what they deserve.  That bad things happen to bad people. 

Jesus refutes this completely – people do not suffer more than others because they are worse sinners – we are all sinners!

The “Why do people suffer?” question is one of the most common questions we ask, and we’ve never found a satisfactory answer, so perhaps we shouldn’t be asking this question!

In his beautiful book, In the Shelter: Finding Welcome in the Here and Now, poet and healer Pádraig Ó Tuama describes the Buddhist concept of “mu,” or un-asking.  If someone asks a question that’s too small, too flat, too confining, Ó Tuama writes, you can answer with this word mu, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.”  A wiser question, a deeper question, a truer question.  A question that expands possibility, and resists fear.

And this is what Jesus is doing here – he is saying – ask a better question.


The people had come to Jesus to validate their thinking, that the Gentiles killed by Pilot and the people killed in the tower of Siloam were bad people – they had already made their judgement. Yet Jesus turns their thinking upside down.

Which leads to my second point – we need to stop judging – we need to stop looking at events from the outside and forming snap judgements about them. Why? Because when we do this, it holds us apart from those who suffer. It innoculates us from the searing work of solidarity, empathy, and compassion.  

When Jesus challenges his listeners’ assumptions and tells them to repent before it’s too late, I think part of what he’s saying is this: any question that allows us to keep a sanitized distance from the mystery and reality of another person’s pain is a question we need to un-ask. 

“Mu,” Jesus says to the folks who bring him the news about Pilate and Siloam.  “Mu,” he says to us when we wax eloquent about “them” and “us.”  Their sinfulness and our piety.  Their conservative backwardness and our progressive sophistication.  Mu. You’re asking the wrong questions. You’re mired in irrelevance.  You’re losing your life in your effort to save it.  Start over again.  Ask a better question.

But what question should we ask? In typical fashion, Jesus addresses the problem with a story – the story of the fig tree – a tree which is not bearing fruit and the landowner wants to cut down but the gardener persuades him to wait and let the tree be nurtured in the hope it will bear fruit the following year.

How many of you interpret this as the Father being the owner, Jesus being the gardener and us being the tree? Read in that light, it is very challenging…so what is Jesus saying?

Well, for starters, he’s saying, “Engage in story rather than platitudes.” Platitudes are flat. Formulas are reductive. Theories and judgements don’t heal. We need to be bigger than that.

So how do we engage with this story? I suggest we start by asking some questions:

In what ways am I like the absentee landowner, standing apart from where life and death actually happen?.... How am I refusing to get my hands dirty?....Am I wallowing in futility and despair?....Am I pronouncing judgments I have no right to pronounce?  

Am I prone to look for waste, loss, and scarcity in the world — or for potential and possibility?  Where in my life — or in the lives of others — have I prematurely called it quits, saying, “There’s no life here worth cultivating.  Cut it down.”………..

In what ways am I like the fig tree?  Un-enlivened? Un-nourished?  Unable or unwilling to nourish others?  In what ways do I feel helpless or hopeless?  Ignored or dismissed?  What kinds of tending would it take to bring me back to life?  And am I willing to receive such intimate, consequential care?  Will I consent to change?..........  

In what ways am I like the gardener?  Where in my life am I willing to accept Jesus’s invitation to go elbow-deep into the muck and manure?  Where do I see life where others see death?  

How willing am I to pour hope into a project I can't control?  Am I brave enough to sacrifice time, effort, love, and hope into this tree — this relationship, this cause, this tragedy, this injustice —  with no guarantee of a fruitful outcome?  

Lent is a season for Repentance. This means asking the hard questions and beginning to change not just what we do, but also how we think. The perishing referred to in the readings today is the inevitable consequence of not asking the better questions. It is the consequence of continuing to judge and to set ourselves apart from others. Doing this shrinks our souls, it diminishes us as people and it does not lead to flourishing.

And this is not what God wants for us. God loves us and so is showing us a better way.

Every time we ask why, Jesus says “mu.”  He says it because “why” is just not a life-giving question.  

Why hasn’t the fig tree produced fruit yet? …here’s the manure, and here’s a spade — get to work.  

Why do terrible, painful, completely unfair things happen in this world?…Go and weep with someone who’s weeping.  Go and fight for the justice you long to see.  Confront evil where it needs confronting. 

Learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending.  Cultivate beautiful things.  Look your own sin in the eye and repent of it. 

In short: Ask a better question.  Live a better answer.  Do it now. Why?  Because there is no “us” and “them.”  Because all of us are beloved, all of us are perishing, and all of us need the care of a hopeful, patient gardener.  Ask a better question and then go and be part of the answer.    


Ref: Ask a Better Question, Essay by Debie Thomas, Director of children's and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, California


Clare Heard